Shaper: John Bird

One of the limitations of poverty is that it sometimes throws up prejudice.

It wasn’t a particularly auspicious beginning and looking back it’s no great surprise I went off the rails, became a drinker and drug user and got into crime and anti-social behaviour.

Life changed when I was hiding from the police in Paris of all places. I left after six months and ever since then I have been anti-racist. I have been anti-all kinds of phobias that people have.

I lived in Sheffield and discovered a totally new class of people. They were industrial workers and they were incredible – great solidarity, looking out for each other.

I trained myself as a printer and over the next ten years I became a highly successful small printer publisher. I became almost obsessed with business and the social impact of business.

In 1987 I saw a big nosed Scotsman on television that I used to know twenty years before when I was on the run from the police in Edinburgh. He was Gordon Roddick and his wife was Anita Roddick, founders of The Bodyshop. I re-met him and became the co-founder of The Big Issue.

Whenever I had honest ways of making money, I much preferred it to stealing and begging, so I modelled the whole thing on my life.

Virtually every member of the public became a social worker, became a psychologist and became a listener. I stand in wonder and watch Big Issue vendors encountering the public.

Everyone in sales sometimes has to pretend they’re happier and more fulfilled than they really are when they’re trying to sell you a television set, because if they don’t you won’t buy it.

Prevention is the biggest cure you can ever have, so I want to make prevention. I want an intellectual revolution around how we encounter poverty and how we encounter illness. I want us all to be healthy and I was us all to think positively about the world.

John Bird

John Bird is the founder and editor of the Big Issue magazine.  A man with a fascinating story who has made a successful enterprise against all the odds.

He was born into poverty, brought up in care, and has lived through a lot. His life’s journey has included spells as a thief, prison inmate, artist and poet. Now an established iconoclast, activist and publisher, John Bird is the force behind The Big Issue, the world’s most successful street magazine. He is an inspirational business leader with an outstanding record of using business as a tool for social change.

At a time when Corporate Social Responsibility is preoccupying business leaders and consumers alike, John Bird offers an authoritative, fresh approach, and some original perspectives on the interaction of business and society. His diverse experience, combined with his exuberant personality, erudition and often trenchant views make him a compelling and entertaining speaker.

Bird on Bird
“I speak clearly and powerfully and my message is simple: It’s about motivation, leadership, drive, learning from your mistakes, and turning rejection into something positive. I have been homeless, an offender, and an addict. Yet I’ve achieved more than many who started life with more advantages than me. I am now ready to help other people to realize their goals.”

Transcript of the Show
Dialogue

Elliot Moss
That was Midnight Train to Georgia from Gladys Knight and the Pips here on Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss here on a Saturday morning on Jazz FM. Thank you very much for joining me for another edition of Jazz Shapers, the place where you can hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, soul and blues alongside their equivalents in the world of business. My business shaper today is slightly different and I am very privileged to tell you that he is John Bird, MBE, the founder and editor in chief of none other than The Big Issue on your streets since September 1991 in London and now lots of other places round the world. You will be hearing lots from John very shortly. In addition to hearing from him, you will also be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya some words of advice for your business and on top of all of that of course a brilliant mix of music from the shapers of jazz, soul and blues, including Wilson Pickett, Marcus Valley and this, it’s Dr John and Revolution.

That was Dr John and Revolution. Hello and thank you very much as I said earlier for joining me here on Jazz Shapers. My business shaper today is none other than John Bird, MBE, as I said, the founder and editor in chief of one of my favourite magazines on the street, which is called The Big Issue. John thank you very much for joining me today.

John Bird
Thank you for inviting me.

Elliot Moss
You’ve had quite a journey. Tell me a little bit about your childhood and how that led you to a whole range of jobs before you happened to open when you were actually mid-forties, The Big Issue?

