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Martin Hughes is a publisher
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Martin Hughes is a publisher
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Martin Hughes is a publisher
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"Everybody's got a fascinating story to tell, if only we younger people would take time to listen."
Conversations
1 April 2010

Martin Hughes is a publisher

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Mia Mala McDonald

Kate Bezar on Martin Hughes

Martin Hughes is a man with a huge heart, a fine touch with a pen and a lot of nous. Put those three qualities together and you get the person who turned ‘The Big Issue’ (Australia) into both a publishing and societal success. Add a desire to ‘do his own thing’ and you get Affirm Press, the publishing company Martin co-founded in 2007. Affirm’s mission is to ‘inspire by delight’ and the fantastic titles it has put into the world since are testament to that.

First cabs off the rank were ‘Slow Guides’ to Melbourne and Sydney that introduced readers to some of the more sensory, less speedy ways to enjoy each city. Small, independent publishing is a tough market and has certainly challenged Martin’s ability to stick to what he values. It’s been a bumpy ride, but as we always say (and know first-hand), it wouldn’t be worth it if it wasn’t.

This story originally ran in issue #23 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

MARTIN HUGHES: You must be scraping the barrel as far as profiles go.

KATE BEZAR: Rubbish, I’ve had you on my radar for a while Mr Hughes.

I feel really embarrassed, but I’m also really thrilled, and do want to preface anything I say with the fact that I do feel unworthy.

I would prefer it be that way than the opposite.

To be honest, I could have seen myself last year with a fairly … not necessarily inspirational story, but some upbeat stories to tell, yet now I kind of feel like I’m at a crossroads in a sense … My twins turn one next week and I’ve set up this publishing company with very high, idealistic aims and it’s just really, really, freakin’ hard. I feel like we’re inching further and further from the ideals we set out with, trying to get commercial traction, but I’m still not getting commercial traction. I remember you saying to me that if you couldn’t do Dumbo Feather on 100% recycled stock, you didn’t think it was worth doing. I would love to print all our books locally on FSC [Forest Stewardship Council] stock, but those two things just aren’t possible. Sorry, they are possible, they’re just not practical. I printed the Slow Guides [published in 2007] on sustainable stock, in Melbourne, and that took the margin that should have been our profit.

This story originally ran in issue #23 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #23 of Dumbo Feather

It’s a tough one to balance, isn’t it?

You could look at me in a couple of years’ time and see this as a crucial period when I could have gone either way. To be honest, I’m not going to go the other way, I’m not just going to do a job to earn a crust and provide for my family.

You shouldn’t have to compromise …

While I was editor of The Big Issue we managed to double the sales while we increased the cover price from $3 to $4 and made the magazine self-sufficient for the first time in its ten-year history. The reason I was able to do that, with the team that I had, was a simple formula. We took over the magazine and went, why is this not doing well? It’s such a great project, it’s such a great opportunity, there are so many people out there who want to support this, why aren’t they? Flicking through it, it was obvious that every story was really negative and critical. I said, “If you buy The Big Issue, the last thing you want is to be banged over the head with the issues.” You’ve already done your bit by interacting with the guy on the street who’s down on his luck, who’s made the really brave decision to stand there and make himself even more vulnerable, holding aloft a magazine that’s been produced by some do-gooders who say that it’ll help him. The last thing you want to do is make the reader feel that it’s penance to read the bloody magazine. So we decided that we would change the formula and make sure that in every edition there would be a balance between criticising what we thought was wrong and celebrating what we thought was right, between light and shade, funny and serious, male and female … The Big Issue reader isn’t just a 22 year-old, tertiary-educated guy living in the inner suburbs. That might be the core audience, but it’s not the only audience. People have social compassion – it doesn’t matter if it’s the chairman of a multinational board, a teenager going to school and learning about these issues for the first time, or the old woman who only leaves the house once a week to go to mass. You want that person to find something in the magazine that resonates with them and makes them go, “This magazine was produced with me in mind”. That was the simple formula that we applied and it worked wonders. When I started Affirm Press in 2007, I thought, I’ll just do the same thing, but in a book publishing sense. It’s kind of extra odd that I’m being interviewed by you and talking about all these things I’m trying to do when you’ve actually gone and done them with Dumbo feather, but we’ll disregard that for the sake of the conversation. So I kind of naively thought, we will print in Australia on FSC stock, we will charge accordingly and there’ll be enough people out there who are community-minded and prepared to pay the extra few bucks to support local industry. How wrong was I? First of all, people don’t find out about that. Just trying to connect with the market in the first place is our single greatest issue.

