Hideously diverse Britain: standing up for the Romanians
Eastern European people are in the crosshairs of the rightwing tabloids, but John Bird, co-founder of the Big Issue, has seen it all before.
John Bird is telling stories. But then the co-founder of the Big Issue has lots of them. About his early years in an Irish migrant family in Notting Hill. Or the time he spent in a children’s home. And in prison. Or as an activist in the Workers’ Revolutionary party. Or about the Big Issue itself, the amazing phenomenon he launched in 1991, alongside the Body Shop tycoon Gordon Roddick. The magazine recently celebrated its 1,000th issue. That’s a lot of articles, but also a lot of sellers given a chance to alleviate the poverty of homelessness. Ebullient, plain-speaking, continually engaging, he’s allowed to feel good about himself.
But the stories must stop for now, for we’re here to speak of Romanians, Lithuanians and other eastern Europeans. About a third of those who sell the Big Issue are now eastern Europeans — a transition that has placed the organisation in the crosshairs of the rightwing tabloids. In January, a Romanian won a court judgment allowing her to claim £160 a week housing benefit, by dint of her status as a self-employed Big Issue seller. “An open invitation for beggars,” harumphed Migrationwatch. Ever the humanitarians.
It’s made a difficult job more difficult, John says. For there’s a dynamic at work. The magazine sells as good product — 125,000 copies each week — but also because the buyer empathises with the seller. They’re saying: “Good on you”, he says. Take that away and the transaction is different. Still, sales are holding up and Bird is not for backing down. “We were contacted by Romanian groups who said these people are coming here and have no legitimate means of income. Let them sell the paper, they said, because then their children stay in school. They’ll gain a foothold. I’m an ex-offender and I’m conscious that if you don’t give someone an alternative to wrongdoing, they will do wrong. In many ways we are about crime prevention.”
And so, despite the carping, the work goes on; with sellers encouraged to become more involved, to write where they can, to make films, engage in citizen journalism. It’s the cycle, he says. Nothing more.”I have lived to see my own people absorbed into our society. I hope in five or 10 years we will look at the Romanians and say the process was much the same.”