John Bird
Well I was born just after the Second World War in slummy Notting Hill at a time when it was largely a London Irish enclave. I was born into enormous poverty, enormous violence and racism. We were as young children, we were taught to not like black people and Jews and Indians and even English people because it wasn’t enough just to be poor, it was to think poor. And that is one of the limitations of poverty that it sometimes, not always, but it does throw up prejudice. So I was born in to this rat infested, God evil, you know, God forsaken place and homeless at five because my mum and dad didn’t pay the rent. In an orphanage between the ages of seven and ten. It wasn’t a particularly auspicious beginning and I think what is so interesting now looking back, that it is no great surprise that I went off the rails, became a drinker and drug user and got into crime and got into anti-social behaviour, arson and all that stuff.

Elliot Moss
But you did something about quote unquote ‘that sad story’, that story of poverty. What is it that you think in you made you think you know what I need a job, I need to change things because often that, and we’ll talk about how this is… where The Big Issue came from and what’s happened since then and so on but you were a bus builder, a machine operator, a self-employed printer. You did a whole tonne of stuff. What was the pivotal moment when you said I’ve got to change what is going on in my own life?

John Bird
Well it had changed before; it changed when I was twenty one, when I was hiding from the police in of all places, Paris. If you are going to hide from the police I do recommend it. And there are lots of beautiful young women and in those days every young man in London, everyone looked like Russell Brand. You walked down the Kings Road and there would be five hundred Russell Brands but when you went to Paris there weren’t many of them because the French for all their style were about five years behind us, you know, they only had Johnny Halliday or someone like that. So I went off to Paris and of course I was the only Russell Brand walking down the Champs Elise ending up selling the Herald Tribune, the New York Herald Tribune and then selling the Evening Standard. And there I met some haute bourgeois, incredibly haute bourgeois, Marxist, Leninist, Angloist, Trotskyist. Because in France they had got this kind of thing that you know, a lot of the, a lot of the progressive left are incredibly rich and incredibly posh and I met this particular girl who when we started to talk about the crisis, Le Crise, I said, well you know it’s all those blacks and Jews and all those Indians and Arabs and all that stuff and they just turned on me and her and her friends just chastised me and also through the process of osmosis, I, after about three months, I had become a Marxist, Leninist, Angloist, Trotskyist which hasn’t stayed with me for the whole of my life but has was the way in which they described me as a piece of detritus issuing from the anus of British Imperialism and they really had a go at my racism which was phenomenal. So I came away as an Internationalist. I left Paris after six months and ever since then I have been anti-racist, I have been anti-all the kind of phobias that people have. I don’t join in with the looking for, you know the fly in the ointment, who to blame and I really do owe that to some very wonderful Haute Bourgeois posh people who had adhered to Marxism probably for a very short period of time because they probably then went on became bankers or worked in… yes that’s where they all are.

Elliot Moss
That’s where they all are. And find out much more from my business shaper, John Bird about what has helped him become the man that he is. Time for some music, this is Wilson Pickett and In The Midnight Hour.

That was Wilson Pickett and In The Midnight Hour. John Bird is my business shaper, he is the founder of The Big Issue and as you found out, had a bit of a revelatory period, six months with the Haute Bourgeois mob in Paris way way back and you said it kind of led to a sense of consciousness which is often what happens when people start to see the light. I mean obviously you didn’t go, you weren’t at school for very long by the sounds of it in between your sojourns in prison. You didn’t go to University and yet you speak as a very very educated man and I am sure that’s also started that kind of revelation about your own, your own intelligence and your own sense of who you were probably began back then. What happened then? What happened when you got back to London?

