Goodbye to old friends

Our profiles of vendors have been the bedrock of Big Issue North. Here we recount some of their inspiring stories

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One sunny but cold afternoon in November 2015, I came across a man standing on his head on Market Street in Manchester’s city centre. The man who greeted me with “Hey, Mister Christian!” while he lowered himself down from his pencil-straight posture was Stefan Nan – former monastic brother, athlete, yoga master, nutritionist, traveller, massage therapist and, now, Big Issue North vendor.

I was fairly new to writing for the magazine, having joined the editorial team earlier that year, when I met Stefan Nan (I always feel compelled to call him by his full name for some reason). One of my tasks when I took on the role at Big Issue North was to interview vendors for a weekly spot in the magazine. After five minutes of chatting to Stefan Nan however, I realised that this guy would need more than a simple Q&A to tell his story and he became the subject of one of my first longer features about vendors who sell, or used to sell, this magazine.

The then 54-year-old Stefan Nan told me a tale about how he’d once attempted to walk from his home in Romania to Jerusalem, pulling a cart that carried everything he owned. He’d set off in November 2001 with a couple of hundred dollars in his pocket and for the next nine months he’d kept on walking. It was a 3,000 kilometre mission of personal reflection, a holy pilgrimage, and one he undertook in complete silence.

Stefan Nan is just one of many vendors who I’ve had the pleasure of talking to and getting to know during these last eight years. And, although not many have walked across continents, many have had inspiring stories to tell.

There’s Lewis, for example, the industrious Preston vendor who, when he’s not selling the magazine, walks around the local streets collecting scrap and selling it on to merchants. I once spent a wonderful day with him and one of our regular photographers as he pulled around a blue barrel on a trolley, making his rounds collecting what scrap he could find while his faithful dog George followed him about.

Lewis is another one with many stories to tell. He became homeless when he was a teenager, having fallen out with his family. He’d met a girl on holiday and he told me how he’d hitched a ride to Stoke to see her, only to find that she still lived with her parents and they weren’t keen on her seeing him.

“I slept in her garden for a night and then set off on foot for home,” he said. “On the way back, I slept in a wendy house in a pub beer garden but when I woke up there was a car boot sale on and I was in the middle of it!”

That was the start of a long period of homelessness for Lewis, when he slept in tents and in hostels.

“I’ve slept in all kinds of places – I’ve slept in skips and on the back of wagons, in bins and in phone boxes stood up.”

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Many of the vendors I’ve met have battled against the odds to keep on going. Simon, who sells in Harrogate, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2018 and has lived with the disease ever since, but has still kept on selling the magazine.

“I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have Big Issue North,” he told me when I spoke to him about why he still worked. “I’d be just sat at home thinking about my MS. Selling the magazine keeps my mind off it, gives me something to do and helps me earn a little bit of money at the same time. It gives my mind something to do and gives my body something to do as well.”

In 2007, when Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union, Roma vendors began to appear on our streets selling Big Issue North, each with stories of their own. Many of them came to the UK seeking a better life, away from the discrimination and poverty that they faced at home. Among them, more female vendors than had ever before started selling the magazine, many of them young, and often single mothers, with children to support.

Cristina sells in Birkenhead and has done so since 2009. She has five children and says that selling the magazine is perfect for her because she can fit the job around childcare arrangements and because it means she can earn money to buy food and clothes for her children. Over the years she’s built up some loyal customers who are keen to support her and her family, but she has also, like many of the Roma vendors out selling the magazine day in day out, faced hostility.

“Sometimes people say bad things to me,” she once told me. “One man came up to me and said I should go back to my own country. He said I was stopping homeless people from selling the magazine. I told him Big Issue North is for everybody who needs it. He doesn’t know my situation. I need to sell the magazine for my children. I’m not stopping anyone else.”

While some vendors stay selling the magazine for a long time, others move on. Last year I spoke to John Hastings, who sold the magazine in 2003-2006. Up until then he’d been homeless for several years, battling alcohol addiction, so the decision to start selling was an attempt to get his life back on track. Now he runs an IT recycling social enterprise in Bolton, which aims to stop old computers ending up in landfill sites by reconditioning them and reselling them at a cut price. John says that decision to sell Big Issue North changed his life for the better and led him to where he is now.

Other vendors, however, don’t manage to move on. One of the most difficult parts of this job has been getting to know vendors who are vulnerable in so many different ways and who sadly lose the fight to keep on going. Dave Kennedy, a vendor who was well known and loved on the streets of Altrincham where he sold the magazine, died in 2022. He’d been selling the magazine on and off for more than 20 years and had battled with addiction during that time. Sometimes, when I met up with him, he seemed settled and was doing well; other times, he was back on the streets and in a bad way. I interviewed Dave many times and once set up a chat between him and a vendor of an American street paper over Skype where they’d swapped stories about why they’d started selling street papers and what difference it had made to their lives.

I last properly spoke to him in 2019. He’d had a period on the streets, and he told me that he felt like he’d let people down during that time, revealing something of the pride and honesty of this brilliant man.

“I was begging for a while and that’s not me. I was desperate, I suppose. I was begging near my old pitch and people were asking me what I was doing and I know people contacted the Big Issue North office about me because they were worried. I just got stuck in a rut and it was hard to get myself out of it but thanks to Big Issue North staff, I managed to sort myself out. It feels great to be selling the magazine again, a lot better.”

Not long before he’d died, Dave had re-established contact with his daughter Alexandra, and she spoke fondly of him after he passed away.

“He was such a caring man, kind and gentle, with a great sense of humour and he could talk to anyone,” she said. “It was so comforting to hear him talk about the people of Altrincham and how they looked out for him for all those years, and when he died I got to see how much he was cared for in the community as many people had nothing but lovely things to say about my dad.”

We’ve lost many vendors over the 30 years since this magazine first went to print and each and every one has left a hole, missed by staff and customers alike.

The hardest part of saying goodbye to Big Issue North, for me, will be moving on from working with the vendors who sell this fine publication. There are many who I could mention here who I’ve had the honour and pleasure of getting to know over the years and whose voices I have, hopefully, helped to be heard.

Vendors will be sporting new bibs from 15 May and selling a different magazine, but they’ll still be the same brave, wonderful, inspiring people that we’ve got to know over the years, and I hope you’ll continue to support them. I know I will.

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