John Walsh: 'Barter doesn't work. It's too naff, too flyblown, too close to the poverty line'

Tales of the City
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The Independent Online

It's often been alleged, by mocking north Londoners, that metropolitans forced to live south of the Thames aren't like ordinary people. Southsiders (they say) seldom see a quail's egg, or a truffle-oil dipping-saucer; they watch black and white television, eat the runts of their offspring in tough times, and, instead of buying goods with cash, they acquire them through some primitive form of barter.

I've always been shocked by such stereotyping. But as I discovered at the weekend, when it comes to the last-mentioned accusation, it seems that south London has indeed gone barter-tastic.

I attended an event called Give and Take, organised for Southwark council by a firm named Veolia Environmental Services. The idea is simple: you dig out all manner of knackered appliances, unused gifts, unread books, un-played-with toys, hideous crockery and démodé clothing, take it along and swap it for something you actually want. It's just like a trip to the Oxfam shop – but with Give and Take, you get to pillage the shop for something to take home.

Here's a tricky one – have I got any unused gadgets and clutter in my lovely home? Where do I start? I've had an electric wok gathering dust in the kitchen for years (it was supposed to be used in a student flat unblessed by a cooker) that had to go. A kind Irish aunt once bought me a multi-purpose washer, a plastic receptacle into which you introduced root vegetables and some cold water and, by some mysterious alchemy, the former emerged cleansed some time later. It's been in the "Keep, Then Lose" category for years. A pristine Krups espresso machine, a cheese fondue set, a Marilyn Monroe jigsaw (500 pieces, mostly flesh-coloured against a beige background – very frustrating) and some elderly books with titles like So You Want To Be a Dirigible Pilot? made up the remainder of the swag with which I filled the Alfa.

At the community centre, a place I hadn't associated with cutting-edge political initiatives, a band of locals stood in line with their unwanted bits. Unlike punters on Antiques Roadshow, who queue with their favourite paintings, chamber-pots and mahogany escritoires looking like fond pet-owners, the punters at Give and Take looked decidedly furtive, like thieves and murderers about to dump evidence of their guilt in the Thames. A silver-haired matron scrutinised the box I held. "An electric wok – how does that work?" she asked. "Does it toss the noodles and stuff up in the air for you?" "I've no idea what it does," I said coldly, disclaiming all connection with the thing, apart, of course, from the awkward fact of owning it. The same went for the multi-purpose washer, whose inscrutable function I was asked to explain to a mocking young couple from Penge. "I'm not here to demonstrate the bloody thing," I said, "I'm trying to get rid of it."

When the council people had taken all our contributions, we moved into the "Take" area where recently donated clothes, books, DVDs, kitchen stuff, lighting, plants and sporting gewgaws lay waiting for new owners to claim them. Conflicting impulses clutched my heart. One said: "Look at this stuff. It's all free. You could take it home before anyone else grabs it. You could take all of it..." while the other gazed at the tartan shirts, the dog-eared cookbooks, the 1950s terracotta dinner plates and the natural-childbirth DVDs and said: "Why are you standing amid all this crap, trying to snaffle a 1969 melamine standard lamp with Day-glo orange shade, which somebody else has abandoned, and install it in your living-room, where it will shout to all your visitors your new status as a victim of the economic downturn?"

Greed wrestled with distaste, and the latter won. I left the barter centre with an old video of Gigi and a pack of environmentally sound crystals to insert in the loo cistern. Not much to show for electric woks and vegetable cleansers. Barter, I decided, just doesn't work. It's too naff, too flyblown, too close to the poverty line for anyone with a morsel of self-esteem.

Back at work, I rang the Veolia people. "It's proving really popular," a voice told me. "Everyone's doing it now. Islington borough had its first Give and Take event at the weekend." So Islington is clambering on the bandwagon, eh? Well, blow me down. So we intrepid Dulwich-ites have been at the economic cutting edge all along...