500 and Counting

11 December 2015 Alan Attwood

500 and Counting

Some numbers get all the fun. Nine, for example (thanks partly to The Beatles), 21 and 100. Others are just there: impressively large but sometimes lonely. What can be said about 500 – a milestone The Big Issue reaches with this edition?

First, it’s an achievement few would have thought likely when the very first magazine appeared in Melbourne in June 1996. Second, it represents a lot of magazines sold and many, many people who have improved their circumstances by working as vendors. Third, 500 stands for a story of survival.

In the same period The Big Issue has been sold on streets around Australia, most print publications here and around the world have seen their sales or size (or both) shrink. Many have disappeared altogether. But The Big Issue has evolved and endured, partly because it is unique. It is national, it is independent and – most importantly – it directly assists the people who sell it and the women who get together to prepare subscription copies for postage.

What company are we in, now we’ve hit the big Five Oh Oh? Well, those two bespectacled Scots who called themselves The Proclaimers insisted they would walk 500 miles for the (anonymous) object of their affection. In England in 2011, West Indian-born batsman Brian Lara hit a highest-ever cricket score of 500 (plus one). When the US had $500 bills they featured Abraham Lincoln (among others). Those notes are no longer in circulation, but petrol-heads will attest that the annual Indianapolis 500, a car race, roars on. As for 500BC or 500AD, well, you end up grappling with things like the end of the Nordic Bronze Age and the start of the Pre-Roman Iron Age. So that’s enough history.

Five hundred editions is testimony to the work of all the people involved with the magazine – its production, distribution, sale and pastoral care of the vendors – since the earliest days of The Big Issue in Australia. The support of customers should also be acknowledged: vendors value the exchanges and friendships with people almost as much as a sale. Over the years we have marked milestones in different ways; some have sparked more hoopla than others. This time, it is tempting to say: and here’s to 500 more. And yet … ideally, there’d be no need for The Big Issue. There would be no need for anyone to sell a magazine on the streets to improve their circumstances and boost their income as well as self-esteem. But while there is a need, well, our story continues.

by Alan Attwood

This article first appeared in Ed#500 of The Big Issue.