Unlike with The Big Issue where you had vendors on street corners throughout the whole country.

Yeah. I mean the Slow Guides did really well, but that was partly luck and partly some flashes of marketing genius. We’re doing Slow Guides to Dublin and London in February and March 2010, so hopefully they’ll take off there too.

You’ve also struck a pretty tough 12-18 months in which to try to establish a new business. Ethically-produced goods are a luxury, ultimately, and so that’s where people have cut back on spending first. It’s unfortunate, but …

I agree, but I don’t think that’s our problem. I don’t think we have even been put in front of the market for the market to decide that we’re even a luxury. I don’t want to sound ‘woe is me’, but speak to any small book publisher and it’s really hard trying to get out there. An enormous proportion of the book market is controlled by the big chains and they don’t give a white dog’s shite about who you are or what you purport to be trying to do. If there isn’t a big company behind it, a celebrity’s name attached, or it hasn’t won a prize, then they’re not going to pay it any attention. We did a book last year called Lines of Wisdom which I still think is the best we’ve done, but it’s been a practical disaster. I put out a call to young writers all around Australia saying, “We want you to write profiles of ordinary, elderly Australians that you find inspirational.” [Silence] Sorry, that silence will be explained in a minute. When my dad retired from work he was at a loss and I, as a way of giving him something to do, asked him to write down the story of his life. It was a really rewarding experience for us both. My dad’s actually very sick at the moment so I got a little bit lost for words there.

The idea was that everybody’s got a fascinating story to tell, if only we younger people would take time to listen.

A photographer, Oliver Strewe, who’s got soul coming out his ears, drove all around Australia taking beautiful black and white portraits that show up all the physical lines of ageing in their faces – it was really poetic. It’s a beautiful book and we were really excited about it but just as we were sending it out we got wind that this international book called Wisdom had just come out and the author was profiling really famous old people from all around the world. It was a huge, elaborate, beautiful production and the author came over and did media and soaked up all the interest. Then we came out with Lines of Wisdom: ordinary Australians with stories to tell and everyone was like, “Yeah whatever.” Actually, if any Dumbo Feather readers want a copy, all they need to do is pay for the postage and I’ll send them one.

Martin, that’s why you’re not making any money!

Well they’re obviously good people who are part of your community so I’d be happy to do that.

I won’t let you. They can pay half price plus postage; it’s worth it.

Well, they can pay for it if they choose to, but if they’d just like to read the book, then they can just send me the postage somehow. Ultimately we’re producing books because we want people to read them. I’d rather people got them for free than they just gathered dust. As I said, it’s really good timing for you to have gotten in touch and it certainly will be inspiration for me to be more steadfast.

What other gems are you publishing?

We’re doing another fairly altruistic scheme which I’m still passionate about, but everyone from the commercial side of things tells me I’m absolutely bonkers. It’s called Long Story Shorts. We’ve committed to publishing six collections of short stories by new writers starting in February 2010. The reason that’s so valuable to new writers is because publishers are not interested in short story collections, unless you’re Nam Le [author of The Boat] or already a celebrated novelist and they just want to repackage your earlier work. We’re really keen to provide a showcase for six new writers to help demonstrate their range and flair and put them in the shop window. We also like short stories. We’ve had hundreds of submissions and I’d love to get lots of publicity, but the truth is when we go to the market with these books, we won’t even say they’re short stories, because if we do the big chains will just go, “No way, they don’t sell.” I’ve got a fantastic illustrator [Dean Gorissen] doing the covers and already we’ve got people in the trade going, “I don’t like the covers” whereas people whose opinions I value, love the covers. I love the covers; I think they’re fantastic.

