The Best of Times: My mates call me Picasso - no name for a dustman: Philip Rigden talks to Danny Danziger
Monday 12 April 1993
The area around here is lovely. It's turning into a town now, but it used to be a tiny village, with a few of the old Yorkshire cotton mills - the sort of place you stopped on your way to somewhere else, a journey's resting place.
I try to be a good dustman; I'm conscientious, but it's not the most important thing to me. A job is a job. I need to pay the mortgage and pay my other bills. I wouldn't say I sweep roads therefore I must be this sort of person; I'd say I sweep roads to earn a living to make some money so I can pay my bills, full stop.
A lot of people have said: 'You don't look like a dustman'. So I usually reply: 'What does a dustman look like?' When I go out I dress in right with-it stuff, I suppose I've always had a smart appearance and I get a perverse sort of pleasure from saying I'm a dustman; I'm proud to be a dustman, any road.
It's all go, from as soon as you wake up. You get the wagon ready, pick up the lads, and there's not a minute to spare. Sometimes to keep our bonuses, you're running, you've got to empty so many bins in an allotted time. We're timed at 1 minute 45 seconds for each bin. To achieve top bonus regularly is very hard work. The average dustman walks 22 miles a day, and that's as well as humping bins. I'm not kidding. The time-and-motion man came round with our gang a couple of weeks back, and he clocked 22 miles on his chart.
People could help by keeping their dustbin neat instead of overflowing it, and by making access easier. I had a syringe in my leg today, it stuck right in] I picked a bag up and this hypodermic syringe was sticking through. And I don't know what they used it for, it could be anything, could be carrying Aids. I'll have to put it in the Accident Book. But I'd say most people are considerate, if there's broken glass in the rubbish, they'll wait for you and say: 'There's some glass in there but I wrapped it up in paper.' And you say: 'Fair enough.'
I'll get shot for saying this, but there is one big perk. It's called tatting: taking the stuff people throw out, televisions, crockery, that clock on my mantelpiece, the pewter mug, coal scuttle, books. I've got quite a lot of interesting books that way. You get to know when you pick up a bag, you can feel whether it's rubbish or if there might be something in it. But this does slow you down a little.
I'm on the perimeter round at the moment; we do all the farms way out, little hamlets: Hade Edge, Farnley Tyas, Tinker's Monument (that's not official but everyone knows it as Tinker's Monument), Victoria, Hepworth, there's loads of little places.
Today it was me and Barry and Frank. Frank's a mate of mine and Barry's a bit of a character, he's well known in this area - ask anybody and they'll know Barry Lee. We were behind on this round, and we didn't finish on time.
What else happened today . . . oh yes, a dog tried to bite me, that's a constant problem. The women will come out saying; 'It's all right, he won't bite you' - and meanwhile you'll be trying to shake the dog off your leg.
I try to enjoy myself while I'm at work, to make the most of it. So I look around at all the beautiful things that are going on. And my mates and me, we rabbit on, swap yarns about women and booze, you know.
They are fine lads. We're shouting and bawling at each other during the day because the pressure's on to get the work done, so we get a bit ratty sometimes. But when work's over we all have a pint together, so it's nothing serious.
I go to night school. I'm studying art, just passed my 0-levels; I'm working on A-levels now. I really like Leonardo da Vinci. I think he had a brilliant mind, a beautiful mind, he was so intelligent. Not just an artist, but an inventor as well. He had style, didn't he?
I do a lot of portraits of the boys, as well as lots of buildings. My line of work is excellent for having a look at what'll make a good picture. And on the weekends or in the evenings I go sketching. I look around the beautiful valley with the sun setting and that inspires me; or first thing in the morning, if it's a nice clear, crisp morning with the sun just coming out, can inspire me, too. We always see lots of squirrels, rabbits, foxes, hares and sheep.
The lads do tend to tease me. They'll say 'Hello, Picasso' or call me a piss artist. I get my leg pulled all the time: 'Do a drawing of this . . .' and it's an old dustbin or something. They may take the mickey but they are interested. They ask a lot of questions, and if I get them on my own, we'll have a serious conversation about art.
I'd rather be an artist full time. I could put in eight hours a day painting quite easily instead of eight hours a day emptying dustbins.
I've done a lot of pen and ink sketching. I've made so many of them - and sold so many - that it's boring me now. So I'm trying to improve my application of colour and I'm starting with coloured pencils, oil paints - whatever I can afford.
I know I could improve my art if I had more time to study, but because I work hard physically, when I get home I don't feel like doing it. An ordinary artist gets more practice in one day than I have in a couple of weeks.
But I can see myself being a fairly good artist after about another five years. Whether I'll make a living out of it . . . being realistic, I don't think I will. I think I'll remain a dustman. I'll try and work my way up in the dustbins, become a supervisor or something like that; but that takes a lot of effort, and then I wouldn't be able to concentrate on my art.
Maybe I am more optimistic than I'm letting on. It's funny, you don't want to reveal all your dreams to a stranger. You know, you dream about being famous - it just seems absolutely ridiculous, but it's not fame that I want to achieve, I want to give people a message.
I can't communicate it in words - as you can hear - but I can do it through art. Peace, love, beauty, truth, that's what it's all about.
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