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Indy Lifestyle Online
BEFORE I became a journalist, I was a dustman. Did it for years. I was a proper dustman too. I was never one of those who pretended that I was doing it until something better came up. I walked like a dustman; I chain-smoked roll-ups like a parody of a dustman, I was always on the look-out for scrap metal, and I used to say to liberty- takers, all strict like, "Sorry, mate, I'm not taking that."

It was a steady number. I got a 100 per cent mortgage and bought an end- of-terrace toilet with an outside house and furnished it from top to bottom with stuff salvaged from the back of the dustcart. Carpets, curtains, furniture, framed pictures and stuffed animals for the wall, toiletries for the bathroom, books for the bookshelf. I couldn't afford electricity because I was paying off fines at the time, so I lit the place with candles and brass paraffin lamps, also salvaged from the back of the cart. It was strange, but you only had to think of something you needed - a saw, a radio, more candles - and by the end of the week you'd probably have it.

The crusher was very powerful, and we'd take anything if someone came out rustling a five-pound note. "Deep freeze? Certainly madam! Mattress? Just the one, sir?" Once, this bloke gave us twenty quid for taking his car away.

Christmas was mental. The year I left we got more than pounds 2,000 each in tips. I could hardly fit the wad of cash in my trouser pockets and walked into the pub like a gunslinger.

The thing I enjoyed most about being a dustman, though, was getting cleaned up, going out again, and chatting to someone I'd never met and waiting for them to pop that all-important question: "And what do you do for a living?" Then I would look them in the eye and say: "I'm a dustman!". You can tell quite a lot about people by telling them you are a dustman.

I used to go to church in those days, and sometimes went out the back for a coffee after the service. But you know what non-conformist church people are like: they only want to find out what you do for a living in order to ascertain whether you are worth talking to or not. So when I said I was a dustman some of them visibly recoiled, as if they thought I was some kind of a troglodyte. "How marvellous!" or "Well done!" they'd trill, moving rapidly away. There was another bloke at this church who spent Monday to Friday shovelling used sanitary towels into an incinerator, and his experience was much the same.

The best response I ever got was from a cynical old police desk sergeant who was taking down my particulars before sending me to the cells for the night. When I told him I was a dustman, he put down his Biro, shook my hand and said, "How very noble of you, sir."

But as far as El Sid, my old man, was concerned I couldn't have chosen a better career. When he introduced me to his friends, he always proudly added that I was a binman, as if it was a real feather in my cap.

"Much rubbish about, son?" he'd ask, proud and genuinely interested; or, "Found anything lately?" And if I could tell him about a good find we'd had, or anything unusual we'd taken away, he'd be all agog.

Now that I have given up such a noble occupation to become a journalist, Sid has lost all interest in my career. My leaving the dustcarts was a serious disappointment to him and nowadays he rarely asks me about my work. The other week I was in his flat in Marbella, and we were having a large one and watching the bullfight on the telly. As yet another dead bull was being dragged out, he said: "What's it like being a journalist, then?"

"What do you mean: 'what's it like?'," I said.

"What do you have to do? 'Ang about on doorsteps and that?"

"Mostly I just sit at home and write about you, Dad. I write about you and what a sad old git you are."

He looked at me for a moment, trying to make up his mind whether I was being funny, then another bull galloped into the ring and he forgot all about it.