I’ve realised that if you listen to all those people in the industry, which is a very conservative industry anyway, and start second-guessing yourself and if you start changing your plan to suit everybody, you’ll just end up with a dog’s breakfast.

I’m re-emboldened to just follow our specific vision and hope that it penetrates the market and gets out there.

I think so. You’ve just got to stick to your guns a bit longer, ride it through, stand tall and eventually your people will find you.

The best thing we’ve done as a publishing company is a book called From Little Things Big Things Grow. We co-published it with another Victorian publisher. They had permission to use Paul Kelly’s lyrics from the song From Little Things Big Things Grow and had a Queensland artist, Peter Hudson, who had gone to Gurindji country in the Northern Territory and done some landscape paintings inspired by the song. I suggested making them into a children’s book and getting kids from Gurindji country, which is about 250 km south west of Katherine in the Northern Territory, to draw scenes from the song so that they could reclaim, or take possession again, of this old legend. You know the story of Vincent Lingiari?

No.

Okay, Vincent Lingiari led the walk-off from Wave Hill cattle station. It’s seen in Australian history as the first time black fellas drew a line in the sand. It was the first land reclamation protest. They were employed by an English cattle company on their own land and were being exploited. So this heroic, charismatic man, Vincent Lingiari, led the workers to say, “Enough is enough” and they walked off the cattle station. They stayed off for eight years and wouldn’t go back even though they suffered great distress over that time. Eventually [in 1975], eight years after the walk-off, Gough Whitlam flew up to Gurindji country and poured sand through the hands of Lingiari to signify that the Australian Government was giving the Gurindji back their land. Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody wrote the song From Little Things Big Things Grow about it. I can sing it for you …

I do know the song.

Thank God for that. It’s been around a long time. This was a really good opportunity to give it back to Gurindji children. It’s a story they would have been hearing from their elders for the last 30 years or whatever. So they painted scenes from the song and then we made it into a children’s book. We’ve sold about 8000 copies now, which is certainly the most successful book we’ve had. We’ve raised in the region of $70,000 and all that money is being funnelled back into this little settlement through Ian Thorpe’s Fountain for Youth. The idea is that we want to set up art and cultural facilities for Gurindji youth in that area. Certainly, as a publisher, that has been my proudest achievement so far.

It almost seems like the less commercial the idea, the more successful you are.

Absolutely. Someone was teasing me the other day about how our most successful book is a not-for-profit one, but I don’t mind that at all. As long as we can make enough profit to keep on making not-for-profit books then I would be happy as Larry. That’s all I really want to do.

I have no interest in producing a cookbook with a celebrity chef and making a stack of dough – pardon the pun!

That holds no interest for me whatsoever. I also have no interest in banging my head against a wall trying to produce books that are ‘worthy’ and then losing money, but I’m trying to get a balance.

Have words always been your thing?

I suppose. I worked as a journalist and then as a public relations executive in Dublin and that’s kind of what changed the course of my life. It was so corporate and so soul-destroying. I was very young. To be honest I was the ‘golden boy’ at this big public relations consultancy, the youngest executive by years and I was loving it for a time and then I … I’ll tell you the story if you like?

That’s the idea.

