GivingTuesday 1st December 2020
The Spokesmen Cycling Podcast
EPISODE 262: Baron Bird: “Bikes are the future”
SPONSOR: Jenson USA
HOST: Carlton Reid
GUEST: Big Issue publisher Baron Bird of Notting Hill in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
The Big Issue publisher Baron Bird of Notting Hill loves bicycling. He lives 7 miles from Cambridge and when visiting he cycles there. His latest Big Issue project is a dockless bike share scheme for smaller cities using electric bikes fettled and hired out by unemployed people and others who may be vulnerable and in need of a way of improving their lives.
Lord Bird has had a fascinating life so far — a life enriched by art and what he calls social kindness — and he’s clearly not ready to put his feet up under his ermine robes just yet.
The Big Issue is still sold by those living in poverty but, because of Covid, no longer from the street. Lord Bird discusses the various other ways you can now help out Big Issue vendors but first we talk about Giving Tuesday and Taking It Away Wednesday, with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea set to dismantle the well-used cycleway on Kensington High Street. Lord Bird slammed that decision saying “bikes are the future.”
Pic by Louise Haywood-Schiefer.
Carlton Reid 0:13
Welcome to Episode 262 of the spokesmen cycling podcast. This show was recorded on Giving Tuesday, 1st December 2020.
David Bernstein 0:24
The spokesmen cycling roundtable podcast is brought to you by Jenson USA, where you’ll always find a great selection of products at amazing prices with unparalleled customer service. For more information, just go to Jensonusa.com/thespokesmen. Hey everybody, it’s David from the Fredcast cycling podcast at www.Fredcast.com. I’m one of the hosts and producers of the spokesmen cycling roundtable podcast. For show notes, links and all sorts of other information please visit our website at www.the-spokesmen.com. And now here are the spokesmen.
Carlton Reid 1:09
The Big Issue publisher Baron Bird of Notting Hill loves bicycling. I know this because we chatted earlier today about his latest project, a docked bike share scheme for smaller cities using electric bikes fettled and hired out by unemployed people and others who may be vulnerable and in need of a way of improving their lives. I’m Carlton Reid and today’s hour-long episode is a corker even though my guest admits that, in a former life, he was a bike thief. Lord Bird disputes this, however, preferring to say he rode bicycles stolen by others. He’s had a fascinating life so far — a life enriched by art and what he calls social kindness — and he’s clearly not ready to put his feet up under his ermine robes just yet.
Carlton Reid 2:11
In the second half of today’s show we talk about Big Issue EBikes, due to be rolled out in the first quarter of next year, but much of the first half is Lord Bird telling me about his tough start in life, and how he managed to turn his angry brick-throwing nihilism into a force for good. He co-founded The Big Issue in 1991 thanks to some investment from big-nosed Scot — his words not mine — Gordon Roddick of Body Shop fame. The Big Issue is still sold by those living in poverty but, because of Covid, no longer from the street. Lord Bird discusses the various other ways you can now help out Big Issue vendors but first we talk about Giving Tuesday and Taking It Away Wednesday, with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea set to dismantle the well-used cycleway on Kensington High Street …
Carlton Reid 3:16
You are known, john, as Baron Bird of Notting Hill in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which is an absolutely fantastic name.
Carlton Reid 3:29
Of course, shortened to Lord john, but but May I call you, john?
Baron Bird 3:34
All right, just this one occasion, just as one occasion I will allow?
Carlton Reid 3:38
Yeah, thankfully, it was because of Baron bird of Notting Hill in the Royal Borough of Kensington Chelsea would be would be a long conversation, wouldn’t it?
Baron Bird 3:46
I tell you, they got the geography wrong. All right. Because Notting Hill is divided between the Royal Borough of Kensington, Chelsea, and also the borough of Westminster, which was Paddington when I was born. So I was actually born in the borough of Westminster as it is now. Right? Wrong and filled in all the forms and it couldn’t be changed. So
Baron Bird 4:12
I’m really the Lord bird of Westminster, but it doesn’t matter, Westminster, nor
Baron Bird 4:18
Royal Borough of Kensington, Chelsea, they’re all posh places now.
Carlton Reid 4:21
But they both both pretty posh, but they weren’t back in 1946, John.
Baron Bird 4:26
They were the actually where I was born, and had the highest infant mortality rate than anywhere in the UK. So if you wanted to kill your children, so for instance, you didn’t want so many children and the bill is once they would die,
Carlton Reid 4:47
not dead but now you live in the equally posh Cambridge Is that right?
Baron Bird 4:51
Well, I don’t live in the town. I live out in the country nearby.
Baron Bird 4:56
Yes, I love Cambridge. I first came to Cambridge
Baron Bird 5:00
When I was 17, I hitched from London.
Baron Bird 5:03
And to go to an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam and I came out the age of 17. And said, one day, I’m gonna live here. It was so beautiful. And also I was kissed by a young student, a young woman, a young girl, who invited me to a party. And I saw, I’m gonna come back, and I came back maybe 45 years later deliver very nicely. Family.
Carlton Reid 5:28
Yeah, that Cambridge is is noted for being a bicycle place. And I do absolutely want to get onto the bicycle related nature of today’s conversation. But let’s go backwards a little bit in that and go back to Notting Hill. And that is
Carlton Reid 5:47
Kensington High Street. I don’t know if you know at the moment, but right the second in time, the Royal bearer is taking out a protected cycleway on Kensington, High Street, were you aware of that?
