Permanent pitch

Whereas most Big Issue North vendors greet you at eye level on the streets, a new one in York is set to look down on the entire city

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Seventy feet up on the outside of York Minster is not the usual place you’d expect to find a Big Issue North vendor, but that’s exactly where Norbert Lawrie is on a warm July afternoon. He’s donned a hard hat in place of the straw one he often wears and joined stonemason David Willett to look at the place where, some time next year, a stone version of a Big Issue North vendor will be peering down at shoppers and tourists as they pass beneath this historic landmark.

“To have something up here that acknowledges the hard work that vendors do is incredible.”

Lawrie met Willett in the summer of 2018, while selling the magazine on Goodramgate, just around the corner from where they now stand. Willett revealed that they were looking for ideas for new grotesques to replace the ones coming down from the cathedral. Lawrie suggested that the theme should be homelessness, and more specifically, a Big Issue North vendor.

Now, Willett is leading Lawrie on a tour of the outside of the Minster’s 14th century South Quire Aisle, where there’s an 11-year, £11 million project to conserve the stonework on this part of the building. Passing nests of roosting wood pigeons, Lawrie occasionally grips on to scaffolding poles to steady himself, as Willett, who is at his most passionate when he’s talking about stone, points out the various features around them that have been eroded by the elements.

Grotesques, Willett explains, are decorative corner pieces that hide the “annoying imperfections” where stone sections meet – not to be confused with gargoyles, which are waterspouts that take water away from rooftops. “Big Issue guy”, as Willett calls the piece he has carved from magnesian limestone brought up from a quarry near Tadcaster, will sit around a pinnacle on the South Quire, just over half way up this side of the Minster.

“This is the third one to go in this position. The one we are replacing is a Restoration one, late eighteenth, early nineteenth century,” says Willett. “Hopefully we will get about 200, 250 years out of this one.”

Climbing even further up the side of the Minster, Willett says the lack of trained stonemasons in the 1970s and 1980s led to some pretty dodgy carvings. “There’s a pooing dog here somewhere,” he sighs. Luckily for the Minster, there are now more skilled crafts people on hand like Willett, who has worked here for over 23 years.

The idea of carving his grotesque into a Big Issue North vendor resonated with Willett when Lawrie suggested it. Willett had seen the growth in homelessness not just on the streets of York, but on visits to London and Manchester. He recalls being shocked by “the amount of people there were on the street, and the way people were just ignoring them. It’s against human rights, let alone human decency that this is happening.” He is exasperated at the scale of the problem and wonders how anyone can do anything to help. To Lawrie, the stone carving is a good start.

“To have something up here that acknowledges the hard work that vendors do in the north of England is incredible,” he says. “It should be seen as a tribute not just to one particular vendor, but to all the people involved in this social enterprise that exists to try and help homeless people earn an income and start the recovery from homelessness.

“And it should be seen in terms of recovery because it is an ordeal, being homeless. I should know.”

Up until last year, Lawrie, 62, was homeless for 30 years, around the same length of time that Willett, 54, has been making a living out of stone. Lawrie first became homeless following a relationship breakdown that he says “sort of tipped me over the edge”. After that, he rarely settled in one place for too long and was involved in a number of campaigns about housing and homelessness. He’s not entirely sure what kept him from moving on from homelessness in the intervening years. “I haven’t really thought about it too deeply,” he says.

Lawrie took up selling the national Big Issue in 1992, not long after it was established. “I’ve sold street papers all over the country,” he says. “I sold in Covent Garden before Bob got his cat.”

He came to York in 2016 and is still a passionate campaigner, running the popular Homeless Britain Facebook page, and an avid supporter of Big Issue North, which he says, “pulls people back from the abyss of homelessness”.

Back on the ground, the stone carving of the vendor waits in the workshop where it was created. Normally there are 14 stonemasons who work for the Minster, including four apprentices. Everything is carved by hand, mainly using hammers and chisels, though the occasional handheld power tool comes in useful. The cavernous workshop reverberates with the sound of metal hitting stone, repetitive clinks that sometimes synchronise with one another before dispersing into their own separate rhythms.

