Recycling trick: Rubbish brings out the worst in people

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The Independent Online
Rubbish is one of those things that you never worry about until you sud-denly have an embarrassingly large pile. Yet one man's rubbish is another's treasure. Even if you've just put it down and you don't think it's really junk. I learned all about human detritus when I was moving house. It is surprising how refuse values change in different parts of London.

'What's his name?' I heard someone say, as I wrestled a hideous Thirties wardrobe into my front garden. 'How about Dances With Wardrobes?' We are in Shepherds Bush. No sooner had I turned my back than, like Kevin Costner's hat in Dances with Wolves, the wardrobe had gone. 'You'd put it out. You must have wanted to get rid of it,' shrieked an old lady from across the road.

Formerly I lived in Notting Hill, where rubbish tends to be things like rose petal cat litter, skin off smoked salmon, or last year's Nikon. You don't get the full-scale, full-frontal rubbish you find on the Steptoe frontier. In the manner of Kevin Costner, I had crossed over the Shepherds Bush roundabout into the very wild west. Brackenbury Village may be a centre for creativity and the new British film industry but it's still Steptoeville Sud. Where children play with anything from yo-yos, stolen Powerbooks or talking dildos they discover in skips, and any flying saucers would be jacked up on bricks.

In Notting Hill, you never saw the privatised servants of the Tory authority who would take away anything - probably unwanted relatives for the price of a parliamentary question. They did their jobs as Jeeves incarnate, never created a fuss. They even asked if they should kill a rat found in the dustbin area: 'Some people feed them titbits, madam,' they told my wife.

However, in Steptoeville, after questioning why I should pay for a second privatised service to take away 'household items over ten units', I somehow became infested with rats. By then, old staircarpets, other bits of wardrobe, and settee not appropriated by the Steptoeville Sioux spilled on to the pavement. A burly man crowded my front doorstep and said: 'I'm the rat man. You sent for me. You've got rats in your cellar. And we hear you have 10 Polish lodgers. This letter says you have an infestation.'

Of Poles? For a moment I felt more than a little confused. From the amount of bureauc-racy and number of times people on the switchboard said 'innit' and 'nuffink', I thought the council must be politically correct. Yet it almost sounded as if this cheerful man wanted to put Warfarin in the honey vodka of my non-existent citizens of Warsaw and Gdansk.

'I'm sorry. I have no rats. We've got two very efficient cats. And we have no Poles either. I would not necessarily lump them together.' He looked at me suspiciously. Was I sure about the rats? I nodded. I said I knew the droppings. The Poles? I wondered if I should look upstairs in case someone was slyly folk dancing in the attic.

'It says here things are so bad that next door has had to buy not one, but two Jack Russell terriers, specifically for ratting.' The letter purported to be from me but was signed illegibly by someone else. 'You're the victim of an anonymous letter. It's the rubbish. Rubbish does bring out the worst in people. They start to see rats.' But your people are coming to take it away, I insisted. He shook his head.

The council had said they could not take my rubbish for at least a week so I had asked a private contractor to move it. He could dump it on a dump because he had special permission. If I tried to do it myself, I would get short shrift, he warned. In Steptoeville, the council puts out skips for the public so that wardrobes and the like can be danced to and fro on the broad backs of the Steptoeville Sioux. That is before someone starts to see rats and the worst in people.

As the rat man left disappointedly, he added that I should get the council's scientific officer to look at my asbestos shed. 'Shed? A shed's a shed, innit?' said the lady on the council switchboard. 'Why you wanna get rid of it?' I explained: 'It's poisonous. It's made of asbestos.'

The scientific officer, following a week off sick after examining my shed, recommended more private contractors. The council would not touch my shed with a Pawnee war lance. These private contractors are costly. Men in space suits who charge as much as psychiatrists. I heard a banging at my back door.

A woman and two children were in the yard. 'Bout time too,' she complained as I came downstairs. 'We been locked out my house.' Strangely, she lived a street away. 'It's quite easy to break in,' I replied, handing her a kitchen knife which she ran off with through the front door. The knife had become rubbish. At least until, with my fingerprints, it turns up in her boyfriend's or husband's neck.

Dancing with wardrobes can be a tricky business. But like Kevin Costner, I prefer it here. I don't long for any clean-up cavalry, just one pair of hooves. Come back Albert Steptoe and Hercules. London needs you.

(Photograph omitted)