Baron Bird 6:02
I was not aware of that. But, um, I don’t know why they would do that. Because the future is going to be about bikes. Um, is it not interesting that kind of 40 or 50 years ago, if you saw a photograph of Beijing, it would be full of bikes. And then they move back to cut. They moved into cars. And now even Beijing, and all those places that were that a newly prosperous are now going back to bikes. I don’t know why. The Royal Borough of Kensington Chelsea, but they let you know that, like most authorities, they’re capable of doing things that look very bovine from the outside. I’m sure they have we’ll have a logic that we probably wouldn’t agree with. Huh?
Carlton Reid 6:51
That’s that’s a very diplomatic way of putting it.
Baron Bird 6:53
Yes. Yes. I mean, I used to work for the Royal Borough of Kensington as a as a little as a road sweeper.
Baron Bird 7:02
And I worked in the cleansing department, and I worked in the parks department. And every now and then they would do something really strange. I mean, one of the things they did, I’m sorry, that I’m going on about it, is they over the weekend, pull down the beautiful Kensington Town Hall intensify the high street, because on the Monday, they were told there was going to be
Baron Bird 7:27
one of those preservation orders. So they pulled it down over the weekend. It was it was not illegal, but it was very, very shady practices.
Carlton Reid 7:37
When was that done. But with that, without me going into Google and finding out roughly,
Baron Bird 7:43
that was about 1980.
Carlton Reid 7:45
John, today is Giving Tuesday.
Carlton Reid 7:50
And that’s that’s part of a greater whole, which is like the social kindness.
Carlton Reid 7:59
So tell me a bit about the importance of today and and social kindness in general.
Baron Bird 8:06
Well, I worked in the United States about 22, or three years ago, and I produced a magazine in Los Angeles called Off the Wall. This is where it all goes back to.
Baron Bird 8:19
And working in Los Angeles and meeting some really, really desperately poor people in South Central, in watts in Crenshaw in in Compton, and all that. I was always staggered by the amount of people I met, who were doing things for the community. And I kind of loved that. I thought, they’re not doing it for money. They’re doing it because for the love of other human beings, and these are some of the poorest people on earth. And we in our magazine called off the wall, we had, we chose a day of the month, which was called a 32nd day. And we awarded, we said to people
Baron Bird 9:02
choose any day of the month, whether it’s the third or the fifth or sixth and call it your 32nd day. And your 32nd day of the month was when you woke up in the morning. And you said I’m going to do something for the benefit of others, because it will benefit me. And we had hundreds and hundreds of people sending in suggestions of what could you could do and all that. And it was it was overwhelming. Unfortunately, I then had to come back to the UK because we were having we have to do stuff with the British shoe. And I came back and I popped that up. then lo and behold the COVID-19 heads and suddenly you get these enormous outbursts of people wanting to help other people. And there is no there is no rhyme or reason other than the fact that it’s human beings, forgetting the fact that they’re consumers forgetting the fact that they’ve got their own problems for rent or
Baron Bird 10:00
mortgages and they go the extra mile for the community, the week that the layman the hold. And that is absolutely brilliant. I mean, even somebody like like Markus Rashford
Baron Bird 10:15
tweeting a very simple thing. And he tweets it says, Why does the government not look out for our children for their school dinners, and it’s a bit ratty too. And lo and behold, that gets taken up. And every person who responded to that tweet,
Baron Bird 10:34
in a way, was demonstrating social kindness to such an extent that they change the government’s mind, oh, suddenly, they could afford it. And it looked mean. So we got all these outbursts. I know a company that was one of those largest suppliers of toilet paper, and jail and all those sorts of things that were in that were in demand in March. And they sent out a note now this is anti commercial. But this big company sent out a note saying any of the people they supply
Baron Bird 11:06
if they are found to be up in the crisis, and based on shortage, then they will start supplying. Now that isn’t totally uncommercial thing to do to turn on your supplies and say, you have to be morally strong at this moment. And all those kind of outbursts the way in which readers have a number of newspapers, readers have the big issue got behind the big issue, when all around vendors were removed from the streets, all these sorts of things I am, I think that we’ve gone through the worst year that I have ever known for indecision for too much advice coming from 27 different places, cumbersome pneus not being in the right place at the right time, not knowing how to respond to the covid. But an attempt by the government and by local authorities to impose some kind of order. And you had all there, and you had all those tragic deaths, some of them probably need not have happened if we’d been better organised. yet. 2020 will also be remembered not just as a time of tragedy, but also a time of a new way of working together, and sharing all in it one over one a month for all. So to me, social kindness is a recognition of that. And at the end of this year, when we have our special issue about reviewing the year that we’ve been through, we will leave other people to go on about only other things. And what we will do is we will extract the positivity is the building back better, of social interaction with each other. And we’re going to start out 2021, with reminding everybody that we need to be working together to be in order to get through this, I believe that this is the break, that is possible to create a new optimism in the community, even though it’s founded on a chat, a challenging tragedy of all of those misfortune of people who died last year.
