Junk by Kevin Murphy


I have had an affinity with junk since I asked my Dad what the ‘Rag and Bone man’ was, and it has tickled me right up to now when my son and friends have developed a multi million pound company that even has the word ‘junk’ in its title.

Junk itself is a fun word, not easily used seriously – however much one might disagree with the notions of Stalin or Thatcher, they didn’t spout a load of junk – but perhaps rubbish?

Junk mostly describes objects, and ones that are collected in some way. The Rag and Bone man collected rags and bones – for a reason many would not understand now, let alone when I was a child. The current version can be seen in a big city like Sheffield where at least 3 bags a week are put though every door in the hope of old clothes being loaded in and left out for charity. Passing a factory in Mansfield called ‘Rags International’ I realised where the current bags were collected up, by an industry which has probably existed since a rich caveman threw off his old deerskin.

The bones are a different story, though I’m not sure I believe my Dad’s tale that bones were a valuable commodity required to be melted down to make glue. There is a lane near me called ‘Bonemill,’ where I guess stood a mill which would have ground bones for fertiliser.

I probably learnt the word junk soon after, when one of our many corner shops masqueraded as an ‘antique shop’, my Dad dubbing it a Junk Shop. In this age of environmental concern, it would be known as an ‘upcycler’.

I paid my way into college with a short term job working for a London demolition firm. I learnt from the start that the firm was proud that it had built the largest steel erection, and demolished the largest brick building in the country, a Jumble Jet hangar and a Victorian mansion respectively. The ‘Old Man’ and his brothers had started out as roofers, who soon realised industrial roofs were mainly steel and went into the steel erection industry.

He discovered that large construction companies like McAlpine and Laing had turned down a contract to demolish an embassy in Mayfair which had to be brought down on its own space. The Old Man realised he could invert the steel erection model, particularly used to build blocks of flats: erect a tower crane and build the structure round it. The jib – top – of the crane is finally removed, and the tower is left as the lift shaft. He dug a hole through the middle of the old building and put a crane through. This then held a skip to the top side of each floor into which every part was placed. The full skip was lowered quickly onto a lorry, which would hardly even cause a jam in the street. The load was taken down to docklands and every brick, rafter, radiator and cable was sorted and recycled. The bonus for completion six weeks ahead of plan, plus the junk the Old Man collected, made him his ‘first half million’.

The next job I had was for another millionaire – ‘the richest farmer in England’. After the war, he realised the Air Ministry had perhaps thousands of square miles of airfield, of which by far the greater part was simply grass – and they had to mow it. They could not keep animals on it. However, the farmer realised that animals could still eat the grass, so he collected and upcycled the Ministry’s junk. They paid him to remove their grass and he dried, bagged and sold it for animal feed. To be strictly accurate my mate dried it and I bagged it.

It might be argued that I am using the term ‘junk’ too loosely. I see junk generally as one person’s unwanted, which another values. It is also usually ‘collected’.

Urine is liquid gold and has been collected, valued and sold since at least Roman times, mostly for use in textile and leather industries. It is estimated that the urine stream of 1000 people for a year was shipped to the Yorkshire woollen mills. We can now use it to power mobile phones. Junk? ‘Now here’s a fine specimen,’ is heard in many a laboratory, if not lavatory.

My career got its biggest lift when I was given an old bus to use as a Mobile Youth Club. It was converted and with it and a team of Youth Workers, we founded and supported 26 youth clubs in Rural North Notts. The model was written up in the national youth press and I know of at least 32 counties which followed it. We converted several buses which we got from a Paul Sykes who collected them after they were of no use to bus companies. He was actually a dismantler and realised the great value in the chrome steel of the handles and seats, and sold the engines to Arab Bedouins who used them to run generators in the desert, and the Chinese who used them to power – Junks!

He made enough money to build Meadowhall Shopping centre on his old breakers yard. He sold it for £1.17 billion.

That junk made my career, too.

If ‘what a load of junk’, is heard, it is often accompanied by a laugh. It is funny what some people collect. Old matchboxes? Used stamps? What junk do you treasure? Waste not, want not. Make do and mend. One man’s poison is anther man’s meat? Where there’s muck there’s brass.

My son is a barman. I was proud that he became a champion cocktail barman, but I now most proud of what he has done with junk. He cycles everywhere, for work and leisure. He accumulated 11 spare bikes which his mother was impressed to discover stored in the spare toilet of his house.

His team ran a ‘Friday Night Food Fight’ in a warehouse in central Manchester: several bars, pop-up restaurants and bands. One brainstorming session they thought of converting the warehouse into a crazy golf course with bars. They had little money so came up with Junkyard Golf. Gathering much junk form friends and family plus charity shops, my son built a 9 hole course using among other things an old washing machine, electric train and Scalextric tracks, dolls, a bathtub, crockery, garden gnomes, a treadmill, 10m ladder, paddling pool and toy cars. A four week run was a success. The 9 hole themed course gained a brother and a sister 9 holer incorporating a whole Trotter’s 3 wheel van, fibreglass animals, clown, dinosaur, and waste wood, doors, windows, much other junk building material – plus almost all their own labour – ‘Crazy Golf just got epic’.

The team soon built a replica in an old brewery in London and the idea flew. They now have 5 courses in major cities of 3 x 9 hole courses with 2 more on the way.

There are those who shake their heads muttering ‘whatever next. What a load of junk!’

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