The BIGGER Issue
I hate the expression ‘virtue signalling’. It’s a very telling indictment of our times. That, somehow, to point out immorality or hypocrisy, makes you a pr*ck because you’re quite clearly trying to make yourself look good. Only a wrong ‘un would think in that twisted way.
But as I sat down with my lovely Ukrainian friend Adrian, in the driving rain of Leyton tube station last night, I did feel that sometimes buying The Big Issue, and certainly managing The Big Issue, is a form of virtue signalling. I’ve done it myself and when I examine my conscience I do kind of understand where I was getting it SO wrong. You give ’em your £2 and you stroll off, confident that your conscience is clear. But it doesn’t work that way, social responsibility to our fellow human beings is a debt that cannot be paid off with £2. It’s about a bit more than just strolling past, chucking them a few quid, picking up your magazine and waltzing off to a dinner party.
Perhaps, we would be better off saving our spondooliks and actually taking time to speak to the person you believe you are helping. Last night Adrian asked me for money, I told him I’m a little short of it right now and I couldn’t afford it. He looked at me with his big, soft, sad brown eyes which contain so many stories, and said ‘Your friendship means more to me than any money you could give me’. I felt bad, because I’ve been busy and haven’t been thinking of him as much as I should have. But I also felt very honoured that he adorned me with the word ‘friend’. That’s priceless. I knew myself, during those cold, long lonely days that those people who just appear out of nowhere when you need to see them, the ones who sit down and chat to you…they re-humanise you, having been DEhumanised by your experience. What those people give you in those moments is more precious than notes and coins.
The Big Issue depersonalises homelessness. It becomes just another commodity to be sold or bought. Armando Iannucci, the revered social satirist behind Veep, The Death of Stalin and The Thick of It, is the latest to grace its pages. He joins the well-meaning likes of George Michael, Woody Allen, Gary Barlow and many more.
The fact that these people give precious, valuable material to The Big Issue, when they could be flogging it to a glossy magazine, shows, on the whole, that their hearts are in the right place (unless it’s a PR job to disguise tax evasion, for instance 😉) but it also shows that they really are COMPLETELY out of touch with reality. Hadn’t you noticed? Nobody SELLS the Big Issue anymore. At least not around East London.
The last time I saw someone flogging it was before I got made homeless again. My friend Craig in Romford with his little corgi Alice. He didn’t want to sell it, but because ‘vagrancy’ is still a crime and you can end up in the cells and have your dog stolen, for ‘begging’ he had made the only choice he had. To sell The Big Issue. Sounds like a racket to me. The police had been harassing him and he was scared. But with the Big Issue in his hands, he was allowed to work his ‘patch’. But only if he gave half his takings to The Big Issue who supplied him with the magazines which stopped him being arrested. Effectively, he and other homeless people are being taxed by The Big Issue and John Bird.
You could argue that, well, somebody has to pay the costs of producing this increasingly threadbare magazine. Well, not really actually…Metro, The Evening Standard, NME and Time Out all survive perfectly well on advertising revenues. Why are homeless people not given this magazine for free? It’s a gigantic scam.
Many years ago, I worked briefly for the Big Issue as a journalist. I didn’t like it one jot. The holier-than-thou Editors and Chief Executives were all on a nice little earner for their troubles and they got to look ‘nice’ at dinner parties. They were pretty much all card-carrying members of the new-Labour establishment which ruled at the time. When it came to the end of year honours lists and peerages, they were quids in. They were handsomely rewarded. But for what? Did they eradicate homelessness? Did they even try? Now that might mean killing the goose that laid the golden egg…
When I met Craig, he was in agony with his sciatica, no doubt exacerbated by the damp. ‘Seeing as you work for them, don’t they send doctors to check you over?’ I asked of the Big Issue. ‘They just drop the mags off, collect their money and p*ss off,’ he told me.
Maybe it really did start off with genuine intentions, but these days The Big Issue, like the Tory Party, is just an institution that exists to exist. It’s a big receptacle of people’s collective guilt for not doing more. It does nothing to alleviate or solve the problem.
If you really want to help go and find Adrian or Craig or any of their mates and give them fifteen minutes of your times. You might even learn something precious. Maybe give them some cash if you can afford it and if you can’t talk to them about ways you can help them access health services, maybe be an advocate for them as they wend their way through the horrendous benefits ‘system’. If English isn’t their first language, maybe be his or her voice.
And maybe, like last night with Adrian, just hold their hands for a while because they are scared. You will absolutely make his or her day, you might make a friend for life and you might even SAVE a life. And if that’s virtue-signalling, I couldn’t give a toss!