Pocket Junk

I first came across pocket litter a long time ago watching The Man Who Never Was (1956) based on the World War 2 deception Operation Mincemeat (1943).  If you’ve not seen it a small team from British military intelligence create a fictional Royal Marine Major William Martin, then allow a body dressed as the Major with all the stuff to prove who he is and make it look like he was in a plane crash at sea wash ashore is Spain. He is carrying authentic documents with false information that make the Germans think the Allies will land in Greece and not Sicily.  Part of the way they do this is by creating his pocket litter including letters, receipts, a photograph of his girlfriend, money and a theatre ticket stub.

Some characters are at times defined by a key item of pocket junk:

  • The Doctor – Sonic Screwdriver
  • Frodo  and Bilbo – The One Ring
  • Bond – Walther PPK
  • Mary Poppins – Umbrella
  • Harry Palmer – NHS Glasses
  • McGyver – Swiss army knife
  • Peter Parker – Camera

Different litter can help answer questions about a character.  Who they are including identity (litter such as identity documents, letters, business cards and dog tags), associates (letters, photographs and  business cards), wealth (cash, cards, cash and jewellery), health (medicines, contact lenses, glasses and medical bracelets), beliefs (religious items, charms or lack of either), habits (gum, tobacco and hip flask of booze).  When and where they were somewhere (tickets, library books, diaries, mobile phones with GPS and receipts).  Why things are happening or going to happen (letters, lists, instructions and directions).  How they do things (tools, weapons and cash).

Items or lack of items can be specifically about a character such as a passport or drivers licence.  Many of the items in a character’s pockets may be fake especially identity documents and money.  Others could be too – a photograph of a girlfriend or a wedding ring could be carried to cover up being single.

Some items may be concealed.  This can be as simple as a small object hidden in a tin of tobacco, a box of washing powder, a bottle of talc or a bag of salt or as complex as hidden compartments, things sown into clothing or made to look like something else.

Pocket litter plays a vital part in The Fourth Protocol.  This time John Preston, who has been shunted out of the way to Airports and Ports,  is searching the effects of a Russian trawler man killed walking out of port by a lorry.  He’s suspicious because the sailor’s hands are too soft.  Amongst his pocket litter he finds the first vital clue to the deadly plot – a polonium disc hidden in his things.

It can tell us about what they do.  A doctor may have rubber gloves, a thermometer and a stethoscope.  An executive woman who travels for work might have business cards, a passport, a makeup compact and tickets for a flight.  A thief might be exposed by a set of lock picks.

In Die Hard after John McClane has killed Tony he searches his pockets – along with gaining a lighter, C4, radio and a machine gun he can tell his driving licence is a very good forgery.  The forgery is expensive and so he works out the bad guys are well financed.  From his cigarettes and clothing labels he works out their mostly European.

Of course it’s not just the bad guys who have pocket litter.  Plenty of cops do too.  Murtaugh and Riggs in the Lethal Weapon films both carry a badge but their gun choice is used to differentiate old cop (Murtaugh with a revolver) and young cop (Riggs with an automatic).  Mulder and Scully had the badge and the gun but also the mobile phone – which at times threatened to derail plots but conveniently broke, ran out of power, got lost or didn’t have signal.  Nathan Spring (Star Cops) has Box a personal pocket AI and ID but really didn’t want a gun.

In a setting where forensics is around pocket litter may carry more clues than just what it is.  It may have fingerprints, DNA, hair, blood, residues, dirt or all sorts of other evidence contaminating it.  This has been a staple of detective fiction since Conan Doyle but CSI and its many imitators have taken it to new (and sometimes ludicrous) levels.

It can tell us about their wealth.  Do they carry a roll of bank notes, a bit of cash or scraps of change?  Do they have credit, debit or bank cards? What type? How many?  Are there gold coins hidden in their belt?  Tourists may have travellers cheques or prepaid credit cards.  Foreign coins may suggest they’ve just arrived back from abroad.  A bag of uncut diamonds may be the start of a mystery, a connection to rebels in a war torn African nation or a reason to run from their legitimate owners.

