I live in a small village in the Pennines. It’s just in the lee of the Pennines, in fact: I used to say that it was ‘in the foothills’, until someone told me that I was making myself sound like Sherpa Tenzing. But I was right – these are foothills. Anyway, our house is served by an excellent local authority (very hot on value for money and citizens’ rights! It is in the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire, btw).
I’m mentioning all of this because the week started with a public holiday. Public holidays are fabulous (though if you work from home you hardly notice them), but in this village, as I guess in many towns and villages up and down the land, they cause a major anxiety: will the dustman (no, I’m not going to say ‘dustperson’) come on the same day as usual or not?
I have to say that our dustmen are usually excellent and although they may come late after a holiday, sometimes accompanied by relief workers, they try to stick to the correct date. But there is another, related, angst: will the bank holiday have caused the rubbish collection schedule to go awry?
For the past several years, collecting, storing and disposing of rubbish in this community has become, if not a fine art, then at least an activity requiring more patience and practical intelligence than I, for one, possess. I leave all this to my husband, who on Tuesday evenings may be observed standing outside engaged in earnest conversation with a knot of neighbours. All are keen to get it right – otherwise Armageddon may come lurching round the prettily carved millstone which heralds the start of the village, and the streets will be strewn with detritus.
I’m not the expert, as I’ve said, but I’ve worked out this much: We have four bins, which are blue, brown, grey and green… and a green box. The bins are for paper, glass/cans/plastic, garden rubbish and ‘domestic waste’ (I think that means everything else). The box pre-dated the bins, but I understand that it’s for bottles and cans (I am now reliably informed that it has been superseded by a bin, but passes muster as an overflow when the grown-up children come to stay) . Each household is issued with a rota. For groups of houses, there is a bin collection point, to which owners must trundle their ‘wheelies’ (rumbling characterises Tuesday evenings). One bin, the grey ‘domestic waste’ one, is emptied on alternate weeks; the three others and the plastic box in the intervening weeks. Woe betide anyone who puts out the wrong bin, puts the bins out in the wrong place, puts the wrong rubbish in any of the bins or fills a bin so full that it won’t close. The dustmen will then ignore them, refusing to empty them. Recalcitrant or exceptionally stupid householders might even be reported for fouling up the process!
The twenty-first century has debunked or devalued many occupations. Lawyers have lost their gloss and bankers are positive pariahs. Teachers and nurses are still respected by ordinary people, but continue to have scorn sprayed on them by the government. Jobs in high street retailing, always a young person’s industry, have been decimated by out-of-town shopping centres and semi-automated check-outs. It is with a mixture of irony and amusement, therefore, that I observe that the opening decades of this century have witnessed the rise and ever-upwards-rise of the dustman. Dustmen today are no longer Alfred Doolittles or Lonnie Donegan’s ‘My old man’. They are not shuffling, shifty or half-sharp. They are tough and businesslike, assiduous workers running a streamlined system, a system that is vital and in which they are all-powerful. These dustmen are not the bent-over, bandy-legged figures of my youth. They are tall, strong men*, rather smartly dressed in their donkey jackets, uniform overalls and fluorescent gilets, all sporting safety boots and brightly-coloured industrial rubber gloves. Anger one of these dustmen at your peril.
It is a supreme example of social justice at work. Having been a bookseller, which I admit is a privileged career, certainly at what is known as the ‘high end’ of retailing, I’ve often reflected how much we undervalue those who perform the services that make our daily lives run smoothly. Waiters and waitresses have always been near the top of my list of the under-appreciated, because, as a student, I worked as a waitress (also as a chambermaid, which was close to being a slave, in a posh hotel). I’ve no first-hand knowledge of emptying bins (a job at which I’m sure I would be very bad), but I do know that, for at least a century, dustmen were practically the British equivalent of untouchables. How magnificent that they have turned the tables now! More power to their elbow! May their spirits ever increase!
Perhaps by the middle of this century, when we’re told that most of us will be living in cities and have to find new ways of working together with less personal space, dustmen will have climbed much further up the ladder-rungs of the career hierarchy. As university degrees become more devalued and more bright young people choose apprenticeships or go straight from school to manual work, perhaps ‘You might consider being a dustman…’ will be one of the options offered from the career adviser’s portfolio. And, rather as in Eastern Europe over the past fifty years, perhaps some of our greatest future authors will have supported their early writing years by emptying dustbins.
I feel inclined to refer readers of this post to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s wonderful poem, ‘Two Scavengers In A Truck, Two Beautiful People In A Mercedes’, which just about sums up my feelings. Sometimes it’s great to be grungy ‘in the high seas of this democracy’!
[*In July, in Germany, I watched a refuse collection team; it included an immaculately groomed young woman, who engaged in all the tasks and in the banter. I have yet to see a dustbinwoman in this country; even though there may be some, they are a rarity. I blame the grunge ceiling.]