Carlton Reid 13:20
So lockdown ends, December 2, and then you can get your vendors back on the streets because we need to remind people that people haven’t been allowed to be selling Big Issue on the streets, you’ve done a few innovative things, haven’t you with with which haven’t done before? And clearly because of COVID. So what have you done to get Big Issue out there in different ways?
Baron Bird 13:43
Well, one of the things that we’ve done is we recognise the the almost the near death of the streets and said how can therefore can we work with homeless people who and people who who sell a big issue? How can we work with them in a way that says no, we’re not going to accept this laying down. So we moved into subscriptions, getting people on subscriptions, getting digital copies of the magazine, and we’ve been relatively successful. Now, I mean, we’ve lost, we lost virtually all of our sales from one mode, or nearly all of our sales except for subscription and digital. For the for the virtually the whole of the lockdown. This second lockdown. It’s been quite difficult to organise it but we managed to carry on supporting our vendors. And we’ve done one of the innovations we’ve done is where you can go on to the website and you can itemise an alert, you know, find out where the vendor is. And then when you buy a subscription or a digital copy, make sure you know will tell you that half the money will go to them. So we’re carrying on with the relationship. The big challenge for us is what happens
Baron Bird 15:00
plans in the new year will High Street get back to where it was probably not people working at home. And so we will have to innovate at a much faster and an accelerated level. And we’re up for it. Because we believe and this is one of the other things about social commerce, we believe that our readers really want to get behind what we’re doing. They want to support people in need and want to support people out of need. The only tragedy for me and I have to say, maybe I’m more frightened than most people is that a lot of our readers and people who are governance and all these other companies
Baron Bird 15:44
are going to be the people who are lining who’ve been lined up, if they’re not supported, they could end up as the new homeless, and that frightens me because that’s not this eight to 9000 10,000 people we work with a year, that’s hundreds of thousands. And I really do not want any person and their children and other members of their family, caring to go through the dungeon, the Bastille of homelessness that I went through as a child,
Carlton Reid 16:16
let’s let’s talk about that, because you had a rough childhood. So a big part of why you were involved with with the Roddick’s to create the Body Shop fame to create the Big Issue was you had a background where you had been homeless, you did have a troubled background. So tell me about that.
Baron Bird 16:40
Baron Bird 16:42
Baron Bird 16:44
I think I was groomed to fail.
Baron Bird 16:47
I had a I mean, I love my parents
Baron Bird 16:51
love them to death. They were, you know, working class or labouring class people. My mother was a barmaid when she met a distillery worker who was my dad, they were she was 18. He was 20. They got married, later lived in the slums of Notting Hill where my father came from and where my mother it come from come to from Ireland.
Baron Bird 17:20
And they had children, they did what everybody else was doing, having children. So they had six children, but three, and four in the sons of people. The family broke apart when I was seven. And we moved into an orphanage, but for that period, they had their children.
Baron Bird 17:41
No money worth talking about wages. My father unfortunately was a heavy drinker. So a lot of that money disappeared on a Saturday night. And that was a kind of coping mechanism. That’s how poor people often cope cigarettes and drink would be, you know, the things that helped you get through the poverty. We were made homeless when I was five, because the parents didn’t pay the rent, we were out on the street. We were put into a void in the roof of my grandmother’s cottage around the corner, which was another slum above a stables in a mews, and we became very ill we were moved to a what was called a council house, but it wasn’t, it was a condemned house with some rooms that you could live in, semi condemned, live there didn’t pay, the rent got thrown out, and you’d up in a Catholic orphanage. So in a way, everything that my early life was a preparation for social failure. I was dyslexic. So I didn’t I did very badly at school, couldn’t really understand my brothers did better. My brothers were much better behaved than I was, because I kind of accepted
Baron Bird 18:57
the fact that they were, you know, at the bottom of the pile and I never did. So the older brothers were, you know, my older brothers kind of, I was, I was the third one and then there was another one, the fourth one, and they accepted. You know, alright, then this is where we are. I mean, like my dad did, and my mum did, but I was a real pain in the rear because I hated
Baron Bird 19:23
this. I hated the everybody. I hated teachers, I hated policemen, you know, I was a horrible little Dawber up, you know, you know, swastikas, you know, all the kind of rubbish thinking that went with poverty. I was starting fires and and I was always in trouble. So I was the one who kept getting nicked. So from the age of 10, we came out the orphanage and at the age of 10, first thing, shoplifting, you know, starting fires, you know, tearing down fences, getting into trouble going before the call.
Baron Bird 20:00
The juvenile court and same again at the age of 11, not going to school. bunking off school.
Carlton Reid 20:06
Is that anger, John? Was that seeking attention? What was what was the motivation? Can you can you go backwards and think about what you as a child were thinking?
Baron Bird 20:17
Um, I can’t, you know, it’s so extraordinary because I, I, I see people doing vandal, you know, create vandalism now. And I was, you know, if I’m around, if I’m in a position, I’d stop them, I have no idea. I think a lot of us are on overdrive. And you don’t quite know, I mean, most of us don’t really know all of our motivations and our tastes, and what we like, but I did like, I loved being a pain in the rear, I loved climbing the fence into the new buildings, site, opposite where we lived in getting the bricks thrown in the puddles and smashing the windows, I loved all that stuff. And I was about 7, 6 or 7.
