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.