I’ll try to keep it brief. I left there because the last client I was given was a chemical company which wanted to build a new facility in the south of Ireland, where my mother’s from. It was going to produce a thing called urea formaldehyde resin and it was going to create one solitary job. My task was to do all the ground work so that when the company applied for planning permission, they would get it as a matter of course, very quickly in a week or two before local, community or green groups had any chance to mobilise or oppose it. I had to talk to local councils and government and do all sorts of shenanigans in the background. I had to go to Greenpeace and find out all the things they knew about urea formaldehyde resin, pretending I was a student doing a project on it. I found out that urea formaldehyde resin was a really bad chemical; it was carcinogenic and known to cause birth defects; it was known to be hazardous to pregnant women if it got in the water and it was just bullshit. I couldn’t see why they were putting this community at risk for something that was already being manufactured in Britain and exported over. It just seemed like an unnecessary risk so I said I didn’t want to do it, but my boss insisted. I had to write questions and answers for the company; questions that would be asked by the media and answers they could provide. So I wrote these half-heartedly and gave them to my boss. I remember standing over his shoulder as he was slashing through them with a red pen, gruffing and groaning. I just thought, sod this I need a break, so I actually feigned a weakness. I was only 21 or something. As I was falling to the ground I hit the corner of his desk with my hand so that he would think it was my head and then I lay on the ground pretending that I was just coming to. He was like, “Jesus, what’s wrong with you? Are you alright?” I’m going, “I don’t know what happened. I must have blacked out,” and he said, “You need to take a few days off.” I went home and thought things through and realised, this is not for me; I’m outta here. I quit, then wrote to one of the local community groups telling them what these plans were and the bottom line was that the thing never got manufactured. Then I pissed off to Australia, partly to get as far away from that mess as possible. When I’d started that job, I remember sitting in the boardroom on the first day with the personnel director. He was a really serious man, so regimental he was scary. He was drilling me and said gruffly, “Right, we’ll get you started. Have you got any questions?” I was trying to be charming and thought, I can’t not have any questions, so I said, “Yeah, what time is it?” He goes, “Right, that’s the first problem, you need to have a good watch.” I went home, borrowed my dad’s watch and wore it for three years. It became like a millstone around my wrist and when I quit the job, I remember going out partying all night with my mates from work and watching the sun rise in Howth in Dublin early the next morning. I know it’s not very environmentally sensitive, but I chucked the watch as far as I could into the ocean and I’ve never worn one since.

Also, before I went to the pub that last day, I gift-wrapped all my business suits, shirts, ties, shoes, umbrellas – all the accessories of this bullshit job that I’d been bringing to the office – and left them on my colleagues’ desks so they’d all get a souvenir when they came in Monday. That whole experience, in a sense, propelled me to purge and go traveling, which I did pretty much non-stop for three years. I spent quite a bit of time in India and I think it was there that I really refined my sense of social justice, or my repulsion to social injustice.

Because it was so apparent there, so pronounced?

Just because, and I felt it even more later in South America, it just brought sharply into focus for me the lottery that is birth; where you’re born and the impact that has on your quality of life. It also really brought home the contrast between what you have and how happy you are.

I met the poorest people in India who were much bloody happier than probably you and me. I guess, in a word, what I got from traveling was perspective. But, your question was about words … When I stopped traveling, I got residency in Australia. I loved traveling and I loved writing, so imagine my joy when I found out that the headquarters of the largest travel publisher in the world was in Melbourne. I didn’t even have the tram fare, so I actually walked about 8 km in a suit on a really hot day to a job interview at Lonely Planet. That just shows you how green this Paddy was, thinking I had to wear a suit to an interview at Lonely Planet! They did a few different tests. The first was an editing test which I failed. The second was a marketing test which I did ok in. Then they said, “Look you’ve failed, but we might as well finish off the interview.” The third test was to tell a travel story. So I just launched into this travel story about me traipsing around India to have an audience with this Indian god, a guy called Sai Baba. After about five minutes I thought, Oh my God what am I doing, this is the longest travel story I know. I will spare you the Sai Baba travel story because basically it would take up the whole magazine … I must have taken about half an hour to tell this story and I walked back home in my suit thinking, well I blew that. Then, lo and behold, I got the job. Five people were starting at Lonely Planet that day and they sent an email around introducing us with a paragraph for each person like, “Russell such-and-such studied editing at blah-dee-blah and worked for Penguin and yadda-yadda.” When it came to me it said, “Martin Hughes tells a good travel story.” So then I was working at Lonely Planet and that was great. It gave me the opportunity to travel and go back to Ireland frequently. I wrote a travel guide to Dublin and in a sense that’s kind of why I joined Lonely Planet I think, just for the thrill of writing the travel guide to my home town. So when I did that I felt like I’d come full circle and thought, that’s it, no more for me. I organised a three-month sabbatical to do a personal project and on the second day of that I got a phone call from a board member of The Big Issue telling me everything had gone pear-shaped; the editor had been sacked, the editorial team had walked out, there was no content, and that if they didn’t find some words the vendors would have nothing to sell.