Baron Bird 21:06
And when I was in the orphanage I loved
Baron Bird 21:10
I loved the fact that I couldn’t, they will beat me and knock me around, because I wouldn’t accept what they want to do. And I ran away, and I did all sorts of things. They actually tried kindness on me, and allowed me to go to the cinema. And for some strange reason, what a surprise, I suddenly started to play less of a pain in the rear job and, and kind of fell in love with some of the people who were trying to help us because you had all these nuns, who all they weren’t, you know, they’re a couple of hundred, seriously disturbed children from the slums and rundown citizens of London, really in the south. And they were there trying to help us and, you know, rough love and tough love and all that. But in the end, I kind of got it. But it still meant that when I got out, I was homeless, you know, not a very nice boy. And I was always the boy who was accused in the class, if there was something stolen, and I never stole ever, ever stole from any of my contemporaries. When money went missing the dinner money, they blame me. And of course, and then they find out later on, though, they’ve done it wrong, they’ve added it up wrong. So I was I realised, of course, I had a bad name, and I was getting more and more bad reputation. So, but
Baron Bird 22:36
I can’t say that I was unhappy, I always felt that I was alive. So it’s a pain to have to admit that I kind of like being a bit of an outlaw. And I think that might have been all the kind of silly little cowboy films that I watched. But I love being different. And I think that’s what got me into the prison system. And that is why the age of 16 I could learn to read and write in a boys prison. And my brothers never really mastered that. And that’s how I learned a bit of printing. I learned God, I learned to, to sit in exam, even though I never passed a level,
Baron Bird 23:17
an O level. I tried all I did all that. And, and the thing was, and this is extraordinary thing is that the the state will not spend more than it has to on your education. If you are a labourer, or if you’re a, you know, semi skilled worker, so they’ll supply you with just about enough to get you by. But if you’re a naughty boy, or a naughty girl, they’ll throw a lot of money at you to stop you.
Baron Bird 23:49
offending later in life. So I was blessed with the fact that they spent a shedload of money I was in I was in a place that cost three times what it cost if my children had sent me to Eton.
Baron Bird 24:04
Unbelievable, and that wasn’t painful, but
Baron Bird 24:07
I had the best public school. You know, I mean, wonder I talk right now and I’m very, very
Baron Bird 24:13
well done one of Britain’s greatest public school, it was a reformeratory.
Baron Bird 24:19
There you are, got the accent..
Carlton Reid 24:22
But then you’ve gone to, this is the 1960s now, we’re gonna leap forward. So then you’ve gone to the Chelsea School of Art. Yeah, well, but you’re homeless.
Baron Bird 24:32
What I was, when I was my mum threw me out. Because once she got our hands on my grant and spend it very quickly, because she was a woman who, if a pound would burn a hole in her pocket, she had to spend it. So that went very, very quickly. And then we had an argument over a bowl of porridge and she threw it over my head and burned me quite badly because she was quite an aggressive woman and i i
Baron Bird 25:00
Left and when I left for the day, and when I went back, my dad said, You’re not staying here. So I went, and I slept rough that night. And then a couple nights later, I started to sofa surf.
Baron Bird 25:13
All of the first six months of my time art school, I was homeless, sofa surfer. But the interesting thing was, why was that I an art school at the age of 18, when all my mates were digging holes for London electricity, but I tell you why. Because when I was banged up, they found out that I like to draw and I paint. And I did. And they said they encouraged that. And they encouraged it so much that when I came out at nearly the age of 18, I had this enormous portfolio. Absolutely. And I looked like a boy genius. I was drawing and painting all the time. And all the screws or masters as they like to call themselves. Were kind of proud of the fact that this little get, you know, from Notting Hill, could could actually turn out stuff that they would want hanging in their house. So I went to art school with this enormous portfolio and I looked like Leonardo da Vinci. From the worlds in Chelsea,
Carlton Reid 26:18
Do you continue that? Do you still do art?
Baron Bird 26:22
I’m obsessed by art. In fact, I love to tell my children. When I was 18, I was Britain’s greatest unknown painter, which I still adhere to. And, and if I had my time again, my five children would not exist, I would have got myself, somebody who paid me. And I would be I’d have a room and I live in the room. I paint in the room I draw in the room. And I would have nothing to do with anybody just paint and paint and paint and paint. not have any children not have anything. And I tell them that they say Oh, so you only you only had us because you failed as an artist.
Baron Bird 27:05
Yes. And then when people say to me, you must love the homeless and you must love sorting out the world’s problems. I said I do. But if I had my time again, I wouldn’t be doing it. Now that’s a horrible thing to say. But I absolutely I love painting and I love. I love everything about it in some of the greatest moments I’ve had is standing in front of an American painter, for instance, there’s a beautiful American abstract, pentacle, Helen Frankenthaler, and standing in front of this beautiful abstract work. And or Lee Krasner, who is the wife, who was the wife of jack the dripper, you know, Jackson Pollock, and, and these beautiful, beautiful artists and I, I just, it’s almost the kind of spiritual
Baron Bird 27:55
for me, and wonderful painters, and, and when I get the chance, I’m drawing and painting.