“It’s a great noise,” says Willett. “You should hear it when we have the stone carver’s festival when there are 80 or so carvers all working at the same time. The sound is just incredible.”

Replacing the crumbling stonework on the Minster is a balance between historical accuracy and personal creativity. Surviving works are used as a starting point, and inspiration is taken from historic sources to ensure the design of new grotesques are in keeping with the period of the building.

“If we have information about what was there originally, we try and copy it,” explains Willett. “But if there’s no information on it, we have a bit more of a free rein. The proportions are the same as the one it’s replacing, but the rest is up to us.”

Won’t historical purists baulk at the idea of a Big Issue North vendor on the side of the cathedral?

Dave Willett with the grotesque. Above: Norbert. Photos: Lee Brown, Christian Lisseman
Dave Willett with the grotesque. Above: Norbert. Photos: Lee Brown, Christian Lisseman

“There are some people like that, yes,” says Willett with a cheeky smile. “But fortunately they don’t have a say really. We are trusted to do what’s best.”

The vendor grotesque then, is loosely based on the character that was there before, but embellished, with a Big Issue North magazine tucked beneath his arm.

Willett, who has produced a dozen or so grotesques in his time, is happy with the finished carving. “His legs are a bit too bendy but that’s about it”. And while it’s not meant to be a representation of Lawrie, it bears an uncanny resemblance to him, with his beard, cascading hair and thoughtful expression.

“I’m just pleased that the idea came from me,” Lawrie says. “And that Dave then created this grotesque. I think it’s lovely. There’s nothing grotesque about it.”

Reflecting on the fact that his carving will be sitting here on the side of the Minster for the next couple of centuries or so, Willett is rather cool.

“In some ways, it’s just a job. It’s nice to see the back of something that you have been sat next to staring at for 10 or 12 weeks. You just want it out of your life for a while. And then you go back and look at it and think, I did enjoy doing that, and it’s nice to see it up there, pointing it out to the grandkids.”

For Lawrie, the carving is “the icing on the cake” of a life of campaigning and comes at an important time for him. Last November, after sleeping rough for almost three years on the streets of York, he moved into a flat. “It’s an old people’s place,” he says with a grin.

The transition to permanent housing hasn’t been easy. “Going home and shutting the door behind you, climbing into bed at night – it took quite a bit of time to get used to that.

“I did feel sometimes that I should just get my sleeping bag and go back out. You have to deal with all this bureaucracy, like getting bills and rent sorted out. You feel like you’re being dragged back into the system. But I knew that I was going to have to be ready to do what everybody else does every single day of the week and that’s participate in the community that you live in, which means paying your rent, being sociable and dealing with that bureaucracy.”

He continues to sell Big Issue North, though his main pitch is now outside York train station, having moved from Goodramgate because of the high prevalence of beggars there who were sapping custom away from his work selling the magazine. And he expects to be working way past retirement.

“Big Issue North has been good to me,” Lawrie says, “And at my age I’m not going to get any other job, even though Big Issue North sellers are the best salespeople in the world.”

Back up on the scaffolding, a storm is coming in. Far over the rooftops of York, out towards the distant hills, clouds have darkened and there’s a rumble of thunder. No one wants to be up here when a thunderstorm strikes, so the two men head down as Lawrie reflects once more on the fact that his idea helped bring about this remarkable grotesque.

He describes the Minster as “beautiful and impressive”and now has a VIP pass and has been inside the cathedral a few times, overwhelmed by how welcome they have made him feel. His love for the building is matched by his love for the city, where after all of those years of homelessness, he has finally found himself a place to settle.

“This is the end of the journey for me,” he says. “It’s the place I have been looking for all my life. And to have something up on the Minster, where around the corner I slept in a shop doorway – it’s amazing.”

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