Why did he or she call you?

He was a friend of my wife who knew I was a kind of writer/editor and thought I could just write a magazine in one night. We managed to rally some friends and maintained the publishing schedule. When I got a taste for it I thought, Wow, this is really something that I can make a difference in. It was then that I met a guy called Graeme Wise. Graeme started The Big Issue.

He started it in Australia or globally?

In Australia. Anita Roddick started it in Britain and he started it in Australia. He always considered himself an acolyte of Anita’s – very pure and practical in his philanthropy. When I met him it was like a light went off in my head. He convinced me that it was ok to be more passionate than pragmatic … that it wasn’t a bad thing. Before I wanted to fix the world; I wanted to correct social ills; I wanted to do all that, but I was just angry about it, pissed off and utterly useless. I wasn’t focused at all and didn’t think that anything I did could make any difference. In an odd way, by Graeme saying it was ok to be more passionate than pragmatic, I felt untethered.

You have to focus your energy the way you can make a difference; you don’t have to do good according to whatever recipe other people have used, just any way you can. Oh my God, he lit a fire in my belly. The best things that I’ve done, the small differences I’ve made, were at The Big Issue during those years. I was like a man possessed. I had to hire a whole new team there and these guys were totally fired up and inspiring people. We got really talented contributors working for next-to-nix and often they refused to even invoice us for nix. They were happy to do that and they took the jobs just as seriously as … I’m thinking of an illustrator, Michael Weldon, for example who would consider every job for us just as important as the ones he’d do for the New Yorker. It’s that pride and that ownership you can give people that’s worth more than any financial bottom line. The only success with a magazine like that is sales; more vendors need to sell more magazines, critical success doesn’t mean anything, so in a sense it’s actually one of the hardest commercial landscapes there could be. I guess one of the things I’m proudest of was starting the Street Socceroos. Do you know about them?

I’ve heard of them, yeah.

Well, I heard that there was a thing called the Homeless World Cup and all of the various street papers, or lots of them, were organising football teams to have a tournament each year in some city around the world. I thought, hang on, we need to be part of this; Australia is such an amazing sporting culture, I’m the editor of the magazine, I love football, we can do this. The Homeless World Cup is basically an event that takes place every year between teams from 56–70 countries to compete for the Homeless World Cup. But, that is just the pinnacle of a much bigger and much more important programme that exists in all those participating countries. Being part of your national team is only the incentive to get people out and about training in the first place. For example, with the Australian team, we picked eight people to go to Edinburgh for our first participation in the tournament, but it was the hundreds, sometimes thousands,of people who were playing sport because of this initiative that was the real benefit of it. People often don’t see that, they look at the Homeless World Cup and think it’s a lot of effort to take 160 homeless people on holidays, but that’s bullshit, that’s not what it’s about at all.

Anyway, I went to the general manager of The Big Issue at the time and he wasn’t into it, but I just thought, Sod it, I know this can be done; I’m just going to do it myself.

