Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Bin-sifters of the world, unite and take over!

You might have seen on TV or in the paper last week this story, about dustman Bob Smethurst, who rescued 5000 photos of World War One from the rubbish over the course of 30 years. I think Mr Smethurst is a bit of a hero, and should be given a medal.

Anyway I thought this was a good time to put my hand up and admit I too sometimes take things from dustbins and skips, without even having the excuse of doing it for a job. Things I have found include handknitted sweaters, dresses, tins and sewing stuff; books and sheet music, including these 1940s songsheets.

I also buy a lot of things from the cheap, tatty ends of charity shops (this is where the good stuff always is, incidentally). This 1926 London Tourist Guide was in a charity shop's pulping pile because the spine is damaged. Inside, it is full of fold-out maps, and pristine. The adverts in it are quite fascinating, and is startling to remember how Britain once prospered on millions of small businesses, rather than corporations.

I hate to see things of historical interest being chucked out, and I have a particular liking for things from the first half of the 20th Century, their solidity, the industrial chunkiness and ingenuity of them. I like to think of it as a kind of contemporary archaeology, (though some of my friends just think it's weird).

Often the things being chucked out are things to do with women's lives, like this outsize sewing pattern, in a bag put out for the recycling. I think there is a particular tendency to say 'what's the importance of that?' when faced with something domestic that no longer has appeal or relevance. But that is when the object is faced on its own: put six of them together from progressive decades and suddenly what you have is not a bunch of old crap, but a social history in progress.

1950s Mills & Boon
This social history can be represented by the smallest things: in a jar of buttons there is progress in industrial manufacture and chemistry, changes in fashion, changes in prosperity, wars fought, weddings made and funerals attended.

One of the reasons I like all this stuff is that I feel there is something subversive about it. We are often sold a narrative (The Village, anyone?) in which our working class past is seen as something grim and oppressive, and thank God for the shopping mall. But the things I have rescued, scrounged and bought for pence tell a different sort of story: of skilled labour and communal pride, good Sunday suits, cherished china, trips to the seaside, nights at the music hall. People were not then ashamed of their lives: they treasured and loved these things which had been earned with hard work. Likely as not they had lives as full of meaning and narrative as anyone's. I feel that these items bely a truth which is inconvenient to our current lords and masters, which is about a history that belongs to and is made up of ordinary people, not one that looks down its nose.

So I just wanted to write this blogpost to say Hurrah for Bob Smethurst, but also - if you feel a temptation to hoik that photo album or old tin out of a skip in your neighbourhood, don't be ashamed! Consider it your duty.

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All these items came from one clearout that was on its way to landfill. There were eight handknitted sweaters, five handmade dresses, and various other items including the tin and postcard in a frame. I found this christening dress, and the photo, amongst table linen.  I think, given the age of the items, that the baby may have grown up to be the knitter.

Everyone who sees this christening dress says:
'That dress makes me feel sad.'
But nobody exactly knows why.

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