Londonist Interviews A Very Kind Man

By Londonist_ben Last edited 144 months ago
Londonist Interviews A Very Kind Man

We love freecycle. We've waxed lyrical about it before.. Since then we have received a book and are still waiting to hear back from a woman about some dinosaur stickers.

While browsing through lists of beds and curtains and the implausible amount of doors that always seem to come up, we came across a chap called Matthew Smith who takes broken iPods, fixes them, and gives them back out to the freecycle community for free. We thought this was very kind. Very kind indeed. So kind, in fact, that he deserved an interview.

What is your motivation for restoring and giving away iPods?

The reason I started collecting broken iPods and reconditioning them and offering them back out into the community is quite simple.

I started off with a broken iPod and needed to fix it somehow. I broke it by being rather silly and attaching it to a magnetic holder in my car – which of course warped the hard drive! So I advertised on Freecycle for a couple of broken ones for spare parts, and mentioned in my advert that if I received more than I needed, and that I get my initial iPod working again, then I will use the spare parts to fix the others and would re-offer them back out into the community.

I was inundated with replies from people saying what a great idea it was and lots of people donated to the cause. Then somehow it snowballed into what it is today!

Why don't you sell them? Are you some sort of benevolent millionaire?

I guess I could, and judging by the amount of money that broken iPods go for on eBay I can see there’s a very profitable market out there that people are manipulating for their own benefit, which is fair enough, living within a capitalist society and all that.

But the thing with Freecycle is that you surprise yourself by getting the generosity bug and learning how good it feels to give something back. We spend our whole lives working to earn money so that we can then spend it on stuff that ultimately we don’t really need – we just think we do because the media and society tells us we do. So I fell under Freecycle’s spell and now its definitely paying off for me.

I get far far more enjoyment out of knowing there’s good people out there who will donate their broken iPods to a complete stranger and that person (me!) returns the generosity by spending my free time driving around picking these up and then fixing them and offering them back out.

Because of this, which only costs me petrol which id use anyway for other journeys (I tend to combine pick ups with other activities), I am in the position to really make a difference to so many people. If you look around London on the tube, in restaurants, at bus stops, in your work place, so many people are displaying body language that shows them to be defensive, guarded, sceptical, suspicious.

But if a complete stranger spends a couple of hours of his time and then gives one of these people something they would normally have to pay a hundred pounds or so for then that surprises them. They look for the angle, wonder what’s in it for him and then realise there is no angle, there’s no hidden catch, costs or whatever – they realise that even in a big impersonal and sometimes cold place like London there are people out there that want to do some good.

That’s what I get out of it, it makes me feel good! I get a real buzz out of knowing I just made someone’s day and thinking they may be that little bit more trusting of strangers in future. I’m certainly no benevolent millionaire – I have just realised that its not money that makes the world go round, its working as a team for the benefit of others that does it.

What is usually wrong with the iPods? How do you fix them?

To be honest, iPods are terrible MP3 players, they are just marketed well because of their aesthetic beauty and fashion icon status. Essentially it’s a hard drive similar to what’s in your PC but with a battery and screen on it.

Hard drives are made up of hundreds of spinning disks a hairs breadth away from each other and it only takes one of those disks to move or to warp and that’s it – game over. It’s why Apple have had the sense to bring out the iPod Nano, which is a flash based memory system that is actually designed to be used on the move.

Hard drives were never meant to be used whilst moving so I find it crazy that the iPod has been marketed as a mobile music player when its based around a traditional hard drive system. That’s what’s mainly wrong with them, its almost guaranteed that sooner or later your hard drive is going to pack up on your iPod, so I spend most of my time sorting the iPods into different piles, labelling the working and non working drives, mix and matching them, and running system diagnostics on each one to ultimately fix them.

Of course there’s other things that go wrong with them – dead batteries, cracked screens, broken scroll wheels, loose earphone sockets etc. I fix them in the same way – mix and matching with working components until one is working and ready to be given a good home.

Why should people Freecycle?

Well firstly have a look around your own home and check out what things are made of. It’s not very often people have high quality things any more. It’s very rare indeed to see a nice piece of hand made furniture made with real wood like oak or mahogany. Its normally a wood pulp based artificial wood or a cheap pine table etc, and this is simply because the world has started to run short of such things and they are now the reserve of the wealthy and more prosperous people.

So if you think things have started to get bad now, imagine what it will be like for your children and their children and so on. We throw too many things away and that’s only adding to the problem. We need to ensure we get the most out of the things we have now and break that cycle of throwing things away and then buying new ones, because all its achieving is a world full of disposable goods and fewer resources for the next generations.

