This morning I loaded up the car with all sorts of rejects and was about to set off for the Council’s rubbish dump when a van drew up alongside and its cheerful driver asked ‘Got any metal in there?’ There was indeed metal in there and, no I didn’t mind if he took it, so I helped load it all into his van. His wife and kids sat patiently in the front. He reminded me of the rag and bone men who used to patrol the London streets where I lived as a child, with their strange cries, sounding like marsh birds. He was Bulgarian, it transpired, though his French was excellent. I got back to the job of loading the car. A man hovered on the pavement. ‘Mind if I take the wood?’ he asked. No, I didn’t mind if he took the wood, so he disappeared and reappeared with the bottom part of a child’s pram and wheeled away the wood. He was Turkish, it transpired, and would use my cast-offs as ‘small wood’ for his kitchen stove. As I queued at the dump, a gang of men patrolled the queue, looking for metal and other valuables. In my case, they took away some electrical equipment. I felt like Hemingway’s Old Man’s fish! By the time I got to the dump, all that I had left was an old mattress and some plastic.
Postscript: As Brian’s comment shows, what’s happening is no more and no less than a response to market forces; scrap metal is worth scavenging for because its value has gone up.
This phenomenon didn’t exist five years ago. It got me thinking. Was it a good thing or a bad thing (a good thing, I’d think, in terms of efficiency at least, since these men would use or recycle the valuable parts of my rubbish much more efficiently than an incinerator)? And was it proof of resurgent poverty or greater want? This is harder. When I first went to Bologna in the late ’70s there were old men stacking improbable amounts of flattened cardboard or soft drinks cans on their bicicyles as a way of earning a few lire. You can still see old men trying to hook beer bottles out of the bottle banks in Brussels, presumably to make a few cents out of the returns. I suppose they could all be described as belonging to a sort of sub-economy, making small amounts through scavenging at the margins of extravagant and wasteful societies. In any case, their presence gave me a sudden pang of nostalgia for the street life of my childhood, with its coalmen (leather patches on their shoulders where they carried the coal sacks), rag-and-bone men, milkmen, dustmen, paper boys and the tinker (as we called him) who would occasionally sharpen all the knives in the house on his portable grinder.