A Dinky Dustbin Lorry





For my sixth birthday, in 1954, I received (perhaps I chose) a toy garbage truck, what I would call a “dustbin lorry,” my very first Dinky toy. At the time my family lived in the Yemen, at Steamer Point, Aden, looking out over the Red Sea and the never-ending convoy of ships arriving to take on fuel and leaving, their tanks and bunkers full as they headed for the Suez Canal or the Indian Ocean. The contrast between a very prosaic, very British, Bedford lorry and the exotic, arid, troubled place in which we lived didn’t strike me at the time, of course, and the little vehicle became just the first of a small collection of cars and trucks destined to collect dust from floors on three continents as my family moved back to the UK and then to Australia. Eventually, of course, the dustbin lorry disappeared, probably worn out and battered by the robust attentions of my myself and my two younger brothers. But I never forgot it. It was perhaps significant that this first delight should be in a utilitarian vehicle, and an unglamorous one at that, rather than a more attractive motor-car from the Dinky range.

In April 2105 I spotted a scarred but complete example of the same model dustbin lorry in an antiques centre in York, and I bought it. I had been looking for this for a while, not obsessively, but whenever I came across a sales display of old die-cast vehicles. I could probably have bought one, perhaps cheaper, online, but somehow discovering one in a shop seemed to me to be more “authentic” (whatever that means); it was certainly more satisfying.

The lorry has two curved sliding upper panels through which, in its full-scale original, the contents of dustbins would be tipped into its bed, and a swinging rear flap. Turning a small handle raises the truck bed, allowing the contents to slide out through the flap. As I waited for my credit card to be approved I closed and opened the panels and felt, re-experienced, revisited, a sensation that I hadn’t registered for…how long…50 years…longer? My memory of handling the toy as a child had survived, but now I had added, or reconnected, a physical dimension to it – metal sliding against metal, the weight of the lorry, its chipped paint rough against my fingertips. Why was this connection important enough for me to pay to repeat it? It hasn’t changed my memory of playing with the original on the concrete in front the tree-shaded bungalow at Steamer Point, a place not seen since and now caught up once again in conflict.



The author, aged six, outside the Officer’s Married Quarters, Steamer Point, Aden, 1954.


It seems to me that the dustbin lorry is a memory materialised. It has provided me with a step-change in power, power over my own memories, an increase in what I might call the “voltage” of those memories, a transformation. It seems that for me at least, this miniature vehicle acts as both a facilitator of memory and as a transformer.

Piltdown Woman makes fire


Back in 1921, the year my father was born, when “Piltdown Man” still provided the “missing link”  between apes and humans, the women of the “Old Stone Age” knew their place. The other day I picked up a fine second-hand copy of Everyday Life in the Old Stone Age by Marjorie and C.H.B. Quennell. In the Quennell’s imagination, while their hirsute mates brought home the bacon or busied themselves painting the cave walls, women merely lurked or cowered, rather glumly, crawled over by demanding infants, in the background, or crouched over the fire. OK, some women made fire, roasted a chunk of meat or did a little scratching with a digging stick, but otherwise females played very much a supporting role. In the book’s illustrations, men did all the hunting and fishing, the flint knapping and the spear-making. Hmm.


“I’ve brought lunch darling”Moustier-people

“Oh do keep up dear!”


A working Aurignac man arrives home in time for his supper.


Life in a Madelaine hut seemed to be dispiriting, but the man was looking for better things.


More crouching women


Australian twins at home.

I haven’t read much of the text, but I liked that Piltdown Man (despite the fact that he never existed) was more “presentable” than “his Java ancestor” with a “respectable forehead” and also was right-handed, which made him “seem much more intimate.” The Quenelles were very proud of Eoanthropus, because he was “the first known Englishman.” Ho hum!

