Courtesy of the Cambridge Forum debating society, James Heartfield met John Bird, founder of the Big Issue
'I am the untermenschen'
Gregarious, handsome in a craggy way and as keen as the rest of us to sup some Cambridge-supplied wine, Bird regales us with endless descriptions of himself: 'London Irish--the blacks of our day'; 'Professional Londoner'; 'I am the untermenschen--a true representative of my class'; boasting of having been thrown out of the Workers Revolutionary Party 11 years ago for 'attacking the class, they called it', meaning that he threw some youths out of a WRP disco.
John Bird MBE--'I only took it because my mother thought I should be an OBE'--is the epitome of self-help and caring capitalism, and the great and the good love him for it. The Big Issue was started with help from the Body Shop, on the model of an American equivalent. Bird, no longer the editor, but still the owner, sells copies to homeless people at 35 pence, and they sell it for 80. 'No' he jokes 'you shouldn't give them a pound. I have got to keep them working hard'.
The magazine is an 'imitation of a capitalist enterprise'. Turnover is £12m, though profits are small as most money is ploughed back into the community, instead of 'being consumed by the capitalist'. Putting the money back into the community means putting it into the Big Issue trust, chairman J Bird. 'I wrote the articles of governance myself', he says proudly. The trust aims to house people and train them to get jobs. Bird is proud of his entrepreneurial skills. When he bought the Big Issue's premises for £1.2m people thought he would bankrupt the paper. Now the offices are worth £3.7m 'but I'm not selling until it reaches £4.7m'.
Bird has made headlines more than once. He raged at the Sun for printing a story about Big Issue vendors making £1000 a week on the back of one man's idle boasting--'If you sold it from 6am to 6pm at the rate of one paper every 39 seconds!'. And he caught out Tony Blair with an interview that exposed Blair's neurotic hatred of beggars. 'After we ran that one Blair and Alastair Campbell [Labour's press secretary] turned on me, so I said "do you want a copy of the tape?" He hadn't done his homework.'
In fact, Bird is not that different from another guest at the Cambridge forum's pre-debate dinner, Peter Barclay, chair of the Rowntree Trust. Like Rowntree, the Big Issue is a model of capitalist philanthropy. Bird takes on Barclay saying that you have to involve people, it is no good giving out favours from above. But Barclay is already there, citing the Edwardian housing developments in Somers Town as the model of urban regeneration that works with the recipients--'my Aunt did it'. Barclay neglects to mention that the unfortunate slum-dwellers had all their clothes and furniture burnt and their bodies de-loused, in a public ceremony no less, before being moved into their new flats.
Bird soon charms the elderly, urbane toff with his salt-of-the-earth patter and they discover a common bond in dreaming up housing schemes and regeneration plans. The two of them pore over the history of Cadbury's, Port Sunlight and other philanthropic enterprises, eager to work out the lessons of how to organise charity without fostering dependency. Snippets of working class history, Gerrard Winstanley's Diggers and real recollections about fighting slum landlord Peter Rachman in the sixties all merge together in Bird's fevered chat. It is easy to forget whether we are listening to a real memory or some nugget of nineteenth century struggle.
To me, Bird is scathing about his experiences on the left--especially being in the same revolutionary party as Vanessa Redgrave. 'Fifteen years I was in the movement' and then she got on the central committee in the space of a few minutes, he complains. They were all middle class, not like him.
Class is the big issue for Bird, the issue that never gets raised. It irritates him that he gets flattered by the powers-that-be for his charitable work, but at the same time the poor are only ever seen as an object of sympathy. He sees himself as organising an army of the 'untermenschen'--the underclass. 'I am the only one talking about the underclass from their point of view--all the rest are racists', he tells me. He wants to take the word underclass back from people like Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, and turn it from a badge of shame into a source of pride.
There are 8000 Big Issue vendors registered, 2000 in London, though due to their precarious lifestyles they are not all working at the same time. Bird promises he could put together a regiment of ex-servicemen, abandoned to the street after their sterling work at Goose Green ('Not that I believe in all that post-traumatic stress bollocks'). But it is hard to believe that Bird really is organising the vanguard of the underclass anywhere other than in his own imagination.
Every class has its underclass, its déclassé, he says. The working class and the middle class. It is an idea that blurs the difference between Bird's itinerant vendors and the middle class tree-people that identify with his project: they are all the untermenschen to him. I guess what he means is that his vendors and his own rude charm give the project its street cred, but the real target audience is all the greeny slackers who buy the thing. In return he gives their lacklustre DIY politics a dash of proletarian colour.
Can you organise the underclass?
Reproduced from LM issue 98, March 1997