John Bird
Well I then joined a revolutionary organisation and I met some other people who really challenged my, what they call my lumpenprolateriat, you know, under class values and because even though I had given up racism and was quite emphatic about it, there were still many other things about me, I wasn’t house trained and so therefore I joined this Marxist group who nearly all were, they were people who had got their Degrees at Polytechnics but they were all very middle class. There were some workers there and of course I couldn’t understand the working class because to me the working class was the underclass, was the criminal classes, the wife beaters and all that that I had come from and I couldn’t understand it and they kept going on about this new, you know, the solidarity between workers and I said, I don’t know what you are talking about. And then I still, the police were still after me and I was still being sought and I went up North and lived in Sheffield and there I did discover a totally new class of people who were absolutely different from any other class I had ever met and they were industrial workers, they were people who were incredible, you know, great solidarity, minors, steel workers and all that and were all looking out for each other and one of the greatest tragedies of what Margaret Thatcher did to Britain was to destroy that sense of, not just comradeship and not just you know, striking and all that but a sense of ownership of each other’s lives and I went up there and I was totally and utterly blown away with this new class of people. Whenever anybody made films about the North it was normally some posh geezer from the South who had been to a public school and then went up and made a film like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or you know, all those kind of new films or you know, a Taste of Honey and they always showed the working classes as almost a kind of back drop. You know, they were all kind of, they were comic, funny, drank too much but there was nothing of this sense of cultural unity and then I was up there and I thought wow, this is, this is it. Unfortunately then I got into a few problems up there so I had to come back down to London and that’s when I began my renaissance, well not renaissance, my naissance, let’s be honest because it wasn’t a re and I became, I started to train myself as a printer and then over the next ten years morphed from being a printer working for other people into becoming a highly successful small printer publisher living in West London in Acton and becoming almost like obsessed with business and the social impact of business, working with charities, especially homeless charities and working with Churches and Synagogues and with, even with Mosques on doing a lot of printing for them and doing stuff like that and really enjoying the sense that I wasn’t an outsider, I was an expert, I was a person who could keep their costs down, I was the official printer of the Victorian Society and one of the things the Victorian Society did and they should be blessed and they should be sent millions of pounds because they saved St Pancreas from becoming a new Euston Station. So all of that stuff where people have made a shed load of money out of the architecture of the 19th Century, it’s really down to people like Sir John Bechamin and of course the Victorian Society and I had the privilege of being their printer.

Elliot Moss
And we are going to hold it right there before we go to the next chapter of the remarkable life of John Bird. Latest travel coming up in a couple of minutes here on Jazz FM but before that some words of wisdom from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya for your business.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers, my business shaper today is John Bird, he’s the founder of The Big Issue and we are at the point of the story where I believe The Big Issue might make an entrance stage left. So you’ve established yourself as a printer, you’ve become that expert in the room, you are welcome in to places, it has been this long journey of working and of meeting different people and all sorts of ideas are formulated and you have actively been connecting yourself if you like, as you said with the positive social impact that business can have. Was there a light bulb moment when you went, I’m not going to do this anymore I am going to launch something which is going to be a newspaper or a magazine for the streets or was it part of a longer conversation? How did it actually happen?

John Bird
Well it wasn’t, it wasn’t so that, I mean I was doing work for people like Pan American and the Royal Academy and the Tate Gallery and Oxford University Press and was really doing a pretty good job and enjoying it but I was still very restless and I was, at the same time I was writing plays. I’d married for the second time. I was on my second family. I was writing these plays which were crap but got an audience because I got all my mates who were printers and electricians in so I knew how to fill theatres. In 1987 I saw on the television a very big nosed Scotsman who I used to know twenty years before when I was on the run from the police living in Edinburgh and I re-met him, I went to see him and him and his wife, who I knew his wife when she was the girlfriend, had started The Bodyshop and it was Anita Roddick and Gordon Roddick; and it was Gordon who in 1990 went to New York and saw a street paper operating there and was blown away with this idea of people selling a paper so that they could get out of trouble. He spoke to somebody who was selling a paper who had been in and out of the prison system for most of his life. So Gordon came back, decided to do a street paper, couldn’t get anybody to do it i.e. the homeless organisations said you can’t give homeless people money because they will only spend it on drink and drugs and all that stuff and then he came to me, because I was an ex-offender and all that stuff and rough sleeper and I said, look you know, if I start this I would start it as a business, as a social business. I’d start it as a business because I wouldn’t start it as a charity because charities can’t give people work and I would run it as a crime prevention programme so the whole idea is that it is about keeping people out of the grief. Whenever I had work and whenever I had honest ways of making money I much preferred it to stealing and begging and I modelled the whole thing on my own life. So it was extraordinary that I got this money from Mr Gordon Roddick who is the co-founder of The Big Issue.