Piltdown-man“The first Englishman”

Garden archaeology 2015: a beginning

Today the sun was out and the barometer in the hall was pointing towards “fair” and I was at the unglamorous far end of the garden, digging in a bin-full of compost ready for this year’s courgettes and excavating a small trench in order to re-lay an electricity supply to the garage. Being an archaeologist I of course keep a close watch on every spade- and shovel-full of soil. After coming across a couple of fragments of clay pipe stem, I dug up a plastic infantry soldier, of the free-in-cornflakes-packets kind, which appears to have been chewed by a dog. But as the day ended, I found what at first appeared to be a coin, but in fact was a token:


It’s a canteen token, worth a halfpenny, presumably to be exchanged for a cup of tea (but it’s worth considering that in these parts, “tea” also applies to an evening meal, the midday meal being called “dinner”). It is difficult to date the token without finding who H.L.&S. Ltd were, though after the second world war tokens were often plastic. The cost of a cuppa seems modest, and one could certainly buy a cup of tea for a halfpenny in the late C19th, but the price may have been subsidised, so the token could date from pretty-well anywhere in the first half of the C20th. I was pointed, by a Twitter follower, to an example for sale on eBay, which has a hole drilled in the circle above the word “TEA”.

If I find out who H.L.& S Ltd were I’ll update this entry!

The joy of secondhand book archaeology

I buy a steady trickle of secondhand books, from bookshops, from charity shops and occasionally online. It’s  mostly an uneventful activity, as I’m usually buying books that relate somehow to my sphere of research. No chances of coming across rare first editions, even if I was remotely interested in that pursuit. However, people have a habit of leaving stuff between the leaves of books they then forget and discard. Again, my discoveries in this field of archaeology have been limited to pieces of blank paper, a supermarket receipt or two and a single bookmark.

But recently I found this:

Liebig beef concentrate card

It’s a card given away by the Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company, a manufacturer of a beef concentrate,  founded in London in 1865, using cheap South American meat and processing plants, and which  went on to create Oxo and Fray Bentos corned beef. I haven’t been able to date this one yet, but by the look of the image on the reverse it was probably issued in the early 20th century.

Liebig's manufacturing plant

Given away from the second half of the nineteenth century until the 1950s, the cards are of course collected by enthusiasts. Since collectors prefer complete albums, my single card isn’t going to raise much excitement. Yet of course it fascinated me. I had no idea of the existence of either company or cards, and love the contracts between the bucolic image on the front of the card, complete with small child (a recurring theme?) and the industrial scene on the reverse, with its all-male workforce.

As a vegan I’m unlikely ever to sample “Liebig’s Fleisch-Extract” (it’s still made apparently), or even Oxo, but the long-forgotten card linked me, as memories do, to the past, to life a century or so ago, to pots of black gooey stuff that was sold as being good for you, and to rural fantasy and industrial reality in the recent past.

Images as memories

Managed to scrape in past one deadline yesterday at about 30 minutes to midnight, and have to bash out another article today. But in the meantime, I have, for the first time as far as I know, starred on YouTube.


Lots of images of old doors and windows, which by coincidence also feature on the pages of the MIRIAD/Manchester School of Art Research Degrees Handbook 2013-2014.

I’ll hopefully have a piece in the next edition of GESTIN, the academic publication of Idanha-a-Nova Tourism and Management School. However that will require that I finish an online photo gallery. Phew!

Lost and Found: paddling into the past

As an archaeologist, I am by default a “finder” of “lost” objects. Most of my career has been spent excavating things discarded, mislaid, thrown away, hidden, hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. But recently I’ve become much more interested in and excited by objects “lost” by present-day people, objects that form assemblages found in charity shops. This is what I call my “99p archaeology” project.

But “loss” can mean many things: there is the kind of loss that results from a hole in a pocket, a loss that we may not even be aware of until we mourn the absence of the coins or whatever that have vanished.

There is the accidental loss of things that we know have gone astray but which we are powerless or unwilling to retrieve, such as objects that have fallen into the privy, or the phone that slipped through our fingers and into the sea.

We lose people, through death or migration, through conflict or just neglect. We lose status, face, jobs, time, sometimes memories, or unfortunately occasionally an organ or a limb.

Lost and Found is a collaborative project  involving a small group of MIRIAD researchers. On-going, it will eventually result in some sort of publication, or publications, and includes a changing exhibition located on the first floor of Manchester Metropolitan University’s Righton building.

