Sometimes it’s easy to walk by because we know we can’t change someone’s whole life in a single afternoon. But what we fail to realise it that simple kindness can go a long way toward encouraging someone who is stuck in a desolate place.
I have written in earlier Reflections of my support of the work of the Big Issue Foundation. It’s one of the UK’s leading social charities whose aim is to offer homeless people, or individuals at risk of homelessness, the opportunity to earn a legitimate income through the sale of the Big Issue magazine. Through this, the individuals help themselves to reintegrate into mainstream society. As a result of the efforts of the Big Issue vendors, the magazine is now the world’s most widely circulated street newspaper.
The BI Foundation does not offer their vendors a hand-out but a hand up. The vendors buy the magazines and then sell them. Thus, they run as sole trader businesses.
So why do I support the Big Issue Foundation over other charitable causes? Well, it dates to my first working day in London as an Assistant Scientific Officer in a Government Forensic Laboratory.
The lab was in Cornwall House on the south side of Waterloo Bridge. My journey there each day started with a ten-minute walk from my then ‘home’ to Bayswater tube station. Then, Circle Line tube to Embankment and finally a walk from there to Cornwall House.
The quickest route for the final leg was that over Hungerford Bridge. Then a narrow footbridge. Dating from Victorian times, it spanned the Thames on one side of the railway lines that run to Charing Cross station. The replacement to that bridge is now two wide modern walkways that sandwich the railway lines.
Cornwall house is still there but does not bear that name. Kings College took over the building and repurposed it as a seat of learning.
I digress. Let’s get back to a Monday in early July 1974.
Leaving Embankment station and not yet knowing my best route to the Lab, instead of using Hungerford Bridge, I turned left to walk through Victoria Embankment Gardens with the intent of crossing to the south of the Thames via Waterloo Bridge.
The end of the Gardens borders the back of the Savoy Hotel. It was there I saw ahead of me three recumbent figures. Once called ‘gentlemen of the road’, they lay peacefully asleep on the grass in their careworn ‘daywear’ of jackets and trousers. Given the warmth of the season, there was no need for extra coverings.
I drew nearer, and the sun, sitting just over the OXO tower, caught the morning dew that covered the slumbering figures. A gossamer blanket bejewelled with gold and silver light. Although out of context these lines from Yeats came to mind.
“But, I being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
And softly, I did tread as I passed those gentlemen.
On that first working day, with my mind full of the opportunity ahead, my thoughts turned to what dreams had these men once had?
Some might recall my Reflection from April this year, recounting an encounter with my first vendor in Bristol, post-second lockdown. As I approached him, I realised I carried no cash (does anyone have ‘real’ money these days?). Anyway, I thought I might have to find a cashpoint until I saw another customer using a credit card to make his BI purchase.
As a tongue-in-cheek comment, I asked the vendor whether he might take American Express. He replied, with a beaming smile, “mate, if it means selling a copy, I will happily take anything, including two chickens”. Then adding more seriously, while pointing to his handheld reader, “this thing takes any card you like and even Apple Watch”. My first contactless purchase of a BI duly followed as I continued my conversation with the vendor.
He was delighted with his recent technology. He told me that The Big Issue Foundation negotiated a reduced price of £20 with the reader manufacturer for those sold to vendors. My vendor said he’d covered that outlay in his first week, as using the reader had boosted sales.
The reader needs access to Wi-Fi and my vendor told me he got that by way of friendly retailers around his pitch. He then mentioned there was one new thing he needed to manage: his cash flow. He still must buy his weekly supply of copies of the magazine on a Thursday, but not all credit card sales might not have gone through by then, so he must keep enough cash in reserve just in case.
Never in the world would I imagine I would one day have a technology/business conversation with a BI vendor. It reinforced to me the benefit the Foundation offers for those down on their luck. Although having said that, I’ve yet to meet a vendor who’s down in the dumps. They all offer a smile, a friendly greeting, and a courteous response when you buy. And they sell an excellent product.
BI vendors are also always up for a bit of a chat. They may look disconcerting, dishevelled, and unkempt at first sight. Their clothes are old and careworn. But the vendors have a spirit within them that is engaging.
Sadly, however, one has to be aware of the Big Issue ‘scammers’. People who buy one magazine from an authorised BI vendor then try to ‘sell’ that magazine repeatedly. They invariably say they only have one copy left and then most people just give them money and move on. Authorised BI vendors carry visible ID and always sell you the magazine even if it’s their last. Be careful. Don’t let the scammers rob you and, more importantly, legitimate BI vendors.
To help raise funds for the Foundation, I usually seek sponsorship for their annual ‘Big London walk’. A 25 km walk, through the night, around London. However, given the number of participants, Covid has, at least for now, put an end to the walk. So instead, I’ve signed up for Big Issue’ Big Step Challenge’ this November. My aim is to walk 300,000 steps next month.
If anyone cares to sponsor me, that can do so here.
Big Step Challenge | 10,000 steps a day for The Big Issue Foundation
Harry Watson is fundraising for Big Issue Foundation. Donate on JustGiving
and more importantly please buy a copy of the Big Issue magazine when you next come across a vendor. And pass the time of day with them too.
You won’t be surprised at my choice of this week’s music …