A couple of years ago, driving home on the M6, my old car started to attract attention from other drivers. I saw a couple of flashes in my rear-view mirror, and then a car drew alongside and the passenger pointed to the back of the car, mouthing the word ‘exhaust’. I pulled on to the hard shoulder, got out carefully, and had a look. The exhaust pipe was dragging along the floor.
In truth, I’d known the exhaust was blown from the start of my journey back from work, but I thought, I’d hoped, that I’d be able to nurse it home. I hadn’t realised the whole system was about to drag sparks down the motorway. So that was it. The driver’s door had begun to jam shut, it had been round the clock a couple of times, so it was time to buy another. So I took it to the scrap yard.
This is something with which my Dad would have been perfectly at home. He (like his father before him) had spent much of his working life as a van and lorry driver, and did so in a time when you could get the bonnet of a car or van up and tinker with it mechanically yourself, rather than having to plug in a computer to run diagnostics on the engine management system. Overalls, oily hands, road dirt and soot from the exhaust were part of that time and world, part of my Dad’s masculinity as I was growing up. I was never that interested in tinkering with machines, and didn’t learn to drive until my late 30s. So I came to adult masculinity outside of that world, outside of those codes. Going to the breaker’s yard was to enter a world-outside-the-world, almost like a portal fantasy. This was no Narnia, mind.
I remember going into the portakabin where the business was transacted. It wasn’t really an office, more a kind of shack, a post-apocalyptic hut where the tinkers and toilers and finders came to talk and receive their orders. A nice woman, keenly aware of my wide-eyed discomfort and that I’d never visited, let alone done business in such a place, saw me through the SORN forms. In this man’s world, the economic transaction would have to wait until the ‘Boss’ came back in a couple of minutes. I went outside to wait, by the car.
Scrap is of course the re-working of unwanted, no-longer utile material into something of monetary value. A few years ago, if you wanted to scrap a car, you’d have to pay to do so; now, with the prices for materials rising (along with the market for second-hand parts for older cars), the scrap merchant would pay you for the vehicle. But I had no idea how much my old car was ‘worth’.
The Boss, unmistakably the fief of this zone of half-stripped automobiles, came striding along in a few minutes. Yes, he said, they’d take it. How much was I looking for? I named a pretty low figure. He hesitated for a moment, then nodded, and stuck out his hand. After shaking on the deal, he pulled out a roll of tenners (yes, really) and counted off the amount. Cheers. I walked out of the yard back to the main road, where my wife and daughter would pick me up.
I stood there in a great wash of relief. I’d done it, got away with it. He hadn’t laughed at the amount I suggested, hadn’t sneered at my obvious and entire lack of knowledge about the process. Perhaps I’d got a fair price, perhaps he’d done me up like a kipper. But I didn’t care. The interview was finished, the transaction complete.
I’d escaped from a space in which the codes of masculinity were entirely separate from the ones I had learned, in school and work; the codes of masculine behaviour, physical bearing and speech that I had internalised to be able to operate successfully in the university system were alien to the scrap yard. In being the first of my family to go to university, I’d translated myself out of one kind of subjectivity and into another, and here was the physical embodiment of the working-class masculinity that my Dad and Grandfather would have recognised and been comfortable with, but which I now found deeply discomfiting.
This world-behind-the-world was also half-in, half-out of the economic world I knew: it interfaced with it to process the documentation to scrap a car, but the financial transaction was done with a roll of tenners, no receipt, nothing. Clearly this was the semi-official edge of the black economy, a circulation which avoided the eye of the Exchequer and in which money travelled from hand to hand, pocket to pocket, without the government taking a tithe.
In a time and place in which corporate avoidance of taxation runs into the billions of pounds, I don’t really know how to think or feel about this. Is it the same thing? Are corporate layers working to find loopholes in tax law equivalent to the passing of a few quid hand-to-hand over a scrapped car? I don’t think so, but I’m not sure I’m on firm ground. Or rather, perhaps, it exposes my own ethical grey areas if I excoriate one, but don’t mind the other.
My friend and colleague Bruce and I went to Manchester last week to see Sleaford Mods live. It was a bracing gig: they were tight, angry, urgent, even though the venue was medium-sized and the crowd lost a bit energy in a mid-set lull. (Williamson noticed.) There’s a film coming out about them, Invisible Britain, which I hope to catch some time soon. In a sense the scrap yard is part of that Invisible Britain, the world-behind-the-world, which bands like Sleaford Mods make visible.
For me, the scrap yard was about recognition, of the bits of the performance of masculinity – to do with class, in particular – that I consciously left behind, to fit in to societal and institutional expectations. It’s not a metaphor for me ‘scrapping’ bits of myself or the traditional working-class masculinity of London and Essex that I’m no longer part of. It’s not even that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Rather, it’s a moment that stays with me because I was not at home, I was not comfortable there. Perhaps more importantly, I was not comfortable with myself. In that estranging moment, I can recognise the dislocations of very different ‘man’s worlds’, and my shifting place in them.