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The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste spacer The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste
Improving Dustmen
by Colin Graham
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Alfred Doolittle is a dustman. In George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, Mr Doolittle is happily and contentedly one of the 'undeserving poor'. Then his daughter is transformed by 'Enry 'Iggins, and he is sucked into 'middle class morality' by accidentally getting a fortune. He is a dustman no longer and laments the loss of the times when he could be really undeserving and touch the rich for drink money. Now he watches others compete to collect his 'dust'. The Victorian dustman is a figure we may well see again, in the world of the privatisation of all 'markets'. 'Dust' was the polite Victorian terms for household waste. The collection of 'dust' was entirely privatised, and dustmen were paid by the weight of rubbish they collected. So dustmen collected earlier and earlier, trying to outdo each other for the privilege. They waited at street corners. There were 'flying dustmen' who snuck in and stole other dustmen's allocated waste. There were gang wars, and sometimes killings as a result. Alfred Doolittle, to be even an undeservingly poor dustman, would not have done little.
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Indeed Mr Doolittle would have seen other dustmen rise in society in the same way he unfortunately had himself. Victorian satiric prints often show dustmen and their wives dressed in their finery, promenading with the toffs or going off to night classes for their moral betterment. 'Dust' was not just society's detritus, it was a proper commodity. Industrial capitalism has such a bizarre logic that when it turns away from itself its own leftovers, its own waste and useless shavings, they still retain a value as a commodity. Karl Marx, writing in Victorian London and in the midst of this fervour of waste, says of the capitalist commodity: 'it is a very queer thing indeed, full of metaphysical subtleties and theological whimsies'. In the industrial and post-industrial world, waste can retain a remnant of 'value', like a radiating half-life. Waste is money.
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Beyond this, the theological whimsies of waste are tempting. There is that old argument about whether, when Christ ascended into heaven, his lifetime's toenail clippings (amongst other bodily parts) went with him. Waste can seem like God's mistake,the disgusting imperfection of an imperfect world. Shit and sin are near theological equivalents, telling of degradation, indignity, soiling. The result is that prudery which made the deserving poor of the Victorian dustman as collected the stuff that dare not speak its name from the household-arseholes of the Victorian middle classes in the middle of the night. Meanwhile they increasingly tried to preserve their Godliness by being as close to cleanliness as possible, yet all the time reminding themselves that waste itself was proof of your status in society. So it was polite and proper for a woman to leave some food on her plate at every meal. And she could then in a curious way look petite and incapable, yet subconsciously all were reminded of the eventual human waste which all food becomes. Meanwhile economically the food left on the plate meant that the polite exhibited to each other the knowledge that they had 'surplus-value' in their domestic lives, capital that could be cast aside as useless. Thus waste became a form of charity, the shards of the middle-class economy left for the dustman to collect, to humiliate himself in collecting, but nevertheless to make money from. Both holy and genteel, the waste food left on the plate were the crumbs from the Lord's table.
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When the twentieth century in the West facilitated the rise of the new middle classes, with working class roots, when industrialisation became compromised, the picture got more complicated. The metaphoric descendents of the dustman class kept the dustman's attitude. Hence 'leave a little on your plate' becomes 'waste not want not', 'there's children in Africa ', rations, post-war frugality. The idea of being anti-waste then catches on so that one tiny step up the class ladder, and one generation on, the same ideas are now recycle, reuse, buy at the charity shop. Having recently taken to composting, I do find it 'full of metaphysical subtleties'; the amount of stuff we cook but don't eat is embarrassing; the return of almost everything other than plastic to a brown stuff that looks like soil, smells of nothing and makes new growth. This is satisfyingly circular, like the comfort of believing in reincarnation rather than having one go at it. Waste generates warmth by itself, as nature finds its surplus-value is endlessly usable. But then there's the rats.
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One of the greatest pieces of Victorian writing, often ignored, is Robert Browning's The Pied Piper of Hamelin. It's a medieval story about a town overrun with rats, until the Pied Piper comes along and offers his services to get rid of the plague. When he's done it the mayor reneges on the financial deal worked out and the Piper leads off the children of the town, locking them in the local mountain. Nothing Victorian about that it seems. But the civic obsession with the dirt of the world was a Victorian invention the merits and working of the sewage system was continually one of greatest Victorian political debates. The rats are the sign of the waste system's failure. The intervention of the piper is an embarrassment to civic pride. His demand for money publicly is bad form where waste is concerned. The children and the rats all return to the elements, cast out of the city, when the Piper's ire is up. Browning's poem is a reminder to us all that we start valueless, we all end valueless; ashes to ashes and dust to dust, dustman to dustman.
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