Deputy editor Antonia Charlesworth signs off

Antonia Charlesworth explains how her family history and Big Issue North overlapped around an old trade union office

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I’m not sure that in 2023 we would bump Hollywood actor Gemma Arterton from the cover in favour of Scouse telly actor Ricky Tomlinson but, in issue 816 of Big Issue North, that’s what we did.

It was March 2010 and I had arrived at the magazine’s offices on Manchester’s Swan Street for two weeks’ work experience when a phone call came from Rochdale Council, inviting us to attend the launch of its new healthy living
campaign. The unlikely face of it was Tomlinson.

Arriving at Heywood Civic Centre I found the Royle Family star sat on an exercise bike, sipping a glass of orange juice, but I wasn’t interested in his dietary advice. Instead, I sat down with Tomlinson and spoke to him about his politics and activism. He was furious that the Labour Party had parachuted Londoner Luciana Berger into the inner-city parliamentary seat of Liverpool’s Wavertree and was considering standing for the Socialist Labour Party.

Being given the opportunity to write a cover story is not something that happens on every journalism work placement. Two weeks later I was sat on the lifestyle desk of the now-defunct She magazine in London, transcribing audio from another journalist’s interviews. I wasn’t encouraged to put a political slant on a piece I was assigned to write about a new low-carb diet and around 50 per cent of my job was making endless cups of tea.

Nobody drank tea in the Big Issue North offices. Instead, the editor would bring in speciality coffee from hipster shops in the Northern Quarter. On a Thursday he would bring us cake and, on a Friday morning, bacon butties.

The offices were in the old NATSOPA print union building, where my granddad had been a member, and a few streets behind it, in yet-to-be-gentrified Ancoats, was Livesey Street, where his father had been raised in a sweet shop by three maiden aunts after his mother absconded with an AWOL soldier during WWI.

Two minutes away from that, across Oldham Road, was the then-still-open Shamrock Pub on Bengal Street, where my maternal great-great-grandfather had been landlord and once, according to family lore, hidden revolutionary Irish president Éamon de Valera from authorities. It was a world away from the Hearst magazine offices in Soho and, even on my first day, I felt like I already had a history there.

In the 13 years since I have had the great privilege of being able to add to that history. I’ve put far weirder things than Ricky Tomlinson on the cover of Big Issue North in that time, including mermaids, witches, ice cream and an old shoe. The latter was found walled up in the chimney breast of a Victorian house in Blackpool and it led me down another historical rabbit hole to uncover strange Lancashire superstitions.

I’ve been encouraged to follow my every whim and I’ve been indulged as I interviewed heroes from Hayley Williams to Gloria Steinem. I was able to spend endless work hours reading brilliant new fiction and I got to go on a literary pilgrimage to Naples to find Elena Ferrante. I once wrote a 3,000 word essay on salt.

When I first started studying journalism there were only two universities in the North offering it – in Preston and Sheffield. Now you can study it almost everywhere, and I sometimes wonder about the merit of this when there are so few good media jobs in the North. I greedily held on to one of them for as long as I could, and now that’s gone too.

Since we announced the closure of Big Issue North a couple of weeks ago we’ve been flooded with messages from other journalists with similar stories to mine. Big Issue North gave them their first byline. Big Issue North allowed them to follow their interests and write stories no one else would commission. Big Issue North treated them fairly, gave them a head start, challenged and supported their writing.

Credit for this patience and generosity goes to our editor, Kevin Gopal, who has been the best boss, mentor and friend to me since that day I interviewed Ricky Tomlinson. They’re values I hope I have embodied during my time as deputy editor too, and ones I will take with me throughout my career.

But really, I’m pretty sure they are just marks of basic human kindness – we didn’t realise we were doing anything particularly special.

As for the magazine itself, we were aware that it was pretty special. In its 30-year term, this publication has represented the North as a whole without buying into the “flat cap and whippet” stereotype, to borrow a phrase from my editor. It has produced broadsheet-quality journalism, amplified the voices of the marginalised, stayed committed to social justice and – most importantly – supported homeless and vulnerable people to make a living.

Fortunately for them they will be able to continue to sell The Big Issue, so please continue to support them. But from us in the Northern editorial office, it’s ta-ra for good.

Interact: Responses to Deputy editor Antonia Charlesworth signs off

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