Elliot Moss
Lots more coming up from my amazing business shaper, John Bird. Time for some more music, this is Nova Bossa Nova from Marcus Valley, he will be playing live tonight at the Islington Assembly Hall in North London for Jazz FM. Tickets still available on the Jazz FM website.

That was Nova Bossa Nova from Marcus Valley. John we have been talking about luck in a way, meeting Gordon Roddick, married to Anita, their ideas of and ahead of their time as was yours which is that business can impact society in a positive way. That thinking has grown over the last fifteen, twenty years and it has almost become horribly fashionable and for the wrong reasons but at the heart of what you did then was a kind of a personal view that this would make a big difference as you said it would if are earning an honest day’s work, an honest day’s living you are probably not going to get yourself into the same sort of trouble. Your magazine, your, what are we going to call it, the street magazine is now in Australia, Ireland, South Korea, South Africa, Japan, Namibia, Kenya, Malawi and Taiwan and there are probably more. When you set it up, little acorn as it was, did you think yeah this is a great idea or was it, no this is just the right thing to do and let’s see what happens?

John Bird
I met a Government Minister a few years ago and he said to me, a former Government Minister I should say, he said to me, you know John I am really sorry I never believed in you when you first started and I actually said some horrible things behind your back and I was very malicious because I thought you were just going to come and go. And I said, well why would you feel that, that’s exactly how I felt because I thought it was… I thought it was a wonderful experiment, I thought there was very little way that we would be able to turn this vast army of people with drink and drug problems into a functioning sales force and it was largely because of the Grace of God and the Grace of God is not me, it’s the public because the public, virtually every member of the public became a social worker, became a psychologist, became a listener and I stand in wonder and watch Big Issue vendors encountering the public. The public are enraptured by the relationship when it works because some Big Issue vendors are not very nice but it’s, it’s the work of the public, it’s not our work and when people say to me, you know you are some kind of genius, I say, no no no no, the public. When you have got a hundred thousand, two hundred thousand, half a million social workers buying the paper and then they go back to work in the record shops or working making sandwiches or working in an office or working on the transport, you think, wow.

Elliot Moss
But did you have to; I mean I talk to other business leaders about their sales force, about their customer service and all that. You are working with people who have been through the mill, who have lived rough, who have had drink and maybe carry on having drink and drugs issues and in different ways many people have tried to help as it were in that kind of the broadest sense of the word. How did you ensure that those people could be, and you say some of them aren’t nice, I mean humans are humans but the majority of those vendors are, they’ve got their stuff together. I mean how do you ensure that you get the right people being able to do a good… you know deliver great service over a period of time because you’ve got a very difficult workforce to manage?

John Bird
Well that’s again, it is the discipline of the market place. I remember one particular guy who was about six foot nine, a big African American who had come over here really probably to cause grief and he was on a lot of drugs and all that and we met him and he was in a real state and we, we reluctantly gave him a pitch and he started off shop lifting and being quite aggressive to people but then the market place and I am not a Thatcherite, but the market place started to discipline him because he found he could do a lot better if he was kind and thoughtful…

Elliott Moss
If he was nice.

John Bird
…and he actually turned in to an incredibly kind and thoughtful person and I have seen it happen so many many times. I’ve also seen the opposite where people are very very kind to the person they are selling to and then when they encounter me, I’m selling your bloody paper, you know and all that stuff so you know, sometimes it’s a switching on and switching off. But everyone in sales sometimes has to pretend that they are happier and more fulfilled when they are trying to sell you a television set than they really are because if they don’t you won’t buy the television set.

