Big Issue

Dirk and Harvey with the Big Issue

Time seems to have sped up with the approach of the ride, and I depart Twickenham with the rest of the Big Issue gang Thursday morning at eight. I spent the last week getting the charity bike raffle up and running, resting up and replacing some worn parts on my Kona Jake – a cyclo-cross bike I’ve ridden all over Europe. After six months of focusing on fundraising and regarding the trip with a certain detachment – no point thinking about the fun till the work is done – it’s exciting to think the pay-off is just around the corner.

On Sunday the 18th, my girlfriend Alexandra and I attended The Big Lunch at the House of St. Barnabas, a former residence for the homeless (established in the 1860s) now offering personal and professional support services for the homeless or those recently so. The Big Lunch is a UK-wide event designed to celebrate and promote supportive communities. It was attended by roughly one million people this year, and the St. Barnabas edition was organised in conjunction with the Big Issue Foundation (BIF), partly as an opportunity for the Foundation’s supporters to meet and get to know Big Issue vendors.

I wanted to attend the lunch to interact with the people who sell the Big Issue and gain a better appreciation not just for them and their circumstances, but also the reasons they sell the Big Issue. Over a delicious lunch of hamburgers and salads, Alexandra and I chatted with two vendors from central London, Harvey and Dirk. Harvey explained that he sold the magazine in part because of his difficult relationship with authority figures, which had always prevented him from holding down a long-term job. The BIF gave him the flexibility and freedom to earn a small income without tying him into the kind of hierarchical relationship he distrusted. Harvey’s daily target was to sell 20 issues a day – a clear profit of £14 – during relatively regular working hours.

Dirk, originally from Aachen, Germany, said he hoped one day to secure work in a retail or restaurant setting in a touristy part of London, where his language skills would be an asset. Meantime, being a vendor for the Big Issue gave him the legal status of self-employed part-time worker, which in turn allowed him to remain in the UK without fear of deportation. Dirk was exceptionally politically aware, and was probably better informed about the environmental issues surrounding the Canadian oil sands than I was (and I’m from Toronto). Something he appreciated about the UK, he explained, and which you couldn’t find in other European countries, was the exceptional degree of individual freedom people enjoyed. A practical illustration, in his case, was squatter’s rights, and we spent a good while discussing various aspects of living in and fixing up a London squat.

The Big Lunch’s aim fit perfectly with the BIF’s own mission, which is to help the homeless and vulnerably-housed get off the streets and re-integrate the work-force. In that sense, the Foundation’s purpose is to help the marginalised reintegrate the larger community, but talking with Harvey and Dirk introduced me to a community I hadn’t really considered before, the community of vendors. Talking to them about their outlook on life and their personal projects – Harvey is writing a book – reminded me that the people who sell the Big Issue are not all that different from the people who buy it, and the division between so-called communities is easily exaggerated. I know it’s been said before, but I think it’s worth repeating.

As we left St. Barnabas, I felt energised by the contact I’d had with the people my fundraising will be going towards. Bring on the riding!
Here is a link to the ride itinerary: http://www.tallstories.co.uk/event_details.aspx?EID=65

ne last ride after work last night, a short, sharp 35km outing looping from Westminster down south of the Thames and back up over Hampstead Heath