The first objects I have added to the Lost and Found project first lost their function because the structure of which they were a vital moving part was abandoned. The objects were already hidden below the waterline and had simply vanished from the collective consciousness. No-one regretted their loss or even thought about them momentarily because they had become instantly valueless an instant after they were last used.

80 or so years later, the objects, which had been dredged, bent and decayed, from their muddy hiding place as part of a restoration project and cast aside as useless, are once again valued, if only by me, as examples of a long-redundant technology, as “ancient” artefacts, as a celebration of the achievements of long-dead canal builders and those who maintained the waterways, and as aesthetically interesting if not particularly attractive “found art.” As chunks of rotten wood and rusty iron they are of course perhaps without value to anyone else except perhaps as a conversation piece, or mysteries…

Now they rest beneath glass, instantly transformed by the closure of the display case lid from casually discarded and unappreciated junk to something else – artefacts, art (?), specimens, exhibits. Next to the, a printed label underlines their newly acquired status.

Of course the objects themselves haven’t changed, merely my/our interpretation of them and the messages they communicate about form and function and value. But perhaps I’m wrong. The objects have changed. They now mean something that they didn’t when rotting unnoticed in the grass. Or perhaps they have achieved a potential (to be exhibits etc) that they possessed but were unable to express until they established a relationship with me. That relationship depended on their being attractive (as in attracting my attention) and interesting (as opposed to the natural vegetation around them) enough to engage my agency and reward my making the effort to retrieve them, carry them home and then to share them. They might be said to have solicited my involvement.

Again, if I had been anyone else, someone without the various buttons that the objects pressed, I would have ignored or not even noticed them unless they tripped me up as I passed. But even if unnoticed, the paddles still possessed a whole range of potential messages. They almost certainly still do. The species of wood or composition of the iron, their design when compared with other paddles. Perhaps in another century or so, so far unthought of technologies will release much more meaning from these objects, at present locked away in their atoms and molecules. Just as the long-dead Welshmen who made them never for a moment thought that the prosaic objects they made would one day rest in a glass case in Manchester. What is exciting, in a fanciful material culture sort of way, is that they will never be the same, and neither, by association, will those anonymous canal men.

The Spode project begins…

TP_1_decoratedA few days ago I dug a test pit in a derelict area of the Spode factory in Stoke on Trent. Next week we’ll carry out a small excavation not far from the edge of the long-filled-in Newcastle Under Lyme Canal as p[art of the British Ceramics Biennial. My test pit was aimed at finding what lay beneath the surface of what had been a clay-loading area and latterly a car park.

The initial answer was hard-packed brick and stone rubble. Much pickaxing was required. Eventually I reached a horizon which featured some fragments of sagger. A reinforced concrete pile had been drilled through the deposits, an indication of a building apparently associated with handling clay. I need to find its construction and demolition dates. Scattered throughout the rubble was a small amount of transfer-printed pottery, much white unglazed waste and various fragments of kiln furniture.


Material memories of holiday fantasies?

“What would be your fantasy holiday?”

I was recently interviewed by E-R C, a PhD student who, as part of her fascinating research, is examining the connections between holidays and fantasy.

My interlocutor managed to disguise her undoubted horror as I burbled, honestly but perhaps unwisely, that my fantasy holiday would be at least two weeks spent somewhere very warm, Mediterranean probably, with much sunshine, a clear sea, many ancient, overgrown ruins, warm stones, lots of hiking paths snaking amongst rocks and venerable trees, lizards, old well-worn towns, shady cafes, a background of strigilating cicadas and grasshoppers, somewhere comfortable to sip cheap beer (with free wi-fi) and the intimate company of a handful of super-attractive, long-legged, sexually-imaginative and highly-brainy young women companions (this is a fantasy, after all). Our days would be spent exploring, reading, taking photographs, hiking, exposing and caressing smooth, tanned flesh and engaging in passionate intellectual debates. What fun!

My tiny and probably worthless contribution to the world of knowledge apart, the exercise got me thinking about holidays, their material memories (which I’m researching) and fantasy.

Holidays are the source of probably our most familiar material memories. Most vacation destinations are crammed with shops supplying just these – things that we acquire, take home with us and display (at least for a while) to remind us of (hopefully) happy times. Some will have been manufactured or crafted locally, but most will have been mass-produced, often in countries far distant from the place in which we bought them.

