Rummage by Emily Cockayne review – the joys of rubbish

A dazzling, anecdote-rich study of what, in the past, has been reused, and what discarded

In 1947 the nation was shocked to hear that British troops in Egypt were wearing pants made out of old flour bags. The war was over, we had won, and yet here were our boys wearing scratchy, dusty undercrackers. Five years earlier this might have seemed like a gesture of patriotic making-do, but now it just seemed shoddy. The war services secretary assured the House of Commons that he would be looking into the soldiers’ pants immediately. 

In this brilliantly original and deeply researched book, Emily Cockayne sets out to show how the meanings of material reuse zigzag wildly according to context. There is something honourable about aristocrats handing down the family silver; something worthy about a green-minded family rummaging through a car boot sale; something pitiable about a rough sleeper investigating the contents of a public rubbish bin. 

Even if time and place remain steady, contradictions always emerge. The Wombles, who captured the imagination of 1970s children with their litter-picking and recycling adventures on Wimbledon Common, were also responsible for a real-life surge in plastic tat. Great Uncle Bulgaria, Orinoco and Madame Cholet might look like darling “aardvarks in sheep’s clothing” but, by the time they had been turned into bri-nylon toys, they had become an environmental hazard. Thirty years earlier, and with the country at war, there was a similarly tricky cost-benefit analysis to be made. Inhabitants in both country and city had reluctantly donated their park and garden railings to be melted down for munitions. Subsequently it turned out that the recovered iron was too impure for its intended use, and much of it was dumped in the Thames estuary, where it was still confusing ships’ compasses well into the 70s. On a cheerier note, there was a significant drop in the number of children impaling themselves. 

The Wombles ... ‘aardvarks in sheep’s clothing’.
The Wombles ... ‘aardvarks in sheep’s clothing’. Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Cockayne’s book is much more than a lucky dip of secondhand anecdotes. With admirable thoroughness she has gone deep into the archives of such unglamorous bodies as the National Salvage Council and emerged with absolute gold. Indeed, colour emerges as one of the surprising themes of this shimmering book. While historians have long known that the Industrial Revolution produced shades and tones that had never been seen before, Cockayne does a wonderful job of parsing the formulae and finding a surprising amount of rubbish among the ingredients. Prussian blue, for instance, was made from a rich stew of cattle horns and hooves, old iron hoops, animal blood and leather clippings. Mauve, which had previously been “purple” and therefore hugely expensive and exclusive, was discovered in the 1850s to be easily extracted from the oily parts of coal. Suddenly everyone was wearing it. Pure white sugar, increasingly desired by the socially ambitious urban middle-classes who thought that the brown version looked common on their shiny tables, was obtained by filtering it through “bone black” which was made by boiling up bits of old animals that no one else wanted. 

If that sounds disgusting, then it’s because much of the murkier business of manufacture in the 19th century, then as now, remained out of sight. However, the further back Cockayne goes, the more evidence she uncovers of general unease about the implications of living in a culture that constantly tried to make something out of nothing. Indeed, people began to worry that they too might find themselves repurposed. 

The Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is so disturbing not because it is ugly but because it has been tacked together from bits of other people. How terrifying, then, when 10 years after the novel appeared, William Burke was found guilty not simply of plundering graves to supply Edinburgh doctors with corpses for dissection, but actually murdering people in order to fulfil the unstoppable demand from anatomists. (His partner William Hare turned king’s evidence and was not sentenced.) The scandal became the backdrop for a series of later panics about how the government routinely imported the bones of foreign soldiers to spread as fertiliser on Britain’s “humid, cold and poorest land”. The thought that your roast potatoes might taste of Prussians or Parisians was enough to put anyone off their Sunday lunch. 

In other contexts, though, recycling body parts seemed like an automatic and universal good. In a fascinating section, Cockayne reveals that there was a brisk business in teeth implants in the early 19th century. In 1829 one generous Congleton man allowed a dentist to take out his tooth and set it into the mouth of his brother. The transplant worked, with the recipient’s gum growing fraternally around its latest addition. If you didn’t have a generous relative to hand, you could always ask the dentist to knock you up new gnashers made from “sea-horse bone” (hippopotamus tusks). This busy trafficking in body products even led to innovations in the English language. “Taking the piss” has its origins in the early 17th century when huge quantities of human urine were shipped from London to Yorkshire for use in the manufacture of valuable alum (the whole operation turned out to be a bit of a scam). 

Above all, Cockayne wants us to revise our assumption that people in the past must have been better at reuse and recycling (not the same thing) than we are today. There is, she insists, “no linear history of improvement”, no golden age when everyone automatically sorted their household scraps and spent their evenings turning swords into ploughshares because they knew it was the right thing to do. Indeed, in the 1530s the more stuff you threw away, the better you were performing your civic duty: refuse and surfeit was built into the semiotics of display in Henry VIII’s England, which explains why, on formal occasions, it was stylish to have claret and white wine running down the gutters. 

Winchester cathedral was sacked by Oliver Cromwell’s army in 1646.
Winchester cathedral was sacked by Oliver Cromwell’s army in 1646. Photograph: Pablo Paul/Alamy

Three generations later and Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian troops had found new ways to manipulate codes of waste and value. In 1646 they ransacked Winchester cathedral and sent all the precious parchments off to London to be made into kites “withal to fly in the air”. Puritans are not known as funsters but Cockayne’s point here is that treating your enemy’s most precious possessions as your personal plaything is just about the most brutal thing you can do.

Rummage is bookended with the story of Cockayne’s grandmother, Evelyn Bradbury (1923-92). Nan was a huge make-do-and-mender, not because she was interested in the welfare of the planet but because she couldn’t bear waste. It’s an attitude that will be familiar to any of us who have or had parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who came through first the Great Depression and then the second world war. In loving detail Cockayne remembers how Nan taught her to knit and patchwork, though oddly not how to crochet. What Nan also did was make her granddaughter a toy lion that smelled of feet. 

The lion had been carefully assembled from some left over scraps of Crimplene, two buttons for eyes, all topped off with a grand brown velvet bow salvaged from a box of chocolates. When it came to stuffing, Nan delved into the bag of old tights that she kept behind the settee for just this purpose – hence the toy’s particular odour. Cockayne, though, clearly adored Stinky Lion and these carefully selected personal recollections underscore the fact that her methodology is about much more than simply heaping up bits and pieces of the past to create a dazzling bricolage. What binds this book together and gives it a numinous quality is the tenderness that the author displays for other people’s ingenious leftovers, from brotherly teeth to Puritan kites.

 Rummage is published by Profile (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply.


Kathryn Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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