So, along with a colleague who was also mad about soccer, George, who’s now the coach of the Australian team, we just started taking Wednesday afternoons off work – with the necessary support of our colleagues – and organising a kick-around with people who were marginalised and suffering from housing vulnerability, or ‘homeless people’ if you want to give it a tag. At the start very few people came along – there were more volunteers than players – but we just kept at it and were there every week come rain, hail or shine. Once these people knew that we could be relied upon, then they came. For some of them it was the only stability in their lives; no, not in their lives, that’s an overstatement, it was the only stability in their week. We would often get players who would arrange to meet other friends at the football because it was the only place that they knew they would be each week. The esprit de corps that we built up there was … I well up just thinking about it now. It was amazing. Then me again, in my naivety, thought that organising the players and getting a team together would be the difficult bit, but it was actually getting the money. We got kit from Nike who I wasn’t phased about taking stuff off at all because they came on board straight away and didn’t ask for anything in return. They just thought it was a great idea and gave us boots and goals and balls for the players. Then I thought it would be an absolute breeze getting sponsorship from Qantas because Qantas sponsor the national Socceroos, but I didn’t even get a response to this proposal that I’d worked on for weeks. I went to other airlines and I didn’t get a response from any of them either. It was so demoralising and it looked like we’d gone to all this effort … George and I were working with a psychologist on the best way to work with these players and we’d got them so excited that one player even owned up to some outstanding warrants that he had interstate, just so he could have a chance of playing in the team.

Was that one of the criteria? No outstanding warrants?

No, but he couldn’t have got a visa. The criteria for the team was attitude, attendance and ability. Attitude was equally important as ability, as was attendance. I tell you, if people had a great attitude, if they came every week, but had two left feet, they still represented Australia because they showed the spirit that was at the heart of this endeavour. Anyway we were telling the players it was on, but George and I were thinking, if we don’t get a big dollop of cash very soon it’s not going to be on at all. So we asked the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] and they agreed to do a profile of the project. The ABC filmed the players, interviewed a few of them and they talked about how a simple thing like weekly participation in sport had changed their lives; how it had given them belief and self-esteem and goals, pardon the pun – again. Then they filmed three different endings to the segment. One was me going, “Well, it was a great idea, but we couldn’t get funding so we had to pull the pin,” the other one was, “Woo hoo, Qantas provided funding so we’re going to Edinburgh, yippee,” and the third one was, “Woo hoo, we got sponsorship so we’re going to Edinburgh.” The programme aired and the next morning a bloke called Ray Horsburgh called. He said, “I saw you on the television last night. How much would it cost to send your team to Edinburgh?” and I said, “Err, $18,000,” and he said, “I’m writing you out a personal cheque right now. What address shall I send it to?” We were off.

Is he a private philanthropist?

Ray is actually the outgoing chairman of the Essendon Football Club and that also really resonated with me. People in Australian Rules are sometimes so paranoid about soccer taking over or getting big, that they don’t give it any support whatsoever, but this guy saw that we had merit and thought, I can make a difference here. And he did – he made it happen. After we got that funding, we got money tumbling in from everywhere and since then the programme has just gone gangbusters. Melbourne hosted the Homeless World Cup last year with 56 teams from around the world and there’s a national street soccer competition all over regional, remote and urban Australia. It’s huge and it’s doing a fantastic job. I’d also like to make clear that the fact that the Homeless World Cup took place in Melbourne and the fact that the competition has gone national now, has got absolutely nothing to do with me. When something becomes successful, all of a sudden people come out of the woodwork and claim it, but I couldn’t have brought it to the heights it’s gone to now, no way. I was able to, with George, get it started and I reckon that’s my proudest achievement ever. Graeme says I’m more of a pioneer than a settler.

I’m working with him now, he’s a partner in this company. He lets me do what I want, but I honestly feel like, when I voice my concerns about compromising idealism it’s like I really don’t want to let him down. Graeme doesn’t give money to stuff; well he does, but he only gives money if it’s going to be something that’s going to help create a sustainable enterprise. He believes in giving money and expertise to create something that’s going to have enduring, ongoing benefit.

So he’s been a partner in Affirm Press since the beginning?

Yeah. When I left The Big Issue, I’d burnt out. Every six months I’d think, I’m buggered, I can’t go on, and then I’d set myself another target and just keep going. Then, after three years, I thought, right I’ve done my dash, the upward trajectory has slowed down; I feel like I’m not making that significant a difference any more, somebody else can come along and make a greater difference. I said that to Graeme and he said, “Let’s do something else together.” Basically, with Affirm Press, what we have always set out to do is apply the spirit that we’d brought to The Big Issue to book publishing.

