‘I was shocked. Then I acted’

The Big Issue in the North co-founder Ruth Turner explains why she helped set it up 21 years ago

For me it all started when I got angry at a young man my age, begging outside Victoria Station. Begging was alien then – a third world thing. I was shocked. And then I acted.

Six months later and The Big Issue in the North became practically my whole life for eight years. And even now, a hardly believable 21 years on, I draw on the lessons I learned there time and time again.

I had good teachers. Amazing colleagues – all of whom, salaried or not, gave so much more to us than we expected or deserved because of their dedication to the cause. The partners who collaborated with us to put homeless people back in charge of their own lives. The people and organisations we fought with, who taught me determination, lateral thinking, and how to get back up again after getting a bloody nose or a bruised ego. The readers who stuck with the editorial team and the vendors as we blundered through trying to make the whole thing work somehow. My indescribably brilliant business partner Anne McNamara, who still counts amongst the bravest and most inspirational people I’ve ever met. And above all The Big Issue in the North vendors, who made me laugh and cry pretty much in equal measure most days.

“We tried to be optimistic about the phenomenal human potential of each vendor.”

Core to what we wanted to do was to stop homeless people being seen as either villains or victims. To move beyond both the tabloid and the fundraising stereotypes, and to allow them to be seen as the same fabulous and flawed human beings as the rest of us. So we tried to be honest about it all – not just the unfortunate tales of some but the messy and unpleasant drug dependencies and the chances given and mucked up again of many others. We set up first a research department and then a spin-off social research company to try to get robust evidence about causes and cures on the agenda. But we also tried to be optimistic about the phenomenal human potential of each vendor, and to base everything we did on the assumption that they could – would –make it through the other side and into happier, healthier lives.

The challenges our vendors faced were serious. But we also had a lot of fun. I was an eccentric editor, I think – certainly an untutored one. But I stumbled across the most extraordinary seam of talent. Anne and I were both “outsiders” in our own ways. We loved our adopted city of Manchester, and the entrepreneurial, DIY spirit of the north. For us, it was all about celebrating the richness and the quirkiness of lives that could, should, be lived to the full, however tough some days were.
We were young. We had fire in our bellies then. To all those who have kept it burning bright – thank you.

Photo: Ruth Turner when the magazine was founded

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