At the dump

It seems incredible to think that there was a time when you could – if you were a loser like me – go for a stroll across a rubbish tip, and see what you could pick up. It’s only about two to three decades ago. Now a visit to the dump, sorry, Recycling Centre, is a more regimented affair than getting a passport, and involves being bossed by licensed totters (where do they tot or tott, or is it all on-site? I’ve never seen anyone trying to negotiate a good deal on a clapped-out sideboard or a mendable toaster). You have to go in the right gate at the right speed, and halt, and ask permission, and make sure you put the wood in the wood bin, and the TV in the TV bin, and face the wrath of Aguirre if you turn up with a scintilla of household rubbish. To everything there is a season, and a time for every sort of rubbish under heaven.

As a hoarder in the throes of discarding the more obvious junk, I have been down in the dump a few times recently. This business of clearing out is taking its toll. Almost literally. In an attempt to get hold of a very broken appliance the other day, I had to squeeze through a narrow gap in The Shed, and slipped and half-fell. When I looked down to see what I had skidded on, I saw it was a pile of books, all with titles like How To Declutter Your Life, and Feng Shui For Dummies. Very slippery reading.

What I took on my last visit was a clapped-out vacuum cleaner from our house, and a clapped-out vacuum cleaner from my Mum’s, which I had vaguely thought might be an improvement on the first one. But neither was sucking or doing anything other than wheezing, so to the dump they went. Old vacuum cleaners these fays are not like old vacuum cleaners of youre. The old ones looked really wrecked when their time was up. the new ones (Dysons) still look quite fresh, even though they are knackered.

You have to ask – after you have been ordered to move your car forward and backward by the heavy-handed mob of totters, who act as if they have been given police powers – where you should put each item. ‘What you got?’ asked the lead totter. ‘I’ve got two vacuum cleaners,’ I said. The air blew my words a little astray. She heard it as ‘I’ve got two f***ing cleaners,’ and gave me a very stern look. ‘What?’ she said. ‘Two vacuum cleaners,’ I said. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I thought you said you had two f***ing cleaners.’

‘I have,’ I said, entering riskily into the banter. I put them where I was told. I also had a mat which I decided to put in Wood. One of the punters – not licensed, or wearing a yellow stripe – suddenly came over all jobsworth on me. ‘That’s Wood,’ she said, peremptorily. I decided to call her bluff. ‘It’s cork,’ I said. ‘It comes from a tree.’ That fettled her.

I have an unpublished poem on the subject, and I’ll run it out here. It was nearly published about three times in the nineties, but somehow missed the cut. I still quite like it, but I admit that I would cut it down a lot now. But editing very old poems is somehow depressing. See what you think.

Licensed Totter


I am a licensed totter. Tot, tot, tot.

In the thin incinerator’s shadow,

my raw eyes dog your garbage

for small fortune.


Tot, tot, tot.

Truffling the entrails of shed, bedroom, loft,

the scraps of kitchen tiffs.


I tot for tat,

tat I can quickly unwrinkle,

flog off. Finders keepers.

I’m a legal fence.

No peeking.


I am a licensed totter,

merchant of disrepute. Fridges

to the front; what’s left, left.

Don’t mix it. Clobber yourself.


Tot, tot, tot.

It’s a rum business,

and often dangerous, painful:

more woodworm than wormwood.

Plenty of quiet cuts. I may

rummage your plumbing

for plunder. Over there.

Against the wall.


Diseases? I picked them up

from you. Careful. I’m a

licensed totter, my life

is a careful selection of remnants.

I stickle for pickings.


Age is material:

I will die in a second-hand

harness. Home is junk,

the scruff of your long neck.


Your house is my funeral,

a parlour I’ll pillage

to set me up. Tot,

tot. Tot. I’m a wastrel.

Home each evening, totter.


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