Baron Bird 28:03
And I’m doing things I’ve done. I had an exhibition, which you might not, you might want to Blur. Blur this one out, it was called grasses, arses and trees, and it was life drawings. It was trees, grasses, it was abstracts and all that stuff. You know, I’ve been drawing from models for over 30 years, I’ve been drawing friends, I’ve been drawing everything I’ve been drawing the trees in my garden. And I will soon be launching a
Baron Bird 28:36
website which will,
Baron Bird 28:38
you know, enable people to look at my work and, and even buy some of my prints. So that then because I want to use the money to help on projects, which I’m very interested in, I’m very interested in people given gardening to help them with their mental well being. And so that reformed school education, the prison education, kind of has given you a lifelong interest. Oh, yeah. I mean, before I before the, when the screws, sorry, when the Masters said, were my house masters he was called.
Baron Bird 29:20
said to me in my reformatory, look, Bird,
Baron Bird 29:25
You’ve got from 7.30 at night until 9.30, every night, five nights a week. And over the weekend, you’re going to have time and you’ve got to fill it with something. You can stuff toys with Kpop for the local hospital, you can do a bit of plumbing, you can do a bit of woodwork, you can do anything. What do you want to do? And I said, Well, I’d like to paint and draw. So they got me the wife of one of the screws.
Baron Bird 29:54
Mr. Rahn, Mrs. Rahn had been an art teacher in the isle of Wight.
Baron Bird 30:00
And she was brilliant. And I would go down to a house two times a week. And we talk about art. And we talk about everything. And then she’d lay out an enormous spread, which me and Mr. Rahn would enjoy. And so a combination of good food, and art, and it was just absolutely marvellous. And I love this woman, she is the one who made me feel there was something deep about art. And it was something that that every one of us could share. You know, it wasn’t. No, everybody can paint and draw. That’s the other interesting thing. I’ve had five children, right? Not one of them ever, when they were doing that childish out, when they were doing their art growing up, not one of them produced the dumb, a dumb work, because children start as art geniuses. And unfortunately, we give them all these pre occupations. And we try and straighten out their drawing and all that, you know, one of the greatest painters of the 20th century, was taught to draw and paint like as though he was a photographer. And he spent the whole of his life struggling against Pablo Picasso. He tried to paint like a child the whole of his life, because he realised that there was an insightfulness. The children have a look at things and they know them before you know them, even though you’ve been looking at them for decades.
Carlton Reid 31:32
So did they have the petty offending that that stop? When you’ve got this lifelong interest in art? Is that what it was there a light bulb moment, or you just put on the straight and narrow.
Baron Bird 31:45
I wasn’t quite on the straight and narrow, because what happened with me, which was which is
Baron Bird 31:52
which, you know, I can’t describe as anything other than going in another direction, I met a young woman.
Baron Bird 32:03
And then we, we became an item. And then we married, had a child. And I then got thrown out of art school because I was more interested in this young girl. And I was in art for some strange reason, my biology took over. And then I, and then I went back to another art school, and it didn’t work. And then I fell into the back into crime, and all sorts of things like that. And I was always kind of doing what I wasn’t always doing wrong. But then I got in, I got a number of things that would have got me two or three years. And I disappeared for seven years. And I started using, well, six years, I disappeared this weird,
Baron Bird 32:53
strange anomaly names, anonymous names. And, surprisingly, I have so many of these names. I’ve moved from one job to another and one part of the country to another. And I would have all these names. I didn’t even know who I wasn’t yet. And then after six years, I handled myself in, paid fines and paid other things and got myself straightened. And,
Baron Bird 33:21
and then from the age of about 28, 29, 30, I then started working legitimately, and then I, because I fell in love with printing. When I was in this establishment, I started to become a printer, and I trained myself to become a printer, not in a particularly nice way, I get a job. And
Baron Bird 33:43
after a couple of hours, they realised I couldn’t print it, get rid of me, but I’ve learned something. And after about 10 jobs, I was quite good at it. And then I became a printer. And I started my own business. And I was totally and utterly committed to it because printing is an art. And I could make it it’s printing we’re doing like
Carlton Reid 34:05
was it a jobbing printer? Are we doing magazines, you’re doing fine art and what kind of printer?
Baron Bird 34:10
I did. Well, first of all, I started doing catalogues and leaflets and business cards, and all that sort of stuff. But then what happened was I
Baron Bird 34:21
started to publish stuff. So I started to publish a magazine I helped publish a magazine for the Royal Academy. I published a book for the Royal Academy. I designed it printed all sorts of stuff. I started magazines with other people. I work with somebody called the Victorian Society, I designed stuff for them, help them present themselves. So I became the printer and almost the publisher of this. Then I worked with a number of charities I’ve worked with a homeless charity called the Simon community. I absolutely love them because they allowed people to go and live with homeless people and
Baron Bird 35:00
live and experience homelessness. And I went to some of their places that they had in the country. And I sat with people who were just like the people I worked on a building site with, you know, 20 years before. There was no, there was no difference between them and us. And then I, you know, I saw I do printing for people, you know, and I do that kind of stuff. And I gradually developed a realisation towards the end of my 30s and early 40s that I’d had, I had this enormous experience. And I had a passion for social change and social justice. And I needed to bring it all together. And of course, for sure, fortuitously, I met somebody read met some when I saw them on the telly. And then I pursued them who I’d known when I was 21, hiding from the police in Edinburgh. And that became Gordon Roddick, who with his wife had started the Body Shop, and become multi millionaires, which I was very attracted by.
