Friday, June 08, 2012

The dustbin men by Ian Walker (New Society 25 June 1981)

Today's Ian Walker article dates from 1981, and deals with cuts in public services, speed ups at work, the expectation that the Tories will be booted out at the next election and about personal dreams not quite fulfilled. The same as it's ever been.
The dustbin men 

Ghosting through backyards with sheaves of empty black plastic sacks, the three loaders come back into the street to hurl full sacks into the jaws of a yellow dustcart crawling alongside the redbrick semis. Before the days of plastic sacks, you used to have to bang the bins hard against that metal trough to eject the last pieces of wet paper stuck to the bottom of the bins.

The crew left the depot in Aylesbury at six. I'm giving them a hand. It is now almost nine and everyone is looking forward to the cup of tea we'll get at the primary school just over the road. There are always some places and people in the desert that are friendly enough.

Sitting on the floor in the school hall, small boys and girls peer through the picture windows at the crew. Dave, the driver, goes to tell the dinner ladies there's an extra one for tea and shortcake.

Smudger, who has been on this round about six years, pulls out his tobacco tin. Aylesbury for him is an escape from the hustle of Fulham Broadway, where he lived, and Paddington station, where he worked for 20 years. He's even started doing some gardening. Ten minutes ago he picked up some wooden trays that will come in very handy for his greenhouse.

The other two loaders say Smudger is a novice. Ron has worked here since he was 23, he says, scratching his mutton-chop sideburns. He is now 51 and Alex, who has put in 30 years' service, is due to retire in two weeks, after his sixty-second birthday. Cigarettes stubbed out, it's back to work.

The redbrick changes to pebble-dash. I walk along with Alex. he is short and toothless, wears faced work denims held together with a tight leather belt. His boots are all split at the instep and the heels are worn right down. Dustmen walk about ten miles a day.

I walk fast to keep up with Alex's spring-heeled sprint up the pavement, through the backyards, out to the wagon and back. "Well," he says, "you knock yourself into shape really. People complain about their backs and that, with all the lifting. But I've never had ant trouble. Had very little off. Had a few colds, but I soon got shut of them."

He walks off singing some improvised tune, lah-di-di rum-ta-too. Dustmen, despite their cartoon worker (rubbish) status with the middle class, think they get a reasonable deal. You're out on your own in the open air. You don't have machines or gaffers dictating the pace. If you work hard, you finish early. Come Friday, you can go off mid-morning.

"Don't cut yourself, for Christ's sake," says Ron, watching me pick up two sacks. He prefers sacks to bins, they've made the work easier and quicker, but they can be dangerous. Plastic is no protection against broken glass and jagged tins. A while ago Smudger got a gash in his leg which needed five stitches.

Ron has another nine years before he retires. He's no intention of leaving the council. "Better than swapping around," he says. "Job's all right if they let you get on with it . . . trouble is they don't. They say we finish early and we do. That's task-and-finish. But the more we do, the more they want us to do." Task-and-finish means you go home when the work's done. This crew start at six, even though the official starttime is 7.30, and work flat out to get finished as soon after noon as possible. In London, it's common for dustmen to drive cabs in the afternoons.

Dave pulls up to say he's off to the tip, 13 miles away. Alex will stay on these streets, pulling out the remaining bags, and Smudger and Ron have a two-mile walk to another estate. I go off with them. It will take about an hour for Dave to get to the tip and back.

Walking off past a line of small back gardens, which look out over some fields to the town hall beyond, Ron tells me he was born in a Leicestershire mining village, called Coalville, and worked underground till he was 18. Out past More Avenue, Ron says he's now settled in Haddenham. "It's a village, well . . . getting too big now, like everything."

How did Smudger get his name? He doesn't know. His name's Schmidt. He moved from London because the GLC said he could transfer from their waiting list to Aylesbury's, where he could get a place immediately. He now lives on the Elmhurst estate. "Nice over there," he says, with that wistful sort of green-field romanticism only city kids ever really have.

