Into the Playhouse on a rainy Friday afternoon, to join a sparse audience of fellow-huddlers to hear John Bird, The Big Issue man, flog his latest book. On slumping in my seat, and looking towards the stage, it seemed that we were in for a cosy Q+A type interview session beloved of Lit Fests, but the settee/easy chair combo was actually the set for Dial M for Murder.
Introduced by Phil Ryan, Bird came on and gave us a mixture of a Spirit Level polemic about poverty, a louche account of his life to date, and some poorly-timed jokes. He rambled on, occasionally swearing unnecessarily, but returned throughout, like an Exocet, to the suggested purchase of his book, even stopping at one point to put on an oversized T-shirt with the book cover printed on the front. The poor structure and flawed delivery were a shame, for he does have some genuinely good points to make: for example, I was interested in his assertion that we were taking an easy way out of dealing with the problem of poverty by blaming the banks, and that we ourselves could do more, by consuming less, by wasting less. He’s right when he says that we need to know how poverty works and that we don’t appear to teach enough about financial systems in schools, but some of what he says is just wrong: “they don’t teach about the systems in the human body in schools”, when they do. It’s called Biology.
After an hour of this, we did indeed then have a Q+A, and it was much better, with the returned Phil Ryan manfully bringing some constraint to the rambling. We started with an ex-vendor in the audience, saying just how The Big Issue had changed his life, and then asking about the problem of gambling. Bird said that it was one of a number of palliatives that helped some get through “a crap life”, and this led him to challenge those who were critical of palliatives to try poverty. There was a guilty hush. The answer to Q2 (“Will we always have the poor?”) included good arguments for a living wage, and an assertion that increasing taxation would not be a solution. A third was about tackling prejudice head on; he said he did so, even by writing for the Daily Mail. The next, on Food Banks, led to Bird declaring that “politics stinks” and that we should join the Labour Party and create a more “cognitive democracy”. The answer to a question on education disappeared in anecdotes about his children’s experiences, but number 6 produced some interesting reflections on Romanians and the selling of The Big Issue at Christmas time (when it makes most of its money for the year, so he’s keen to get as many out there selling them then). The final question, on empowering, drew out the Big Society from The Big Issue man and his encouragement for us all to “get off our arses” and do something to help others. I couldn’t agree more with that final sentiment, but I didn’t get off mine and buy his book.