We need to break these habits we have formed of sending our unwanted goods to landfill. Just because we think they are worthless it doesn’t mean that someone who is less better off than us will think they are worthless too – in fact it could really make their day to get your cast offs, plus it always feels nice to give. Also people need to realise where their goods are ending up.

We might get letters from local councils saying that a certain amount of household waste is recycled in a professional manner etc etc yada yada, but you only have to dig a tiny bit beneath the surface to realise that many of the recycling contracts are held by private companies who are exporting our waste to other countries like China and then paying people an absolute pittance to separate the goods all day long.

There are young children and families who live on top of mountains of our household waste thousands of miles away from the UK leading an impoverished and miserable existence but people don’t seem to realise or care about that. Their environment is becoming polluted with toxins and young children are cutting themselves on our discarded cans and bottles, all because that’s the way they make their living.

That’s simply not right, and each person who selfishly discards something needs to take individual responsibility for the repercussions. Also I spend quite a lot of time in Germany and as we all know, theirs is a culture that recycles on a big big level and woe betides anyone who puts things in the wrong bin – they will get a letter through the door telling them they are now going to be heavily fined for mixing their waste. And as a result people follow the rules, they take responsibility and their waste management system is very effective.

Unfortunately there are nations like the UK that do less recycling than they should, so that just tips the balance back to square one and the countries that have made an effort find it was all in vain because others aren’t pulling their weight. Freecycling is fun, its seriously addictive and it reminds us that you don’t just need to give at Christmas, you can give all year round and its much much more rewarding than buying things constantly that you don’t even need, especially with this current dismal culture of selling everything and anything on eBay to the highest bidder.

A nation of shopkeepers indeed!

Best thing you've picked up from Freecycle?

That’s got to be my M reg Fiat Punto!

I got this off a generous gentleman who thought it was going to cost £400 to put through its MOT. I got it through for £160 all inclusive, paid an extra £20 on eBay for a remote locking kit, a tenner for a bottle of t-cut and upholstery cleaner and it came up like new, absolutely immaculate! I use it for all my Freecycle pickups and I’ve amassed around 20k miles in it since getting it in September 06.

If someone has a broken iPod in their drawer, what would you like to say to them?

Try fixing it and not going out and buying a new one. If you can’t fix it then give it to someone who can and who isn’t trying to make a quick buck for themselves. It might be junk to you, but it could make some child’s week if they received it in full working order. How often do people nowadays get something that’s worth a lot for absolutely free? It can make all the difference when you show people that these things do happen.

Do you think there is a lack of kindness in London?

I think at times that London is a bit like that scene in Ghostbusters where there’s a nasty slime engulfing the city and making everyone bitter and cynical. There’s too much crime, too much hostility and far too much litter.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. Freecycle shows you that there’s tens of thousands of people who every day do something for someone else for absolutely zero monetary profit in London. That’s pretty special and it restores your faith in humanity. Also reminds me of the Black Eyed Peas song ‘Where is the love?’ – who ever said that the media doesn’t teach us anything good!

Favourite thing about London?

Although I definitely see the bad side of the metropolis, I also see an awful lot of good in London. Its just a matter of getting people to forget about money for a moment and remember to smile or be nice to a random person. Its ok, they aren’t going to mug you just because you smiled and said hello!

My favourite thing about London is that I really believe its like a different country to the rest of the UK. There’s every nationality under the sun right here, living together, working together, managing to get on with one another most of the time.

I absolutely adore the whole multi cultural melting pot aspect of London. How can someone be racist when everyone is mixed in together? It reduces the whole thing to a state of absurdity and I adore that aspect. My favourite parts though are the Jamaican communities in Hackney and Tottenham etc. These are communities that have it pretty rough at times, not much money to go around. But the kids are on the whole well brought up and respectful of their elders. The families evidently have a lot of love to give each other, they remember to giggle and have fun. That’s pretty special.

What advice would you give to Ken Livingstone?

I like Ken, I think he’s a good man and I respect anyone who is willing to stand up against the corrupt governments that we have had for the last couple of decades and do what’s right by the constituents. He reminds me of the good ones like Mo Mowlam and Robin Cook. That’s who we need to represent us. Good people who remember who are paying their wages, why they are in power and who don’t spend their time lining their own pockets.

What I would like to say to him is to tell him that he’s doing a very good job but not to make the Londoners pay too much for the Olympics. It will bring so much money into the city but the whole country will enjoy the kudos it brings. Londoners shouldn’t have to dip into their own pockets more than necessary for this event.

Image taken from

Last Updated 06 February 2007