Carlton Reid 35:25
That ws 1991. And how, tell me about Gordon Roddick, and how you knew him in Edinburgh? Well,
Baron Bird 36:16
what happened was, I had, one of the worst things you can do to the state is steal social security in those days. And what happened was my my wife and I, she was she left me. And I was still getting the social security that I should have been sharing with her. But I was sharing it in the local pub. And what happened was, they found out about it, and they came after me. And that was one of the reasons and I would have got two to three years for that, because I already had a criminal record, back to the age of 10. And now I was 21. And so therefore, I had to disappear. So I disappeared. And I went off to France, I had been educated as a boy online or mis educated, to have many of the problems that you have in in, in the poverty world. I had some very, very bad attitudes towards
Baron Bird 37:16
black people and Jews and Indians and Arabs and all that, you know, and I, you know, a lot of people in poverty, find their mind closes down. And mine was very, very closed. A lot of this inherited from the people around me and from my own parents.
Baron Bird 37:33
And when I went off to Paris, I met some Marxist Leninist, socialist, trotskyists, and all that. And I completely changed because I met this beautiful girl who challenged everything I said, and in order to win her affection, so I started to mimic what she said, about, you know, solidarity with the poor and all that stuff, which I didn’t believe. And then after a while, I started to believe it. And then after a while, I became a committed pain in the rear Marx’s anti racist, anti everything. So I got changed. This is one of the things that I really want to drive home to people, you can start in life or at any one time, with the most pernicious racist Gumby sort of thinking. And if you get the chance of changing it, you grow you develop, I suddenly became a much bigger person, because I’ve been thinking all of this poor, anti semitic, anti black, anti Indian stuff. And when I got rid of it, it was like an enormous weight off my shoulders. And that really did help me in the development of myself as a person who could be useful to other people. And I’ve often
Baron Bird 38:54
had, you know, got involved in in getting rid of racism amongst young people. But anyway, so when I came back to London converted to this socialist from being almost a kind of Nazi and fascist
Baron Bird 39:11
I, then what ended up in Edinburgh because my wife’s family lived up there. And I one night I met this big nose Scotsman, Gordon Roddick and I had a big broken nose and he had a big broken nose. So we shared broken nose stories and we we became mates and then I found out he wrote appalling poetry Absolutely gut rotting poetry, I at the time was writing gut writing poetry. So we we complemented each other on how guff writing poetry books, and we became mates and then I didn’t see him for 20 years and I saw him on the telly when I was with my son Patty sitting watching the telly because he was on there with Anita Roddick.
Baron Bird 40:00
God Oh, I knew them. And then with with Richard Branson, who I also knew, because when he was 17, he started a magazine called the Student, sold by students to work their way through college. And I, at the age of 21, 22, pretended I was a student in London and used to sell his magazine for scoring. He was always astonished at how easy it was for me to sell these magazines. But lo and behold, 20 years later, I’ve taken the same model and used it for homeless people with the Big Issue. So I then went to see Gordon when I saw him on the telly in 87. And then we kind of put a friendship together. And then he
Baron Bird 40:48
he, he was in New York, and he saw somebody selling a street paper called Street News. And the bloke said that he’d been in and out of the penitentiary for most of his life, and he’d used now he wanted to support his children. And he didn’t want to go back into prison because they throw the key away. So he fell homeless, and started selling Street News, which was the first word, it was the world’s first street paper. And Gordon asked me to start one in London, which we, which we then called the big issue.
Baron Bird 41:25
That was 1991.
Carlton Reid 41:26
John, we’ll come back to the Big Issue in a second. But right now I want to go across to have an ad break. And I’m going to pass you across to I’ll pass this all across to David, my co host.
David Bernstein 41:37
Hey, Carlton, thanks so much. And it’s it’s always my pleasure to talk about our advertiser. This is a long time loyal advertiser, you all know who I’m talking about. It’s Jenson USA at Jenson usa.com/thespokesmen. I’ve been telling you for years now years, that Jenson is the place where you can get a great selection of every kind of product that you need for your cycling lifestyle at amazing prices, and what really sets them apart. Because of course, there’s lots of online retailers out there. But what really sets them apart is their unbelievable support. When you call them you’ve got a question about something, you’ll end up talking to one of their gear advisors, and these are cyclists. I’ve been there I’ve seen it. These are folks who who ride their bikes to and from work. These are folks who ride at lunch who go out on group rides after work because they just enjoy cycling so much. And and so you know that when you call, you’ll be talking to somebody who has knowledge of the products that you’re calling about. If you’re looking for a new bike, whether it’s a mountain bike, a road bike, a gravel bike, a fat bike, what are you looking for? Go ahead and check him out. Jenson USA, they are the place where you will find everything you need for your cycling lifestyle. It’s Jensonusa.com/thespokesmen . We thank them so much for their support. And we thank you for supporting Jenson USA. All right, Carlton, let’s get back to the show.
Carlton Reid 43:03
Thanks, David. And we are back with with Baron Bird with Lord John bird but he has graciously allowed me to call him, john. So john, we are back you’ve been you’ve been fascinating history, a troubled history we’ve got to say, but and also a positive history and that you use art to change your life around eventually, you’ve used your printing skills and your publishing skills with Gordon Roddick to create this this iconic magazine, the Big Issue which has gone on to have many
Carlton Reid 43:39
examples of it all around the world. But now you are doing something again innovative with with bicycles. So tell me exactly what you’re going to be doing … [Cough]
Carlton Reid 43:53
Excuse me … with Sharebike of Norway. So what are you going to do with those bikes?
