Unparliamentary Language: John Bird
Agnes Chambre sits down with parliamentarians to find out more about the human side of politics. This week, Big Issue founder and star of the BBC’s Meet the Lords, John Bird
What’s an interesting fact about you?
I’m quite a brilliant artist. I’m obsessed with art. I think it’s been the making of me. I’ve done it since I was 14 in a boy’s prison, when they gave me carte blanche to do what I wanted with my spare time. I think they thought the more he does that, the less shops he’s going to break into. That, and learning to read and write in a boy’s prison at the age of 16, was the thing that lifted me out of the quagmire.
What were you like at school?
Inattentive, absent. When I was about 12, my teacher sent me home with a report and my dad looked at it. He came across the word ‘vindictive’ and I said ‘what’s the word, Dad?’ He said ‘vindictive’. I said ‘what does that mean?’ And he said: ‘It’s good. Keep it up.’
Why did they say that?
Because I was a nasty piece of work. I was always in trouble, I used to fight with the teachers. I was excluded from school. I was always being picked up by the police; if there was trouble in the school they’d blame me. If anything got nicked, they’d blame me. But I’d never steal anything. I mean, I wouldn’t steal off my fellow pupils. I’d never let the teachers look in my pockets. I said, if you want to look, you’ll have to bring in my Mum and Dad. Unfortunately, my Mum and Dad wouldn’t have come. I was a terrible little pain in the arse and the teachers hated me.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a scrap metal merchant. Largely because down by the river in London, there were loads of scrap metal yards and they were full of these men who all had a couple of Alsatian dogs and they had love and hate on their knuckles and they had a wad of money. Because there was a lot of deprivation in my family, I wanted to be one of them because they were never short of money. My dad was always short of money. My mum never had any money. We never had any money. We were starving sometimes. But if I was a scrap metal merchant with my own yard, I would be aristocracy.
What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve been given?
That’s difficult. I’ve been given so much bad advice. When I started the Big Issue, I went to a meeting with all the great and the good; they said ‘you don’t know what you’re doing, homelessness is a much bigger problem than giving people work and a means of earning their own money.’ There were all the big players from the homeless industry. I didn’t take the advice in the end but I did spend a few nights thinking maybe they were right. It was only my own belief in my mission that stopped me listening.
What is your greatest fear?
I’m on my third family, so I’ve got a ten year old and an 11 year old. I would hate to die before they weren’t a bit bored of me. I would like to be around for another 20 years. If I get to 90, my youngest will be almost 30 and that will be nice. I lost my mother when I was 27 and my dad when I was 33. 27 is a bit young, but if my children got to their late 20s, I’d be happy to shuttle off.
What do you do that annoys other people?
It’s a horrible habit, you probably don’t want to know but picking my nose in public.
If you could have one trip in a time machine, where would you go?
I would probably go back to 1939 when my Mum and Dad met and advise them against meeting.
No, I’m joking. I would have loved to have been in the 1930s before the Second World War because I’m obsessed with the Second World War.
Do you have any recurring dreams or nightmares?
I have a recurring dream that I’ve murdered someone and buried them under a patio. I have it probably twice a year. I’m sure it proves that I’m mentally unstable but it’s a lot to do with growing up in slummy Notting Hill. Down the road there was a guy called John Reginald Christie who murdered loads of women and dug them up in the garden. I often think about that. We were frightened of him even though he was dead and he wouldn’t have killed us because we weren’t girls. I had it the other night and it usually includes a friend of mine and we pat down the ground and buried this person. Is that too morbid?
What is the biggest mistake you’ve made?
My mum used to write to me every week and one time when I was living in Earls Court I just decided to get rid of all the letters. That was a horrible mistake. Also getting involved in gangs was probably not very good either. We used to be horrible to other children and horrible to each other so I wouldn’t recommend that.
If you could have dinner with three people, dead or alive, who would you choose?
I’d like to have dinner with Hitler because he’s the architect of the modern world. I’m not saying we’d do much eating but I’m still mystified by what happened and how that guy could have done what he did. I’d like to have dinner with Lenin – not John Lennon. Like Hitler, I’m stymied by what grew out of him. And Voltaire.
What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to you?
Drinking too much when I was 18, when I hadn’t eaten for a few days. I was engaged to a very beautiful upper-middle-class girl and then at her Christmas party I puked all over her and her pink dress and filled up her cleavage with vomit.
Were you still engaged at the end of the night?
Oh no. I passed out and when I went to see her the next day, her mum answered the door and told me to fuck off. But she said it like ‘fuck orf’. I never saw her again. Actually I saw her a few years later but she was on one platform and I was on another and she looked the other way. She loved me because I looked like Napoleon, I had a big nose and lots of curly hair. But that was the end of a beautiful relationship.
Who would play you in the movie of your life?
Tom Hardy. I’m sure Brad Pitt’s not available.
What’s something you’ve done once that you’ll never do again?
Jump off a balcony into a garden, hit a bush and lay concussed under the influence of Sam Smith.
What has been your favourite age?
18. I’d come out of prison and I had this enormous portfolio of drawings and paintings and then I went to the evening class at Chelsea school of art. They accepted me as a little genius. Between March 1964 and December 1964 – when I puked on my fiancé – that was my favourite time.
Do you have any regrets?
I have numerous regrets.
Have you ever been fired?
Many times. I don’t think I’ve ever not been fired. The only time I’ve not been fired is when I’ve left after some discussion.
What’s been your lowest point?
I had tried to become a Marxist revolutionary and I really didn’t like the people. I’d joined because I thought it was a revolution but I realised they were a really screwed up bunch of people. They were all uniformly unloved by their parents. My mum and dad loved me even though I was always in trouble with the police. I thought, this is a party for socially, sexually, weird people. When I left I felt that I had betrayed the church; first I’d been a Catholic, then I became a Marxist, and I felt I had betrayed the church. But there was no way I could stay with those self-righteous bunch of moralists. I’ve never been good with moralists.