Our good friend, published author and Big Issue vendor Alan James, tells us all about his money journey – a journey that begins with a £10 investment, sees him embrace the challenge of brand new pounds and pence, takes him all the way to Greece and back…and finally leads him into the world of enterprise!
At school, I seemed to have an aptitude for figures and in 1962 I passed my “11 Plus” exam to qualify for grammar school. I didn’t end up taking maths “O” Level (the equivalent of GCSE), though, which sadly meant I couldn’t go on to train as an accountant when I left school in 1969.
A school friend of mine was studying at Birmingham University, so I went to visit him and got a job as a bus conductor instead. In 1970, ticket machines were manual, so every ticket sale had to be calculated without the help of a computer. If the figures didn’t add up at the end of your shift, the difference would be subtracted from your salary, so you had to get it right!
Back then, we were using “imperial” currency, which you have to be of a certain age to remember… There were 20 shillings to the pound and 12 old pence to the shilling, making that 240 old pence to the pound. In 1971, the UK went decimal, which created big challenges for everyone who, like me, were working with coins.
After a few indecisive years, I enrolled on a Humanities course at Wolverhampton Polytechnic (now University) and was automatically given my first bank account.
Fewer people went to university in those days, and there were no student loans; people got a grant every term, and I got an extra grant for being over the age of 26. I also worked part-time as a door-to-door salesman, selling soap and toiletries. That was my first taste of the world of enterprise!
However, during my three years of study, I received no financial advice or education whatsoever, neither from my bank nor from the Student Union. You just had to manage your finances as best as you could.
A while after graduating, I went to Greece to teach English, but had to return two years later because of a nervous breakdown. During my recovery, I avidly watched TV show Countdown, where the answers had to English and arithmetic puzzles had to be worked out with only the help of an old-fashioned pen and paper – just my kind of thing.
In 1996, I became a “social entrepreneur”, selling The Big Issue… The rest, as they say, is history!”
Alan has written two books about his experiences:
Ten Years After, Forty-Four Years Before (2006) details his rich and varied experiences of selling The Big Issue all over the UK for a decade, describing characters he has met and situations he has encountered.
Going Dutch (2010) is his engaging account of selling the Amsterdam street paper “Z” during Holland’s coldest winter for 30 years, offering a unique insight into the similarities and differences between homelessness in Amsterdam and London.