In a nutshell, as a company I want to influence by delight, to infect people with enthusiasm for things they might not have considered before.

That doesn’t mean that every book is going to influence by delight, but some books we want to do because they do that, like the Slow Guides, like Lines of Wisdom, those kinds of books. I also want to make books that help nurture emerging writers and I want to do not-for-profit books. I want to do a not-for-profit book every year, but they’re hard … We can’t fund these projects because if we were to fund these projects as well as produce and put all the effort into them, then all we’d do is exist to be a not-for-profit, which is contrary to Graeme’s philosophy and mine. Instead, the idea is that we make money by being true to ourselves, and we make enough money to be able to do these other ‘love’ projects. I had what I thought was a really great idea for a book this year for East Timor, and I still want to do it, but I’m kind of reluctant to talk about it because then you’ll write about it and then I will get kudos for it even though it hasn’t been done yet, and it might not get done. But, if you write about it, somebody might be able to provide the pieces that we need. There’s an orphanage in a place called Gleno in East Timor called the Familia HOPE Orphanage and it looks after 24 kids who were orphaned during the troubles there. It runs on the smell of an oily rag. The kids are getting older now and some of them are going to have to leave the orphanage soon and this woman wants to set up an enterprise to help them develop skills so they can fend for themselves. There’s a story called The Legend of East Timor and it’s about a little boy and a crocodile. What I want to do is get kids from the orphanage to paint scenes from The Legend of East Timor and then make up another children’s book. I want the book to sell as a kids’ book in Australia to raise funds for the orphanage, but also to be able to create books that we can give out to East Timorese kids, preferably in Tetum which is the most common language there. Literacy, or illiteracy, is an enormous problem for them and getting them books is a real challenge although there are some great organisations trying to improve the situation and this is a project which could plug into that. We just need seed funding. If we got $10,000 to help cover the printing of these books we could get it started because then we could produce the book, start selling it in Australia, start making some money from those sales, print more books and make more money, just like we’ve done with Little Things in Gurindji Country. I think it’d be a really nice tale and a really nice way of connecting the two communities. If a mum in Australia or New Zealand bought a book for her kid, she’d know that she would also, in a sense, be buying a book for a poor East Timorese woman to read to her kid … or actually not read because she probably can’t, but to give to her kid at least. I’m slightly embarrassed that this book hasn’t come off yet because I hit it pretty hard at the start of 2009, but with the Global Financial Crisis all the coffers seemed to dry up. I think we could sell a few thousand books if we produced a really pretty book.

Yeah, why not. There are some amazing indigenous stories from countries all over the world that you could apply the same model to.

I agree. Even if we didn’t sell a stack and make a lot of money for Familia HOPE, the orphanage’s story would be in the back of the book and maybe a few thousand people would find out about it and some might donate money to them directly or go up and visit and whatever. We do have another East Timorese book which came out in early 2010 about the street art of East Timor which I’m quite interested in.

Are you still involved with homeless people on some level these days?

No, not really. I try and support the current editorial team any way I can and occasionally I do volunteer stuff, but I don’t do any activism or hands-on stuff. But it’s not like homelessness was my ’cause’; I don’t have a cause; I’m just really excited about coming up with creative solutions to social problems.

Although The Big Issue wasn’t my idea, its success was partly my responsibility so I feel like I was part of that solution. The Street Socceroos was definitely a solution. From Little Things Big Things Grow was definitely a solution. Those are all things I did with other people. I don’t think you can do anything good on your own, you just run out of steam. Everything good I’ve done has been a collaboration; everything I’ve stuffed up I’ve done on my own.

Yeah?

Graeme Wise is actually somebody you should be interviewing. He’s an amazing guy who’s done so many great things and he moves people and inspires them and that’s the greatest gift anyone can have. If you can inspire other people to have an enduring and long-lasting motivation to do good, then geez, it’s much better than you working by yourself 24 hours a day to try and do good.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Mia Mala McDonald

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