Baron Bird 44:00
Well, it coincides with the tremendous problems that
Baron Bird 44:07
society and the economy is having throughout the world.
Baron Bird 44:12
And that is you we’ve got to create new forms of work, we’ve got to create new forms of business, we were approached by share bike
Baron Bird 44:23
with the idea of putting together I business that would use electric electric bikes. I’ve always been fascinated with bikes. In fact, the number of the times I got arrested and put into detention centres and places like that were to do with my inability to get my hands off of other people’s bikes. But now I don’t know. I want to work with them. And the idea of electric bikes I find fascinating, because it means you can go further or you can get exercise you can get
Baron Bird 44:59
fresh air. And you can do it all yourself not not simply rely on the internal combustion engine. So what happened with with the just previous to the COVID-19, we started to put together this idea of starting in Cambridge and then moving on to other cities. I like the idea that I could gain, I could begin to grow employment for other people, then the COVID-19 hit, and kind of slowed us down a bit, but we still carried on. And the COVID-19 raises the question of lots of people not having a job. And therefore, it’s created a much, much bigger need for us to help create businesses, that will create jobs for people in and around sales, in around maintenance, in and around distribution. And it means that we can take some of the people we work with selling the newspaper, The magazine, and we can train them up. But also we can take people who have fallen into, into unemployment through the crisis, we can start trading them up. So it’s the beginning of a way of intervening in the economic crisis. And at the same time, doing something which is very, very interesting, which is helping people to get exercise to get out of doors, to get away from the internal combustion engine. And obviously, to move towards a world which is environmentally, not as challenged, because you’re not using, you’re not using fossil fuels. So this is the kind of pits all sorts of things. The other thing is that I got a bill going through the Lord’s and it’s also going through the House of Commons with
Baron Bird 46:59
with Caroline Lucas, who is a Green MP there,
Baron Bird 47:03
which is called the well being of future generations. And that is about the importance of environmentalism, the importance of education, the importance of jobs, and all that and making sure that the government doesn’t pass legislation that harms the generations to come. So all of this fits together. So it’s a wonderful, it’s legal, you know, the bill, the parliamentary stuff, that political stuff we’re doing in Parliament, the work around the big issue of growing work for people, and also not accepting the, the fact that people will slip into homelessness, because they will be unable to find work by creating as much work as we can. So we have something called the today for tomorrow, programming. And this, we’ve got a campaign call the Rider Out Recession Alliance, which brings businesses together, brings local authorities together brings charities together, and brings individuals together to try and create the new jobs, and the new opportunities, and at the same time can pay to keep people out of evictions, and get them back working so that they can support themselves.
Carlton Reid 48:29
So, John, tell me how this works a for the homeless person and be for a Cambridge resident, obviously, you want to expand in other cities, but just you’re a Cambridge resident, and you want a bike at some point. So So describe those two ways of operating.
Baron Bird 48:47
Well, first of all, we will be taking some of the people who can be trained up to do some of the skills around marketing, around selling the service, and also around maintaining the bikes, picking the bikes up where wherever they get dropped off, and all of that kind of thing that you would have to do with any form of bike business. So we will be training up people who are who have been homeless or who were trying to get out of homelessness. And at the same time, because we want to, we want we don’t want this to be a ghetto, of the socially displaced. We want to put in other people who have recently fallen into the need for work and grow it almost as organically. So that’s the way that we imagine it for the for the Cambridge resident or the Brighton resident of the Bath or Bristol or whatever city we go from.
Baron Bird 49:50
What we want to do is offer them a service that they’re wanting to use
Baron Bird 49:57
that has a social echo. That means
Baron Bird 50:00
If you use what were doing, then the profits will go back into aiding and abetting people to get out of poverty, and aiding and abetting people to get out of all the needs that go with not being able to keep a job, because you’ve fallen out of it, and help the people to get into a job who’ve been homeless, we’ve been selling the Big Issue, and who need to move on.
Carlton Reid 50:28
So are these are the two kinds of share bikes, you’ve got the docked bikes, which are like the London scheme, where they go into a physical dock that you know, bolted, cemented into the ground, and then you take them from there. And then you’ve got the dockless kind, where they’re freestanding, you can pick them up from from anywhere. But with electric bikes, you really need to have them powered from somewhere at some point. So So what model is this, using?
Baron Bird 51:01
Well, the one that we’re working on, and obviously innovations will happen, those dockless bikes were innovated because of the fact that you had an entrenched place where you pick the bike up before. And, and so we will innovate as we go along. And we may even have a situation where we would deliver bikes to a college or a business, so that they can use it around their buildings and around, you know, like the Science Park or someone like that. But we will start by having got places, and those, we will make sure that we have the staff to make sure that things get, you know, the bikes get juiced up. I think all that.
Baron Bird 51:50
So those are the kind of early steps that we’ll take, obviously, we’ll find that there will be times when people may want to take the bike home with them. And then we’ll have to look at ways of doing that. I know that in the village that I
Baron Bird 52:08
live in on for a period of time, when these dockless bikes appeared, there was five or six of them. And then they disappeared. And I don’t know if they are thrown in the river or struggling. But, you know, obviously, we have to keep security very important, because
Baron Bird 52:26
that keeps your costs down and it means makes you more of a, you know, reliable and viable business.