They can tell us about their habits.  As an example of a habit that would define something about many character’s habits let’s look at their smoking paraphernalia.  Do they have:

  • loose tobacco and rolling papers
  • loose tobacco and a pipe
  • loose tobacco, cannabis and rolling papers
  • cigarettes
  • foreign cigarettes
  • cigarettes and a cigarette holder
  • expensive cigars
  • none of these but a few bits of loose tobacco
  • an electronic cigarette
  • nicotine gum
  • nicotine patches
  • no tobacco at all

Do they have a disposable lighter, matches in a match box, matches in a matchbook from a nightclub, a refillable but otherwise simple lighter or an expensive lighter with a monogram?  What about a non smoker with a lighter or matches – why do they have them?  During rationing or embargos do they have hard to obtain brands that suggest they use the black market?  How about a non smoker who carries round a Cuban cigar given to them by Kennedy from his personal purchase of 1200 just before he imposed sanctions on them?

Items can carry information from simple letters and documents to high tech items like mobile phones and memory sticks.  The information may be in plain text, encoded, encrypted or hidden using steganography.  Robert Baden-Powell claimed to have travelled disguised as a butterfly collector, incorporating plans of military installations into drawings of butterfly wings.   Microdots and secret ink have long been the stuff of spy thrillers.

Lot of different sorts of pocket litter can be included and I’ve put together a big selection on my Pocket Junk Worksheet to help you come up with ideas.

Pocket Litter for Writers and Gamers

So how can we use pocket litter in writing and gaming?

It can be used as part of character creation to get ideas about a character.  If they were hit by a bus and the police had to go through it to learn about them?   This isn’t a list of stuff to share with other players or readers its just an aid to getting an idea about a character.

  • Does it identify them or not?
  • Does it tell us about what they do?
  • Do they carry a lot with them or very little – will it fit in a pocket or do they need a bags for all those miscellaneous items they carry with them?
  •  Is it discreet or indiscreet – do they carry passwords and other  confidential things in their pockets?
  • Is any of it concealed?
  • Are they tidy or is their junk and rubbish?

Pocket litter can be used to give clues about a character who is captured and being interrogated.  It can confirm their stories or reveal their lies – if they say they went to the theatre last night and  they have a ticket  that helps confirm their story.

It can be used to provide clues in a mystery – the characters have a mystery character or body to investigate who is dead, poisoned, comatose, unconscious or who doesn’t know who they are.  All the clues to the mystery could be in amongst their pocket junk and going a bit wider on their person, what they’re wearing , carrying and their body.

For gaming a few bits of pocket junk can make a captured or killed monster in a game more interesting.  It can be found by a thief character when pick pocketing instead of valuables.  Pocket litter can make easy to assemble and transport props for a game.

Bronze Age Pocket Junk

In 1991 preserved remains of a man, known as Ötzi, from about 5,300 years ago were found in the Italian Alps with many of his possessions.  These included: a diverse set of primitive clothes, tools, weapons, fire-makers, supplies and foul-weather gear suitable for his mixed roles of soldier, hunter, camper and explorer:

  • tinder fungus on a leather sting and flint and pyrite for making fires
  • lumps of birch polypore fungus on a leather string – these have antibiotic and antiparasitic properties and can stop bleeding
  • leather backpack
  • unfinished 1.8m longbow with an estimated effective range of 40m
  • a quiver containing
    • 14 arrows with viburnum and dogwood shafts
    • 2 arrows, which were broken, were tipped with flint and had fletching
    •  12 were unfinished and untipped
    • what is presumbed to be a bow string
    • unidentified tool which might have been used for sharpening arrow points
    • axe with a 10cm, pure copper head with a 60cm yew handle- suitable for chopping wood and as a weapon.  The head fixed to the using birch-tar and tight leather lashing into a crook in the handle
    • flint-bladed knife with an ash handle
    • scraper
    • drill
    • flint flakes
    • berries
    • two birch bark baskets

His clothing included:

  • well-worn, often-repaired goat-hide leggings
  • deerskin shoes with bearskin soles
  • stripy coat made from strips of goat hide
  • woven grass coat
  • loincloth
  • bearskin cap


  • Stuff: The bare necessities, then and now (New Scientist)
  • Ötzi (Wikipedia)

impworks © Copyright Mark Caldwell 1996 - 2024