Ron says Smudger is one of the affluent classes: he owns his own caravan. Smudger laughs and says repayments on the caravan make him one of the poor classes. Both of them say the main problem with the job is the money. Ron, who four weeks ago became shop steward, says that this year they got a 7 per cent rise. "By the time the rent and everything had gone up I was £4 worse off," he says. "Still, they won't be in much longer, will they? Don't think they'll get in next time, do you?"

The Aylesbury dustmen get £72 take-home pay, and there's rarely any overtime. "The occasional Sunday sweeping," says Ron, "But there;s only if the sweeper's away or something." We're walking past the greybrick HQ of Carreras Rothmans. Ron reckons their profits must have dived just recently, cigarettes being almost a quid a pack.

"What do you do, Ron, in the afternoons, when you get finished early?"

"Watch television. Sometimes there's a film."

Smudger says he's learning about plants, so he'll have something to do when he's an old man. "Ain't no other jobs around. I shall stop here till I retire. Till I go out one morning and drop dead or something." We walk the last 100 yards to a block of flats. An old man is waiting for his customary quick chat with the dustman. Smudger obliges. Ron flops down on a bin. The old man goes indoors.

"Take a pew," says Smudger, smiling at me and stretching out his hand towards the row of dustbins. Time for a fag. The sun is hot. "Couldn't stick an inside job now," says Ron, and then slapping his thighs and rising from the bins. "Oh well, it's no good." Back to work.

Our job now is to haul out the bags and stack them in big piles, 20 yards apart, to make it easy and quick to load up when Dave returns from the tip. The routine is well-established. A woman comes up, asks Ron for another bag. He says no. Since the cuts, there is just one bag per household and that's that.

We're working in the alley separating the token gardens at the back of these greybrick terraces, on this estate which looks as if it was built about twelve years ago. Ron passes a can of lemon and lime Tango into Smudger's hand as they cross on the alley. "She generally gives us some pop," says Ron, jerking his head back to one of the doors. Ron's diabetic, so he takes it home for his wife.

A bag tears in Smudger's hand and he has to pick up the rubbish that's scattered. "That's what happens, you see," he says. "Cheap bags. Used to have better bags. But like everything else . . . " More sentences than ever, England 1981, end in the three-dot silence: villages used to be small and friendly, bags used to be good quality, crews used to be five-strong. But like everything else . . .

Dropping out of Smudger's sack, a milk carton. He kicks it all the way down to the dump of sacks at the end of the alley. Now we're done. We sit on a brick wall, stick our faces in the sun and wait for Dave to get back from the tip. In Ron's 28 years, has he ever thought about leaving the dusting? "Many a time," he replies, slowly. When?

"When I get fed up with it. Sometimes." Once he got as far as fixing up an interview somewhere else, at the Lucas factory, a packing job. He never went to the interview.

A bloke rushes out with a mirror and a frame that doesn't fit. "Is this any good?" he says, waving it around.

"It's no good to me. But we'll chuck it for you," replies Ron. People think dustmen will be grateful for the most useless, dirty, clapped-out items they possess. Ron takes the small mirror off this man, who's still protesting that the mirror itself is okay, how expensive mirrors are these days, and so on.

We continue squinting into the sun. Ron is yawning. He's impatient for the wagon to show. He doesn't like this hanging around. "Could do with a nice pint now," he says. "Couldn't you?"

Time for another cigarette. "He must have got bogged at the tip," concludes Ron. Two minutes later Smudger, who knows the purr of his wagon, jumps up. "That's it." A half hour's frantic work, flinging the sacks to the jaws, and it's back to the depot, for 12.15.

Last job for the loaders is taking out the cardboard and newspapers collected in the trailer at the back of the wagon. Smudger and Alex jump down from the cab. I get out too, watch them standing in this small yellow cage till they've kicked out the last tabloids from the floor. They get out and lock the gates behind them.

I drive out to the tip with Dave, who used to be a mechanic and always wanted to go to Hollywood, though he doubts he'll ever make it now. Out into the countryside, past a prison and a stately home, sun shining, the windows down. Dave says we've made good time.
25 June 1981

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