The Catholic Union’s annual Craigmyle Lecture was delivered this year by Big Issue founder and crossbench peer, Lord Bird, on the theme of “The Re-Invention of Giving”.
The talk was held in-person at Farm Street Church on Tuesday 30 November with many more watching via livestream.
Lord Bird began his talk by reflecting on his last visit to Farm Street Church in 1963, following the assassination of John F Kennedy, when he deeply felt the loss of the man he saw as “the most powerful Catholic in the world.”
He described how he was brought up in a large Irish family in the “slums” of west London. His childhood home gives its name to the title he took on entering the House of Lords in 2015 as the Baron Bird of Notting Hill. “I got into the House of Lords by lying, cheating, and stealing”, he said – in reference to the fact that it was his time in a young offenders institute where he learned to read.
He describes himself as being a devout Catholic in his teenage years before becoming a “devout Marxist” and returning to his faith again in later life. He spoke of his passion in promoting a “muscular Catholicism… committed to the wellbeing of the poorest.”
Lord Bird spoke movingly of how his experience of being made homeless at the age of 5 had shaped his understanding of the causes that led people falling into need. It was the local Catholic church that stepped in to help the Bird family when they were most in need, providing care for him at a convent in Mill Hill.
He described the Big Issue, which he founded with the Roddick family, as “an emergency response to an emergency situation”. While the magazine was in response to the growing problem of homelessness, Lord Bird spoke of his desire to remove “the traps that keep people poor”, especially illiteracy and addiction.
He spoke of the importance of families, and the need to “hold the hand of people” who did not have the benefit of a strong family network. He remarked that where he was brought up in London had the largest number of single-parent households in the country at that time.
Lord Bird’s experience of being given money by Gordon and Anita Roddick to launch the Big Issue in 1991 has clearly shaped his view on giving. People need a “hand up, not a handout”, and he stressed that giving should always be helpful to the person receiving on the receiving end. “When we give, we should not rob people of their dignity”, he said.
Finally, he called for Government to think outside the box. He commented that every party in power found itself moulded by the machinery of Government. He hoped that his presence in the House of Lords would force people to think differently.
Catholic Union Chairman, Rob Flello, comments: “We’re extremely grateful to Lord Bird for a very powerful and personal talk. Few people have the life experiences that he is able to offer. His journey from working in the kitchens of the House of Lords to sitting on the red benches is truly remarkable. His talk was a stark reminder of the crushing nature of poverty, and the importance of giving in transforming lives.
“This was the first Craigmyle Lecture we have been able to host in person since 2019 on account of Covid restrictions. It was excellent to see many familiar faces and some new ones too. Thank you to Fr Dominic and everyone at Farm Street Church for making it possible to gather and hear such an inspiring talk.”