Many, many years ago I started to write a story set on an inner-city housing estate, similar to the one I worked in. The main character was a small girl, small in size but about eleven or twelve in the firs year at secondary school. She lived with her dad’s ex-wife and had a rather miserable life; another character was the Alchemist, a kindly teacher who taught chemistry, and then a mysterious ambiguous character, maybe real, maybe not, maybe malign, maybe not, who had a horse and cart and collected ‘rags and bones’ – and any other recyclable rubbish – he was Ragbo; even if he was not a ‘baddie’ Ragbo was sinister and unsettling.

When we were kids the rag ‘n’ bone man used to come round our streets and people would bring out stuff like old iron and metal, old wood, broken furniture, bags of rags – just stuff. The dustbin men would take away the real rubbish, things which couldn’t be of any use to anyone, and all vegetable waste went on the compost heap – recycling! I guess the rag n bone man might have paid a few pennies for what he collected, I have no idea. What he did with what he had I don’t know –  he would have got a deposit back on bottles, and maybe metal was sold on to a scrap metal man.

When I was an adult and moved to Manchester, there were rag n bone men with their horses and carts, and only gradually replaced by men with trucks. Every so often someone comes down out road now with a loud-speaker, calling out for scrap metal. This has passed into popular culture – Peter Sellers had a hit with ‘Any Old Iron’ in 1957, but the song was originally written in 1911 by Charles Collins, Fred E. Terry and E.A. Sheppard, and in the 1960’s there was the popular sitcom ‘Steptoe and Son’.

The reason that I’ve been thinking about this is that was given the album ‘Human’ by Rag ‘n’ Bone Man. He is actually Rory Charles Graham and has been making music for a very long time even though he is only thirty-two (nearly thirty-three) ‘Human’ is also the title of his first major hit having achieved acclaim not just in he UK but across Europe – it was number one in  Austria, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland, and also gold  in  Italy, the Netherlands, and Sweden. He has an extraordinary voice and what I particularly like as well as the melody and the sound he makes are the lyrics.

In complete contrast to Rag ‘n’ Bone, is Peter Sellers:

… and here is a very interesting set of reminiscences about other Ragbo’s:


Dustbin men

Even though it is may Bank Holiday today our noble bin men came and emptied our rubbish, took away our recycled paper, glass, plastic and tin, and emptied our garden refuse and biodegradable ‘household waste’! As I made our morning cup of tea I watched them bantering with each other as they quickly and efficiently moved from house to house, emptying everyone’s brown bin, green boxes, black bin and garden waste bags. They are mostly young men, all with cheery expressions, all rushing around, running between the neighbours’ houses, no doubt having to keep to some schedule defined by some time-management consultant. They are probably not called bin men any longer, they are probably waste disposal operatives!

As a child I lived in a ground floor flat, and the lady who owned it lived above us on the first floor. She was very elderly, and utterly lovely, and we called her Aunty. She called the bin men, ‘ash men’ because in the old days they would have been taking ash away from the houses as there was no central heating and everyone had coal fires. There probably wasn’t as much rubbish when she was young, there would have been no plastic or artificial fibres, old materials and clothes would have been taken by the rag and bone men, as well as other recyclable rubbish, kitchen waste would have gone onto a compost heap (at least in the country areas)

I don’t suppose there was as many newspapers or magazines – and certainly none of the zillions of advertising inserts; magazines, and comics, would have been kept and reread or passed onto someone else, and old paper would have been used in the household, and what was left either burned, or given to the rag and bone man. periodically a horse and cart would come round with a man shouting for ‘any old iron’ and he would take away metal objects. Far less food would have been bought ready-prepared and any that there was would have had recyclable packaging such as paper, cardboard, metal, or glass, and it would have been a much simpler amount of wrapping, not the complicated plastic/inflated polystyrene/bubble-wrap etc we battle with now.

Bins in those days were metal, and quite heavy before they had anything put in them! They had to be to made of metal to carry the ashes from household fires; on the lids was inscribed ‘no hot ashes’ I guess for the safety of the ash men, and also to stop the dustcarts from catching fire. We always called them carts, but when our elderly ‘Aunty’ upstairs was a child, they must have been carts pulled by horses.

One of my favourite books by Dickens is Our Mutual friend; one of the characters is ‘The Golden Dustman’ the wonderfully named Noddy Boffin. Dickens gives us a vivid idea of how ‘waste’ was managed in Victoria times; waste was productive then, it’s a shame so much of our waste is wasted!