Trash or treasure? The joy of finding junk on the streets of London

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 (ES Magazine)
(ES Magazine)

I like to think I’ve always had a good eye for tat. My living room is full of almost-certainly haunted secondhand treasures, including a taxidermied crocodile head, three (three!) busts of Elvis Presley and a vintage bamboo rack brimming with copies of a suspicious 1970s magazine called Naked Yoga. If the human Quality Street that was the late Barbara Cartland and pope of trash John Waters formed an interior design duo, I reckon my north London home would warrant a spot on their mood board. Imagine, then, my delight when I recently spotted a large candyfloss-pink statue of the Virgin Mary on the pavement while on my way to the pub.

Homeless and evidently on offer to anyone who happened to walk past — poor Mary, it must have been just like nativity week all over again — I quickly rescued her from the backstreets of Tottenham. I did however leave behind the unopened bottle of Tresemmé conditioner that she seemed to be guarding. Let’s not be greedy, I thought.

To the delight of my fellow drinkers, Mary accompanied me for the rest of the evening. It turns out that an Irish boozer in Seven Sisters is the perfect place to take an oversized statue of the Virgin Mary. Our table was given a free round of Guinness and I’m pretty sure divine intervention was at work. After a slap-up dinner of Tayto crisps, I took Mary home and she now has pride of place on my mantelpiece, in-between a glass head of Nefertiti and a cactus in a turquoise tin that at some point in c.1961 contained Cow & Gate baby formula.

One of the underrated joys of living in London is finding gems like Mary out on the street. Dumpster diving without the actual bin rummaging, this egalitarian and sustainable way of sharing unwanted goods with the local community — aka FreeBay — has long been popular but makes even more sense in the age of climate crisis. It has also been turbocharged by lockdown clearouts. If oversized religious ephemera isn’t your thing, there’s plenty of other discarded booty that’s ripe for the picking. I’ve also snaffled a gloriously camp disco-era Turkish film poster that now hangs over my bed after I found it resting against someone’s garden wall, while my vinyl collection would be far lighter if it weren’t for the many 12” records that I’ve plucked from pavements across the capital.

We were given a round of Guinness and I’m pretty sure divine intervention was at work

Fostering such finds runs in the family. It’s a habit I’ve picked up from my mother, who texted over the summer to inform me that she’d happened across an abandoned sign for a pub in Palmers Green that she used to frequent. ‘God, that was heavy,’ she messaged after carting it home. ‘But I couldn’t just leave it there.’ Once when on holiday in Los Angeles, the pair of us rummaged through some spectacular spoils outside a gutted mansion in the Hollywood Hills, buying extra baggage allowance on the return journey so we could transport a giant art deco light fixture back to the UK.

Many of my mates have also scored stunning sidewalk swag, from an extremely well-seasoned Le Creuset cast iron dish retrieved from a Plumstead gutter to a medical light box in full working order. ‘I could fit my chest X-ray on it and it’s now a permanent fixture in my living room,’ says Leah proudly, before sending me a shot of the glowing piece of hospital kit, complete with the aforementioned image of the inner workings of her torso.

Another friend, Jo, has a gallery on her phone dedicated to all the roadside finds she didn’t quite have space for at home. It includes a snap of her biggest regret, a terrifying oil portrait of a sinister-looking gentleman with real hair stuck to his head, jutting out of the frame with wispy abandon.

It’s strangely thrilling to be the giver-away of stuff, too. Once, for reasons known only to an over-enthusiastic press agent, I found myself in possession of four copies of electronic musician Moby’s memoir. I placed them in a row on my front wall when I lived on Stoke Newington Church Street and all were snapped up in 10 minutes flat. More recently, a Victorian armchair that I cherished but could no longer keep went out on to the road with a plaintive ‘Take me!’ sign attached. Reader, it was taken.

A word of warning, however. A few years ago my friend Joey was moving house and with the help of five people over the course of two long hours, they managed to remove her weighty but much-loved piano from her third floor flat and posit it on the street. But when they brought the van around to take the piano to Joey’s new house, it was gone. A testament not just to the brute strength of whoever nabbed it in such a short space of time but proof that you should always double check that your street finds aren’t street steals.

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