Piles of black plastic rubbish sacks lie in the streets of Birmingham because, since the end of June, the dustmen have been on strike. That is not quite what the BBC tells us. On its website the corporation says that ‘refuse workers have resumed strike action’.
I complained here a year ago that dustcarts were disappearing in favour of bin lorries, and now the very dustmen are returning to the dust — dust and ashes. ‘Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris,’ the priest says, ‘Remember thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return,’ as he marks a cross of ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday.
The BBC prefers sex workers to prostitutes and refuse workers to dustmen. It imagines that being a refuse worker is a lifestyle choice for women as much as for men. No doubt there are gender-fluid refuse workers too. The picture on the BBC news site showed eight picketers in high-vis jackets and overall trousers. All were men.
I find it odd to think that anyone might find it hard to understand the profession of the hero of Lonnie Donegan’s song, so popular in 1960: ‘Oh, my old man’s a dustman/ He wears a dustman’s hat/ He wears gorblimey trousers/ And he lives in a council flat.’
A dustman’s hat had flaps over the neck so that a full wicker basket or dustbin could be shouldered without the stuff going down his neck. If anything’s difficult to understand in that verse, it’s the gorblimey trousers. I was disappointed to find that Lonnie’s lyrics were not as original as I’d thought, for we learn from Edward Fraser and John Gibbons’s Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases (‘Including Slang of the Trenches’), published in 1925, that ‘a Gorblimey was the common colloquial term for an unwired, floppy, field-service cap worn by a certain type of subaltern in defiance of the Dress Regulations’. That would have been in the first world war, for the editors remember a song before that war with the lines: ‘He wears Gorblimey trousers/ An’ a little Gorblimey ’at.’
Hats, or trousers, are gorblimey when they elicit that response, which in these undemanding times, they seldom do.