To me, the range of artefacts associated with the memories of holidays is huge, and interesting. And perhaps fantasy has a big part to play in what we bring home.

For example, holidays seem to bring out the scurrilous in many of us. We buy nudge-nudge wink-wink postcards featuring overweight and underdressed ladies, or large-busted tiny-bikini-clad women in the jocular company of weedy men, or supposedly-amusing nudity of both genders, with an emphasis on breasts and bottoms. We are also (and here I get very interested, given the subject of my PhD research) persuaded to acquire miniature rudeness, in the shape of exaggeratedly priapic satyrs or tiny obese ladies. If not humorously obscene, and some miniatures depict athletic sexual acts to varying degrees of accuracy, these figurines are on the edge. Holidays it seems are times of double entendre.

The objects themselves often have little connection with the location of the holiday. At least plastic satyrs have a Greek ancestry, but other objects are simply stamped with different locations, and you’ll see the same things in Benidorm and Bondi Beach (I’m guessing). So they are material memories of being there and being amused rather than representations of place. “I hade this rude thought in Xxxxx” rather than “This is a miniature plastic view of Xxxxx.”

Perhaps holidays not only allow us, in theory, to let go of the stresses and pressures of everyday life, but also temporarily to abandon respectability, or good taste, or admit to hidden sexualities, if only in fantasy. It is perhaps telling that the risqué objects that amuse us while on vacation rarely grace our mantelpieces for long, as we revert to our more restrained behaviours once we settle back to “normality.” But the material memories are there nevertheless, even if relegated to a shoe box in the attic, persuading us, and to a lesser extent the world, that beneath our boringly respectable exteriors lie bubbling cauldrons of anarchic sexuality that will released by sunshine and sand.

That in reality we are rarely going to expose the entirety of our pale or blotchy sunburnt-red bodies to the equally pale British sunlight doesn’t seem to concern us. That we similarly refrain from undue exposure even when surrounded by leather-brown naked Germans during holidays abroad doesn’t prevent us from indulging in varying levels of vulgarity, as souvenir shops in continental seaside towns attest. We imagine that we are jolly, bawdy, outrageous, devil-may-care. We kick metaphorical sand in the faces of vacationing wimps, even though we are the wimps. We fantasise that we are the subjects of tongue-in-cheek postcards, even though the nearest we get to a thong bikini is FHM.

We recklessly buy T-shirts bearing bold boasts about our sexual performance or proclivities that we subsequently never have the courage to wear in public. We acquire hilarious (or so they seemed at the time) stickers for our car’s rear window (my favourite, usually displayed by podgy, grey-skinned virgins, is Sex Instructor: First Lesson Free). We sport “kiss-me-quick” hats, never expecting (and perhaps dreading) that anyone will actually act on this invitation.

It may be that we want to remember a fantasy slap-and-tickle-flat-cap-rolled-up-trousered-belly-laughing-fun-and-frolicksome-short-shorts holiday when in truth we are sitting in a could-be-anywhere bar staring glumly at passing beer-gutted men, dumpy women and grizzling children who are glumly plodding the streets of whatever resort we are in, seeking fish and chips and the nearest chain store outlet. In Britain it will be raining. On the Continent it will be too hot. A combination of sunburn, insect bites, hangovers, heat, cold, food-poisoning, demanding offspring, disgruntled companions, sand in everything and tedium means that holiday sexuality is fraught with hazards and perhaps mostly imaginary.

This is just one example. If the small disappointments of reality are the most efficient inspirations of fantasies, then holidays are perhaps a potent source of objects that reflect those fantasies. My thanks to E-R for pointing my thinking in a fertile direction!

Back to basements…


Next to The Salutation pub, the MIRIAD  and MMU art school local, was, until recently, a car park. Soon it will be the new MMU Student Union. But first, a little archaeology exposed the basements of several nineteenth century buildings, nicely paved.


There was even a basement complete with fireplace, water heater and sink.


Sad that it will all be destroyed in a few weeks’ time. And few students will probably be interested in  what lay beneath the sticky floor of their bar…