Carlton Reid 52:35
And what what the timescale on this, when are we going to see the first bikes in Cambridge?
Baron Bird 52:41
It will certainly be probably in the spring of 2021.
Carlton Reid 52:49
Are you a target customer, and you’re going to be one of the people will be using this?
Baron Bird 52:54
Yeah, I am a target customer. Because I would like to, I mean, I cycle everywhere. So I cycle, you know, the seven miles into town, cycle around the town, and all that I’m a sprightly 74 year old. So I don’t need electricity to get me in to town. But if I want to go somewhere else, I want to go really far. And be back from lunch. I will I will use it for a kind of community. And I you know, back to social kindness. I think there is a kind of social kindness factor in everything we do. I mean, the big issue is bought by people who believe in our vendors, they may believe in the magazine, but more than anything, they believe in our vendors. That is social kindness. And I think we will be able to make people feel better in in, in some ways, maybe a very marginal when they say I’m riding a bike that is helping people out of need and into opportunity.
Carlton Reid 54:02
John, it’s been a fascinating talking to you. And I would just like to before we get I just want you to either confirm or deny this this delicious story. And I do hope you’re going to confirm it. But on your Wikipedia page, there is a big gap actually between what you were doing in the 70s and 1991. But anyway, it just says here “for two weeks in 1970, John worked as a dishwasher in the Houses of Parliament canteen” and that’s of course an institution that you would later return to return to in 2015 as a Peer. Is that true?
Baron Bird 54:35
That’s very true. There were in in the late 60s in the early 70s. There was these temporary job agencies, and you would go to them I don’t know if they’re still there you go there. Manpower and people like There you go. And you’d you might have a job for two weeks. I was I had a whole slew of jobs there.
Baron Bird 55:00
quickly and also because I was working under an assumed name. And I went to this agency in in Victoria. And they said, Oh, do you want to wash up in the House of Lords? And I said, Yeah, why not? And and the House of Commons because they used to move you from canteen canteen. And so I went there, I think I started or either started off in the commons, and ended up in the Lord’s or whatever. So I worked there. And that was really, really interesting for me. And I, at the time, I was a kind of mad socialist and I got very cheesed off the management, because I kept saying to the workers, why are you in that in the house of democracy being so poorly paid? Why is it that you’re the working poor? And we’re here we are in the centre of democracy? So I raised that question. And I’ve also raised that question, since then, why is it that you can be working for the state, which
Baron Bird 56:03
runs the the system for the government, the elected government, and yet you can be almost a member of the working poor, you might get a living wage, but a living wage is often not very conducive to living or living in a way that can enrich your life. So I was there. And after a couple of weeks, they wouldn’t renew my contract. Because I was such a pain in the reassigned to people. Yeah, why don’t we go on strike and get to get better wages. In 2016, when I went into the Lord’s, one of the first persons who copped hold me was the cook
Baron Bird 56:45
in in the, in the kitchen, and insisted I walk round. And then the BBC found out about it, and they were making a film called A Year in the Lords, and they chose me as, as a novice coming in. And he took me around the kitchen as well. And I got to know the cook. And I’ve got to know, the star. Why really was pleased with was that the cook and the deputy cook, they were all into the idea of getting people who had, you know, maybe had some problems earlier on in life and training them up in, you know, cookery and, and in kitchen arts and work. So a number of the people were people pretty similar to where I come from in the first instance. So I was very, very pleased. And there was a, there was a whole group of them I gave a talk to, and they were astonished to find out that all of the naughty little things that they may have done growing up, I’ve also done so. So going from, I was washed up at the house in the house of law. I was watching up in the House of Lords. And I hope people won’t say now you’re washed up in the house.
Carlton Reid 58:02
Well, John, I will forgive you everything apart from the bike theft. The bikes. Oh,
Carlton Reid 58:09
but you say that, I mean, that’s the biggest crime in in the world is stealing somebody’s bicycle. I just I can’t forgive you for that. forgive you for everything else.
Baron Bird 58:17
Let me tell you that is that is an interesting thing. That is really, I mean, I’ve had about four bikes nicked. The first week, I moved to Cambridge, somebody nicked my bike, but the thing was, I didn’t steal the bike that got me What happened was, some boys stole some bikes from the school I was in. I found them abandoned in the, in my local park. And then this bloke rode around on the roof few days, and then we put them back to where they were abandoned, where they were picked up by the mum and dad of that. So I was I was what you might call
Baron Bird 58:59
You know, they used to have this thing where you stole it, they wouldn’t have you for stealing the car. They’d have you for taking
Baron Bird 59:07
a car without the owner’s content, consent. So really all I was was I was a user of the bike. I have never stolen a bike but I’ve been put away for stealing bikes, when the person who the two people who stole them,
Baron Bird 59:28
got away with it, and all I did was utilised.
Carlton Reid 59:33
Thanks to Baron Bird of Notting Hill there and thank you for listening to the spokesmen cycling podcast. I’m now off to make a Giving Tuesday donation to BigIssue.com Meanwhile, get out there and ride …