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Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Rags and Bones

I heard shouting in the next street, the same few words repeated about once a minute. I couldn’t make out what they were. 

It reminded me of when I was little, when the rag and bone man came round with his horse and cart. I could never make out what his sing-song voice was shouting, either. It sounded like “You owe me half a crown” but it was probably more like “Have you any rags and bones?” His fierce, rough look terrified me. I would hide until he had gone.

You could hear him going up and down the back lanes (or ‘ten-foots’) between the rows of terraced houses where we lived. Eventually he would come along ours where I played. Housewives went to their back gates to give him old pots and pans, buckets with holes in, pram wheels with broken spokes, threadbare kitchen curtains, and, yes, he really did collect bones. Once, his horse deposited a stinking pile of manure just outside our gate. It kept me in for weeks until it bleached pale, crumbled, and was gradually washed away by the rain.

Steptoe and Son

The life of Rag and Bone men was portrayed pretty well in the very popular B.B.C. comedy Steptoe and Son, in which the son’s, Harold’s, pretentious attempts to better himself are constantly thwarted by Albert, his wily father. 

As with all successful comedy series, it quickly moved on from stories based on the situation to stories around the relationships between the characters. I particularly remember one 1972 episode, Men of Letters. It opens with them playing Scrabble. Harold wants it to be “… an erudite game calculated to increase one’s word power” but Albert is well in the lead with words like “pox”, “cock” and “bum”. Harold complains they are nothing but filth. “Yes, but they still count, don’t they,” Albert responds.

https://youtu.be/oanikaqvYcU

The shouting from the next street continued into ours. It was indeed some rag and bone men. I haven’t seen any for years. I don’t suppose they collect either rags or bones any more. Good job I hadn’t left my bike out. They drove slowly past in a small truck. No horse! Although, shouting like that all day must make them a little hoarse.

41 comments:

  1. Here they have their spiel on a recorded loop and play it over loud speakers. Some people denigrate them and their way of life, but they monetize waste, reducing what goes to landfill and incineration. Many have their 'specialty' - the guy with the tuktuk who only collects cardboard, some on foot with shopping trolleys collecting cans and plastic bottles. Most are in pickups and will take mainly anything metal left out by bins for them, and items of furniture that have any life left in them (also usually left out by the bins for them to collect).

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    1. We are asked to sort all that stuff ourselves for recycling, and if there's a lot we can take it to a local council recycling centre. We have just one recycling bin but some places in the UK and other countries have about half a dozen containers for different materials, and probably need project planning software to manage the collection days.

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  2. Here, nobody comes around actively announcing their presence. But whenever we have a scheduled collection of items for garbage that do not fit in any of our four (!) different household bins, people in vans drive through the streets and look for anything that has any value for recycling.

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    1. It sounds as if it could be like the wild west - full of cowboys.

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  3. It's interesting to hear about the Rag and Bone men. We didn't have anything like that when I was young, or at least they were not called that. Seems like I remember what we called Junk men but they didn't drive around the neighborhood. Sometimes people here will put things they no longer want out by the street the night before trash day and someone will come around and get it by morning. I think anything that keeps things out of landfills is good.

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    1. Sometimes people put things like that out here, but more often, if you can't take old freezers or boilers etc. to the recycling centre yourself, you have to pay rip-off prices for the council to collect specially.

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  4. Oh my, yes I remember the Rag and Bone man visiting our street with his horse and cart back in the very early 1960s. He would advance slowly down the street calling out. To me it sounded like he was calling "Rabown".

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    1. I guess if they shouted in an Oxford English accent everyone would assume they were posh and no one would give them anything.

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  5. I love this post it bought back memories for me.
    We had the rag and bone man shouting in the street, he didn't have a horse, just a sack over his shoulder and I remember he was very tall and thin with a homburg hat.
    We also had the cockle man who used to come around on Sundays (I live in Brighton by the sea) and Mum used to buy a pint of cockles. We used to sit with a pin picking them out of the shells.
    How about the coalman who used to walk through the house to dump the coal in the back coal hole, lol
    Was it better then? it seems that way at the moment.
    Briony
    x

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    1. When we lived in a terrace there was access to the back through a gate, but I have known of coal and dustbins being carried through the house. Now no one has coal, but you couldn't imagine the dustmen walking round to pick up your bin, carry it to the front to empty, and then putting it back way again like they once did.

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  6. As soon as we heard the call we rushed inside to ask mum for some rags. In exchange we got a goldfish in a small plastic bag. We have a little truck that comes around our village. They don't give anything in return for any old scrap.

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    1. I think some used to give out donkey stones for cleaning doorsteps.

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    2. Is that what we called holystone?

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    3. I think so. I've written about it before: https://www.taskerdunham.com/2020/01/new-month-old-post-donkey-stone.html

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  7. I liked Steptoe and Son, the humour was funny, though the old man did get on my nerves but he was supposed to. Now of course we recycle through the recycle centres, it has become professional and less old irons and pieces of iron. Not wanting to go back, remember those old fashioned washing machines?

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    1. The scrap metal merchants must have made good business collecting all the unwanted dolly tubs.
      What does it say about me that the Steptoe episode I most remember was so vulgar? Some thought it went too far at the time. I also have the feeling that first lot of Steptoe programmes made in the 1960s were more realistic than those made when it came back in the 1970s.

