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30 May 2018

Ben

Ben

I've been a musician all my life, and it’s one of my greatest inspirations. I grew up in Glasgow, Scotland, where I had a terrific mum and dad, three younger sisters, a great family. We were very close. I used to listen to the music my dad listened to, like Nat King Cole, Roy Orbison, Bing Crosby. My mum twisted my ear into getting piano lessons. What I really wanted was a guitar! So I convinced my dad to teach me to play when I was about 12.

I stayed in Glasgow until I was about 24, and then the wanderlust hit. I went to London, and spent 10 years there, before deciding I wanted to lead a rural life, so bought a farm with a whole boatload of goats. I didn’t know much about goats, but I read all the goat books I could find and farmed for a few years, with moderate success. After farming I went to university. I came away with a masters, but soon realised a degree in sociology probably won’t take you anywhere.

So I turned my attention back to music, and started playing in bands with the guy who’d go on to be one of my greatest friends. We started supporting big names and doing pretty well. We were getting older, and we hadn’t really made it, so I decided to move to Australia and try to reinvent myself.

Moving to Australia was a bit of a disaster. Within 18 months, I had paralysis in my left arm. It was a matter of waking up one day with pins and needles, and by the evening I had a totally paralysed arm and clawed fingers. My wife rushed me to hospital. It’s taken years of investigation to work out that I have some sort of degenerative neurological disease. Thankfully I have the best doctor in the world, who’s trying to make it degenerate in slow motion. I get injections every few months.

My condition meant that I lost everything. I could no longer work, I lost all my money, I got incredibly depressed and ended up becoming homeless. I discovered in that time that there isn’t much demand for one-armed guitarists.

When I started selling The Big Issue I kind of thought that this was the end of the world, you know? I perceived myself as down-and-out, living in homeless accommodation…it was pretty tough. I still remember standing on the bridge, holding a magazine, unable to move my arm because it was in a cast to try to keep it outstretched. Now I view The Big Issue as a symbol of fighting back, of not giving up. The Big Issue really dug me out of a hole.

The social aspect is just as important as the financial aspect. I’m deeply indebted to my customers, they’re the ones responsible for turning my life around. A few years ago, a customer begged me to go and get physiotherapy, and paid for six months of treatment. I eventually got my hand moving.  I was able to play guitar again. I can’t play to the standards that I used to play, but I can hold down the chords. It’s the first step of a long journey, but it’s a start. And like all things in life, you’ll never get anywhere without taking that first step.

Ben sells The Big Issue on Victoria Bridge in Brisbane.

Photograph: Barry Street

Interview by Kurt Maroske
Victoria Bridge, Brisbane