The Big Issue, the magazine sold on the streets by the homeless, is ten years old this month. The next three issues will describe and celebrate its history; the first of these - available on street corners in almost any town in Britain of any size you care to name - leads with an extract from Tessa Swithinbank's book Coming up from the Streets: The Story of the 'Big Issue' (Earthscan, £12). Swithinbank begins her story in 1967 when John Bird (Anglo-Irish working-class family from Paddington slums; spent his formative years in detention centres, art schools and the Socialist Labour League) first met Gordon Roddick (public-school educated ex-wandering poet; later husband of Anita, founder of the Body Shop). At the time, Bird was on the run from the police; they talked about poetry. It was a mythic beginning. Twenty-four years later, Roddick, on a business trip to New York, came across a homeless man selling a paper called Street News; the man told him that his job had changed the way he felt about himself, giving him a chance to be part of 'the throbbing race of life and not a bit of garbage sitting on a corner waiting for someone's indulgence' (or at least that's what Roddick remembers him saying). Roddick wanted to try something similar at home, and he enlisted his old friend.
LRB 20 September 2001 | PDF Download