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  8. Great post - what memories! We still have scrap collectors like that too - not quite the same as the rang and bone man though. I got my first bike from the scrap man - my mum saw it on the back of his cart and paid him a few shillings for it. The rest, as they say, is history..

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    1. That's a good day's trading. Collect an old bike for the price of a goldfish or donkey stone, and sell it the same day for a few shillings.

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  9. We get those modern day "rag and bone" men in Sheffield too. Cruising around in their flatbed vans, looking for metal. They have even been known to wander up alleyways into people's gardens to purloin barbecues and suchlike. I would not trust them as far as I could throw them. The scripts of "Steptoe and Son" were pretty brilliant.

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    1. I was only half-joking when I said it was a good job I hadn't left my bike out. When I sussed out what the sound was, and got out just in time with my camera, they saw me and started to reverse back along the road. I disappeared quick.

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  10. We don't have rag and bone men. We have people who advertise on line that they pick up scrap metal. You call them and they come to take it away. If I have things that are still functional, I put them out at the curb and go online to my local Helping Hands site, and say "Free (whatever it is) At curb, (provide address), and promise to take the post down when the things are done. It is usually gone within minutes.

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    1. Some councils here would fine you for dropping litter.
      As mentioned in the post, I was surprised to see them. I didn't think we still had any.

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    2. The 'curb' is our front yard.

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    3. Another one of those British/American English things. I read "kerb" meaning the edge of the footpath/sidewalk against the road. People used to leave things for collection at the kerbside but now you could be risking a fine for illegal dumping of rubbish.

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  11. PS: we are also 'scrappers' and when we have a truck load, we haul it to the scrap yard.

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    1. I'll bring you my bucket that has a hole in. Ah, no. I won't. It's plastic.

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  12. While I know I saw many episodes of Steptoe, I really can't remember them now aside from the show being very funny. I hope the rag and bone man separated E Waste and recyclables.

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    1. I'm as suspicious of them as Yorkshire Pudding, above. They probably separate out whatever is valuable and dump the rest at the side of some secluded country road.

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  13. I remember the rag and bone man with a pushcart. His shout sounded like ragabo'abo'. In the late 40s. We had a lot of street deliveries, the greengrocer with his white horse, herring seller, only a few miles from the coast, today's catch in his front bicycle carrier, the pikelet man, selling them hot from his tricycle thing with an oven kind of installation, milkman with a horse and cart, hot chestnut man with live coals in the front carrier. Rhe vehicles were either horse drawn or human powered, no has vehicles and no gas to run them anyway at that time, rationing still in force.

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    1. Some used to have those wide flat barrows - lots of tradesmen did before they all got mini vans. There is a picture somewhere on the internet of a rag and bone man with a horse in Streatham, London as late at 1985.

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    2. I bet not many know what pikelets are now. My dad called them that.

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  14. "Good job I hadn’t left my bike out" -- hahahahaha!

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    1. I'm only half joking. I suspect if they thought they could have got away with it they would have taken it. "So sorry Sir! We thought you'd left it out for us to collect."

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  15. If we have metal items, we put them out the day before garbage pickup and people come around in pickup trucks to collect that. I am glad it will be used again somehow.
    I remember the sharpening guy with his cart who came through our neighborhood when I was little. My Mom would bring out her best scissors and carving knife for him to sharpen. I don't remember what he charged for that...

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    1. It's interesting to hear the variety of ways in which things get recycled in different parts of the world - or even withing the same country. I also have a vague image of a knife sharpener coming round but I can't remember anything more specific than that.

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  16. Yes we had a rag and bone man too but if that manure had been deposited outside our gate my Dad would have been out with his bucket and shovel pretty quick to get it for his roses.

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    1. I'm now surprised no one did, but it was there until dispersed by the process described. It really did smell for at least a week.

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  17. An English friend, long time resident in Glasgow, told me his father found Steptoe quite painful to watch at times.
    Harold's yearning for books and culture (ballet, for instance) touched a raw nerve with my friend's father, a child and teenager during WWII.
    A review of the first episode (The Observer) compared the writing to Pinter.
    Writers Galton and Simpson might must have been pleased. Remember the movie in which Harold marries a stripper?

    Your writing has huge visual appeal (never more so than in the posts about Iceland) and I keep thinking about *the shouting from the next street*, and those rows of brick terraces.
    Brian Patten's poem asked why he did not talk to more people in Liverpool, the lives changed by redevelopment, women who were the small change of history. Vanished without a trace.

    *A World of My Own: John Braine/ Yorkshire Film Archive.*
    Braine returned to Newcastle and Northumberland in this black and white documentary. He walked down streets of brick terraces, streets with no names just numbers. So glad to find it available online.
    Haggerty

    P.S. You may not like Pinter but there is a good YouTube vlog about performing Pinter by the English actor, now resident in New York, John Windsor Cunningham.
    I love the theatre and follow all of John's vlogs.
    Pinter really did touch down in the rag-and-bone shop of the heart as Yeats called it. So did Steptoe and Son.

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    1. I think many good comedies are painful to watch - I used to hide my eyes with Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads.
      I enjoyed the James Mitchell "World of My Own" about South Shields which you previously pointed me to, so I'll see what others are in the series, especially John Braine.

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  18. I have just remembered Tasker - Our rag and bone man also took rabbit skins. Out in the Lincolnshire countryside, where I lived as a child, money was not all that plentiful and rabbits were.

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    1. Poor little bunnies. Actually my uncle (a farmer) used to stand very still in the middle of his field waiting with his shotgun.

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