O Captain! Our Captain!

Editor Kevin Gopal – in the role for 16 years – reflects on some of Big Issue North's defining moments

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I once commissioned aerial photography over the North Sea, convinced it would illuminate the thriving marine and offshore wind industry off the eastern coast of our patch.

Years later I tortured one of our journalists with the idea that if only he could track a month in the life of a shipping container – OK, there’s a theme here – we could show how global trade was struggling to pick up after the pandemic.

The grainy, grey and featureless aerial pix and the uncharted voyage of the metal box were just about the only stories that haven’t come off in my 16 years as editor of Big Issue North – and they were my fault. All the other brilliant journalism I think we’ve done has been down to a band of committed freelancers and this wonderful editorial team here.

We’ve tried to provide our vendors with something that will earn them a vital income. Even to a cynical hack that’s an innovative thing to do, but our formula isn’t revolutionary. There’s been news, features, columns (only some – everyone has a hot take these days, but reader response confirms Roger Ratcliffe, Saskia Murphy and their predecessors were cool), arts and entertainment and more.

We’ve played to our patch, bigger than many, with editorial freedom. Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull are a long way apart and have many different words for a bread roll – but some very similar words to criticise the way the north-south divide has grown over recent decades. The disastrous Housing Market Renewal programme showed that top-down policy making from Westminster and Whitehall doesn’t work in a modern country, however well-intentioned its origins might have been. Along with the sloganeering of Cheshire MP George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse and levelling-up, it was scrutinised in detail.

But there are parts of the north as rich as the south, parts of the south as poor as the north, and we’ve guarded against parochialism. We’ve looked nationally and internationally. We were on the ground in Blackpool when fracking company Cuadrilla’s test drilling made the ground shake – and shifted UK energy policy away from shale gas. It was grenade launchers and mortars shaking the ground when our journalist sent despatches from the Isis-Peshmerga frontline in Kurdish Iraq. For my part, I’ve been lucky enough to interview the likes of Naomi Klein, Adam Tooze and Elif Shafak for their global perspectives.

Journalists like to talk about going off diary – getting the stories that aren’t on the media grid. When we write about the distressing effects of electro-convulsive therapy the response is often “does that still exist?” A fuller picture about pollution from waste incinerators is emerging, due to our long-standing reporting. An occasional tussle with lawyers suggests that, when time and resources allowed, our investigative reporting was doing something right. But nothing could be more off diary than the 930th anniversary of Hildegard von Bingen’s feast day, the date we chose to celebrate the life of the 12th century playwright, composer, theologist and feminist icon.

Supporting our vendors and with a (non-party) political stance, I’ve been editor through the financial crash, austerity and now the cost of living crisis. What does marginalisation mean when nearly everyone’s being pushed to the margins? It’s not always been easy to remain cheerful or uplifting through the pages. We’ve looked for inspiration through the good guys we’ve written about in campaigning, charities and civil society, and we’ve also done it by roaming through arts, culture and history.

Hence Hildegard and the unlikely peg. But every week without fail our critics Dan Whitehead and Richard Smirke have also authoritatively steered us to the best in contemporary TV, films and music on their review pages, taking some of the best artists on to our covers as well with their entertaining and revealing features. Three times at least in the case of The Ting Tings.

Sometimes it’s me that gets to read our journalists’ pieces first, sometimes it’s deputy editor Antonia Charlesworth. It doesn’t matter. My great friend and I operate and think so closely it feels we occupy different parts of the same brain (her bit’s tidier). She’s as adept at forcing literary novelists to reappraise their own work with her deft questioning as she is pulling an all-nighter for live general election coverage on our website. Did she tell you about salt?

Her brilliant essay on one of the most fundamental substances in life appeared not in Big Issue North but The New Issue, the glossy quarterly we created to support vendors through subscription sales. We went down deep coal mines, to the camps of protesting farmers in Delhi and to Oregon in search of Ken Kesey’s legacy. Full of enduring long-form journalism and lavish photography, it remains one of my proudest achievements and it remains on sale on our online shop.

Christian Lisseman anchored its production, as he has for Big Issue North. When he’s not watching indie films, he’s designed, laid out, redesigned and calmly and cheerfully commanded the weekly cycle. The indie films weren’t slacking, by the way – they’re for his column on cinema. Somehow, he’s also managed to produce our weekly vendor profiles, through his sensitive interviewing and relationships built up over the years.

He’s been aided and abetted by Mark Wheeler, who’s your man when you want to tastefully present poo on the cover without causing a stink. Not only a designer of great campaigning covers on river pollution though, his interview with teen rockers Babymetal led to hundreds of fans buying copies of the magazine in their home country and beyond. Thanks to him, Big Issue North is big in Japan.

Props too to ad sales manager Claire Lawton for the money stuff, digital editor Brontë Schiltz and stalwart proofreader Fiona Pymont, with her laser-guided eye for typos and incorrect dates in Russian history. Through them we’ve done some good journalism and helped vendors.

I’m off maybe to resurrect that piece about shipping containers. Colleagues will have equally exciting futures.

Thanks to everyone who’s supported us and, if you can, please continue to buy magazines from our vendors.

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