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When I was a kid, bin men had an aura, a mystique, something of the night about them: fierce, semi-mythical beings who came with the dawn and hefted sacks of household trash into the grinding back-ends of their trucks, before rumbling ominously away. Their speech was a sequence of impenetrable grunts and howls; their clothes looked as though they had been worn for decades, or secreted like outer skins. The only contact normal citizens had with these creatures was the ‘Christmas box’: a seasonal cash offering given to the member of the tribe that walked most convincingly on hind legs — this ritual having (to my childhood mind, at least) the flavour of a bribe to ensure that the bin men not sneak back in the night to wreak havoc upon the houses they serviced, stealing one of the occupants (or their children) and dragging them away to a dread kingdom given over to the very hungriest of ogres and trolls.
These men were known and recognised, however, components of the landscape and hard-working members of the community, doing an unattractive job with a sense of purpose and pride — or at least, resignation. That’s all gone now, evidently.
We’d noticed during the week that the pile of trash at the side to the house was getting bigger, rather than smaller, and when the truck swung by, my wife went out to enquire why this might be. One of the new generation of bin men — a sour-faced runt wearing a nice, clean fluorescent jacket — told her the bags hadn’t been taken because they were ‘too heavy’.
The bags in question were a little bulkier than usual, and my wife had struggled slightly carrying them out to the bin (it’s my job normally, obviously, but I hadn’t been around at the time). My wife is a woman, however, and not a husky one. Not a man, certainly, and not a bin man in particular — someone whose job might, you could think, occasionally involve lugging things heavier than cotton wool.
To make her point, I pick up two of the offending bags at once and carried them to the back of the bin cart (withstanding a deliberate attempt by the driver to move the vehicle away from me). It made no difference. The bags were staying where they were. At some point one of these men had tentatively tugged at one of the sacks, muttered ‘Ooh no, health and safety…’ in an injured, self-righteous tone, and left it there to rot.
So what were we supposed to do? Call the council, we were told. And do what — ask for them to send some men instead? Or command them to use the big rusted key to open the shed at the back of the depot, where lurks a last remnant of old skool bin men, chained to a post in darkness, fed with scraps of carrion, kept for the occasions when a profligate household needed a slightly-heavier-than-usual bag carried a few feet from curb to cart?
In the end, it was neither. We spoke to a woman at the council — who promised she’d send an Incident Investigation Team around. (How did we survive, in the old days? How did we cope when ‘incidents’ like this went un-investigated? How did they spend our taxes?) And, to be fair, the very next day a man came round and ‘investigated the incident’. He rapidly determined that the bags were not excessively heavy, and they were later removed by a crack squad of Slightly Heavier Bags Than Usual Specialists, wearing protective suits carved from the finest topaz, their cart a golden chariot that shone so brightly it became almost invisible in the slanting morning sun.
One by one, our archetypes are being eroded. Cooks are no longer fat, mercurial men and women in blood-streaked aprons — but slim ‘chefs’ in spotless whites, who spend more time on media training and business studies than in learning ingredients: only ever taught by another chef, never by their mother or grandfather or wayward aunt. Pop stars aren’t lean misfits determined to carve their names in in our aural memories, but sleek performance school graduates looking for a reality television boost straight to HEAT magazine stardom. And in this context, it probably makes sense to have bin men too feeble to actually carry anything.
But the reason why we had archetypes is that they structured the world, helped it to function and make sense. They worked. The bin men in our street evidently… don’t.
And the class warriors out there reading this can pipe down: I’m very aware that I write this from the position of being an effete over-privileged bastard of a novelist, who does nothing more strenuous most days than type, and wouldn’t know hard work if it slapped him in the face. Do I want the bin-man’s job? No, of course I bloody don’t.
But if I had the job, I’d be doing it. I’d be wearing the layers of clothing and bellowing weirdly at my workmates as we hurled bags heroically into the truck. I’d regard a little muscle strain as a sign of how butch I was, rather than grounds for landmark legal action in the European Courts. I — or one of my fellow bin men, who could speak a little more clearly — would be turning up at your door come the festive season, too, expecting something in the way of a Christmas bonus. And we’d deserve it, and you’d better hand it over — or you really might find one of your children carried away in the dead of night.
Assuming he or she wasn’t too heavy, naturally.