Jason Goodwin: Fish kettles, felt galoshes and the days before disposable culture

Our spectator columnist reminisces about the days when recycling was an intrinsic part of society and the recent television trend on decluttering therefore unnecessary.

We got rid of our telly 25 years ago, so, by a happy irony, I missed the recent TV series about decluttering. It was a portable model, with a 7in black-and-white screen, and we watched Poirot on it on a Friday evening when we went to stay at my mother’s converted chapel outside Frome. Peering into its paperback-sized screen and wiggling the retractable aerial from time to time finally weaned me off a habit that had been formed in childhood, when we had a TV set from a rental company.

Once the little TV died, we never bothered to replace it; we’ve had angry, disbelieving letters from the licence people ever since. The inspector came to visit recently – a much more friendly man, who turned out not to own a TV himself.

‘The TV was rented, as was the piano and my school violin. It was normal to use things and then to put them back, like those felt galoshes you wear in Russian museums.’

If it seems odd to hire a television set, lots of things in those days, now I think about it, were essentially on loan. Our house came cheap on a very short end-of-lease agreement. The TV was rented, as was the piano and my school violin. It was normal to use things and then to put them back, like those felt galoshes you wear in Russian museums.

Fish kettles, wheelbarrows and the tea urn came from the village hall. Milk bottles, famously, belonged to the dairy and were sent back empty to be refilled. There was money to be had at the off-licence on empty beer bottles. We were all members of the local library. You could buy a record, but nobody owned a film.

Ford milk float transit 1967. Image shot 1967. Exact date unknown.

As for recycling, it wasn’t conscious. Old newspaper was used for everything from fish and chips to lighting fires and absolute junk, such as a broken pram or a dead toaster, was taken away by a rag-and-bone man. He came down our road in central London in the 1970s, on a horse-drawn cart, roaring for any old iron. My grandmother kept odd bits of string in a tin for when they came in handy, which they often did.

All very pleasant and nostalgic, but you enter the realm of dystopia when you consider that our phones were rented, too – not the line, but the actual instrument itself. It would be wired in by the GPO, after a long wait, and set up on a little table in the hall where it was always cold in the winter and everyone in the house could eavesdrop on your conversations.

That didn’t matter, however, because the people who used these instruments were always icily brisk, as if the receiver could give you germs and calls cost £1 a minute.

‘Plastic sombreros, keyring torches, talking dolls, remote-controlled cars? You name it, this site wholesales it.’

It hardly needs pointing out that the situation is different now. It isn’t only that we all have our own personal phones, we have their detritus and their cast-offs, too: old phones, old cases and screens, horrible old charging wires, spawned like so many undersea shells. Perhaps they’ll come in handy, like the string, but I can’t say I believe it.

Long before the TV gurus turned overconsumption into a show, William Morris wrote: ‘If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’ I’m not sure where that leaves old connectors and adaptors.

The children stumbled across a commercial website on which you can order bulk shipments of tat from China. Plastic sombreros, keyring torches, talking dolls, remote-controlled cars? You name it, this site wholesales it. And you barely have to wait, either, because it’s already been containerised and shipped.

It’s been sent, without a buyer, to roam the oceans, awaiting your winning bid. You can’t stop it. It’s on its way.