When I was a kid the tip, the dump, was a source of never-ending wonder. Since I am such an ancient, I should make it clear I am speaking of the 1950s and especially the 1960s. By this time everyone had made a communal decision that we all lived in the rocket age, Kennedy was the president and the past was really behind us all. We had no further use for it.
So the tips of my childhood were full of abandoned Victorian and depression-period objects on a truly enormous scale. (Think the store room of Citizen Kane at the end of the film…deposited over rotting matter) Of course kids are always rag pickers so it was an educational goldmine.
Well, yesterday, Douglas and I took some vegetation out to the tip. There is always a woman who takes the money who bides her time by being fresh. I am always ‘young man’ (a winning strategy) and she makes the point that it is ‘just for me’ that she is giving me the tip ticket. (How do you handle this plunge into intimacy. When I buy bread the woman always calls me – and every other customer – darling. I sort of like it and I sort of cringe. Imagine if one replied – that’s alright sweetheart.)
Anyway long story short, Douglas had also put in bag of rubbish. Whether this was a ploy I do not know, since I know he was also a tip scavenger in his childhood. I backed the car up to the pit. It was a windy day and great clouds of brown dust whipped around. Tips to me always evoke Italian neo-realist films. They seem to me to be heavily atmospheric – both wasteland and goldmine.
Douglas tipped out his bag and then called me over. I could tell he was excited. I got out and looked down. I became excited too.
Down below us, about two metres down, were two pictures in elaborate Victorian golden frames. Inside were family photographs. One had shattered glass and both were dirty. But one frame looked magnificent.
The huge machine, which scoops up the rubbish into one vast tidy pile, was at work. Douglas tried to get the man’s attention: it was no small business getting down into the pit of rubbish to ‘save’ the pictures.
But this became our burning obsession.
Somehow the man noticed our predicament. He halted the machine and got out. He was unusually pleasant: mostly men who work at the tip have a high suspicion of mere mortals who merely come to deposit rubbish: they sit, as it were, atop the rubbish heap as lords and masters.
Douglas explained we wanted to look at the picture down there.
Amazingly, the man picked it up, looked at it and instead of saying – you can’t have it, it’s council property, he handed it up to Douglas saying, ‘It looks pretty old.’
Whether this meant – a negative or a positive – I couldn’t tell.
Once it was in Douglas’s hands, he smiled and said to the man, ‘There’s another picture down there, could I see it too?’
We got its companion, a woman. Then Douglas saw yet another, smaller picture. This was of a young man.
We got all three.
They were filthy but clearly all belonged together as a family. Given Maori sensitivities to ancestral images, it seemed amazing that these poor Pakeha – who obviously had money in their past – had ended up so abandoned.
The tip man cheerily winked to me when I turned to wave a thank you goodbye. Tips are great places, I thought.
Back home Douglas took the images out of the frames. They turned out to be Opalotypes, a Victorian production method of photographing onto thin sheets of white glass – the effect of which was closer to a pencil drawing than a photograph (and which seems to evoke the graveyard and memorializing). It was expensive too and it’s not surprising that the subject family were clearly prosperous – a plump father, an ugly mother and a not-too-bad looking son.
Inside there were pencil markings and an actual date – 20/10/1892.
But it was the frame, which caught our attention.
We have a ‘frame bank’, buying up frames at auctions in the knowledge (or hope) that in future we’ll have some use for them.
The local picture framer is used to us now – we are the odd couple who come in and ask, not merely to put things in old dirty frames (which they clean) but even more weird, we insist on keeping the old woggly glass.
Does this way lie decorative madness?
Are we creating the tip of the future?