Elliot Moss
We will have our final chat with John plus play a track from the latest album from Christine Tobin, that’s after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

That was Christine Tobin and The Story of Isaac from the former Jazz FM album of the week, A Thousand Kisses Deep. John we’ve talked a lot about the past and naturally because I wanted people to understand where you had come from to get to where you’ve been and we have kind of jumped over if you like twenty years of developing The Big Issue. I imagine there were many trials and tribulations and we won’t unfortunately have time to go through those but just to give people a sense of the level of recognition that you’ve got over the years. I am just going to list a few here; you were named BBC London Legend, Winner of the UN Habitat Scroll of Honour, shortlisted for the UN Best Practice Award, an MBE obviously back in 1995, the Ernst Young Social Entrepreneur of the Year back in 2008 and most recently an Honorary Doctorate of Business from Plymouth University. I am sure they don’t impress you even though I suppose you know, maybe on one level you gaze at me really. What is it going to be like going forward? I hear you… I mean what is the future going to look like for you and what is John Bird going to be doing with the rest of his life? I know you’ve got a show coming up at the Leicester Square Theatre which is on 14 May, if my sources are right.

John Bird
Seven thirty.

Elliot Moss
Seven thirty. Don’t miss it.

John Bird
Which is called The Money, Sex and Justice Road Show. It’s about me being a serious comic. If you want to know what I am doing I am trying to change the world. I probably hopefully got another twenty years. What I am doing is I am taking some of the knowledge that I have got and looked at Government and realised of course that Government creates as many problems that it solves and I’m in the middle of loads of attempts at trying to get the Government to reinvent itself so I am a very busy geezer.

Elliot Moss
You look a busy geezer. What does the busy geezer want to be remembered for really? I am don’t want to jump twenty years or even thirty years or all being well, fifty years John? I hope we have another chat in fifty years but seriously, what is it? Because you, I meet lots of people in business and they… I don’t often talk about legacy, what is going to be John Bird’s legacy? All being well?

John Bird
I would like my legacy to be incredibly simple which is around the need to, the need to not take people on a journey from A to Z that you kind of let them off at the letter F because that is what Government does. If you look at the National Health Service for instance, I want to reform the National Health Service because I want to make it the National Health Service rather than the National I’ll Get You Back Into Health Service. Prevention is the biggest cure that you can ever have. Seventy percent of the National Health Service’s call is the problems of people eating the wrong stuff, drinking the wrong stuff, not having the right exercise. So I want to make prevention; I actually want an intellectual revolution around how we encounter poverty, how we encounter illness and I want us all to be healthy and I want us all to be thinking positively about the world and unfortunately most people are kind of weighed down by simply living. It is such a hard job today to just make ends meet.

Elliot Moss
John thank you so much for being my business shaper. What is your song choice before I let you go and why have you chosen it?

John Bird
Caravan largely because I love Duke Ellington, I love jazz. I grew up on jazz, at the age of fifteen when I was running away I was always to be found in the Café Le Jazz Hot. Caravan is staggeringly beautiful and melodic and musical on very very many levels. I am not a musicologist; I am just an enjoyer of music.

Elliot Moss
John thank you so much for being my business shaper. This is Caravan from Duke Ellington.

That was the song choice of my iconoclastic business shaper today, John Bird, the founder of The Big Issue. A role model, someone who believes in remaining positive, someone who believes in the power of work to ensure that life is as good as it possibly can be and he has thrown down the gauntlet for all of us. Can we create that intellectual revolution around prevention rather than cure. Do join me again, same time, same place, for another edition of Jazz Shapers, that’s 9.00 am next Saturday morning here on Jazz FM. In the meantime though, do stay with us, coming up next, its Nigel Williams.