The Filth and the Fury – England’s Litter Problem
In spring 2021, the national road network of England lies in a state of unprecedented decay. Most roads of all kinds, major and minor have greatly deteriorated, worn out by an ever-increasing number of vehicles with an ever-decreasing level of maintenance, shabbily patched or left unrepaired some barely have any tarmac left clinging to them, while the ever-present blight of roadside litter causes further misery to millions of drivers and passengers.
This unremitting befouling of our own nest, this active forcing of one’s own vile habits and corrupt behaviour into one’s neighbours line of vision without apology or explanation but with nihilistic indifference and contempt exposes us all as a nation to the residual vulgarity, the barely contained savagery, the decimation of civil behaviour which has caused the Germans of all nations to recently refer to us, as ‘Ape Isle’. Change is called for, change is heralded, change is actively planned and yet the problem remains entrenched. England’s litter atrocity, for no other word will suffice, is not new, for it emerges again and again over decades like some repellent generational rash breaking out over the landscape, but today the problem is far worse than ever. The litter problem is of two parts, 1. Litter being dropped and 2. Litter not cleared up, and it is visibly worse here than in any other country in Europe, so much so that driving back from Belgium, Holland and France on many occasions in the pre-Covid era I was immediately struck by the extraordinary amounts of litter strewn along the highways just outside our ports, welcoming me home. And this highway of garbage would be the first experience of England for many of our European ‘friends’, before they had even exited their vehicles to step onto our green and pleasant land. It is a shameful fact which cannot be disguised, too many British people are ignorant, slovenly, ill-behaved and simply don’t care. What a gulf there is between European countries when it comes to civic pride. I recall once as a youth dropping a match in Lausanne in Switzerland after lighting a cigarette. The last smoke curl from the match had barely risen from the pavement when a furious man approached red in the face and ordered me to pick it up. I did so, myself red faced, and looking down I realised that the spent match stood out glaringly on the immaculate pavement which had never even known dust let alone a matchstick. The match was so thin, tiny and insignificant I could barely get hold of it, but the man waited till I had retrieved it. Realising I was English he looked at me with that silent accusatory look, as if to say ‘I might have known…’ I was ashamed.
Drivers in the UK are accustomed to living with litter, as it has been a common feature of our road landscape for years. But it is now so pervasive people either shut their eyes to it and stare straight ahead, or fulminate privately, according to their moral compass and sensitivities. We may have the national parks, those essential lungs of the nation but any drive to reach them, will include a littler infested road. To make matters worse, the prolonged Covid period has caused the amount of trash on our verges and in our hedgerows to greatly increase. The intrusion of masses of people, some with apparently no love for or concern for the fragility and rare preciousness of the English countryside, but who are simply seeking recreational areas outside the cities, has depressed many who live and work in the countryside and look out for its welfare. Of course, people in urban areas have a right to freely access the countryside and replenish themselves, that was the point of the national parks after all, but not to return home leaving it beaten down as if by thousands of thundering hooves, littered with waste including human faeces. Naturally those elements who care passionately are actively trying to address the problem on the ground, from national rallying points like Jeremy Paxman and his anti-litter campaign to anyone from elderly couples to young people who head out on Sunday mornings in reflective jackets and litter pickers, with the real risk of being mown down, to heroically tidy the approaches to their villages. Yet none of this seems to make any lasting difference overall, because litter or rather the dropper of litter, is like the burglar who resolves to steal from the same house, the menace always returns. The fact is that the number of people in Britain who are self-serving has I am afraid always outstripped those of their contrary state. This is an equation thinking people seem reluctant to admit as if there is something divisive, elitist or prejudiced about it. But this has nothing to do with class, race, colour or creed. People whose presence in some way aggravates, disturbs, poisons and causes misery to other humans, to animals and plants, can be easily detected in all societal strata.
Those who brazenly drop litter, whether it be a major fly tipping offence or a costa cup thoughtlessly chucked into a flowering blackthorn hedge, exert a parasitical influence within what purports to be a progressive community underpinned by liberal humanism. Naturally the old cry of education sounds once more like the defiant hunting horn of an exhausted Major Frost at Arnhem bridge, but we can see from previous attempts in different eras that any positive results were alas short lived. During my childhood in Essex during the 1970’s there was a civic code which people appeared to follow, lines you just did not cross. One was that if someone wrote a letter or card to you, whether for business or pleasure, it was imperative that you replied. It didn’t matter whether you were not interested in the contents of their epistle, or had nothing to offer the person, you replied because it was respectful, polite and expected of you, recognising and reciprocating the effort they had invested in writing to you. There was a tacit agreement, a balance, an equability. Today in contrast, in a world where the discarded humanist scales lie rusting, people only reply if they want something from you, if they don’t they ignore your message or email ‘letter’ and move on. You may end up in the Trash bin but at least in the digital world waste can be disposed of correctly! This ruthless selection process on behalf of the receiver is in some part caused by the sheer weight of traffic, the impossibility to physically reply to every message, but technology has endorsed, made acceptable, made essential this incivility, narrowing like a clogged artery the conduit to empathy and compassion, the ability to place oneself in another’s position, in short annihilating the pause for reflection. There is no longer any time to read and reflect, only to act and act again. The guillotine is raised and lowered ad infinitum, performing its function as it was designed with ruthless industrial efficiency. Digital technology has no use for human reflection with unpredictable outcomes, no time for considered decisions, it wants certainty not unpredictability, instantaneous action and ever more traffic going the same way.
In the same fashion the unthinking, unreflecting automaton dropper of litter merely desires that the wrapper or cup, now of no further use, should not be in their immediate vicinity and thus eject it from the vehicle obeying an instinctual drive. Pause for reflection might activate conscience, make the offender think again, but in the world of digital technology there is no time to think again, no reward for meditation, because it constantly encourages people to act in their own best interests, to consume and dispense at a fast pace, in a sort of technologically governed cleansing process, a constant honing of the consumer’s tastes, where consumption is optimised, novelty is guaranteed to trounce boredom and all thought and action superfluous to this is discouraged. Only that which serves the ongoing maintenance, the improving of the individual as a possessing creature matters, vanity and an artificially nourished self-assurance flourishes. Selfish individual behaviour in public spaces is encouraged by an all-pervading personal rights ethos, by the unrivalled supremacy of an individual’s freedom to the detriment of all else. We would never have ridden our bikes on the pavement as children because it was considered dangerous and uncaring of the pedestrian, the stranger, who was respected even without being known. But now children ride their bikes fast down narrow pavements and tell you to ‘fuck off’ if you firmly suggest as you plunge from the kerb or keel over into a holly hedge that it might be wiser if they remain on the road.
But in the 1970’s there was still a litter problem, just not so much of it apart from when strikes meant they were not emptied. The bins in public spaces tapered at the base and appealingly made of wooden slats, were emptied by men in cloth caps into small lorries with side doors, as were the clanging metal dustbins from houses. There were no black bin bags then, and there were park keepers in dark uniforms with pointed sticks, jabbing here and there at wrappers of fabs and choc ices left on the grass. Then there were sober campaigns like ‘Keep Britain Tidy’, which now sounds rather quaint. But 1970’s Britain was not a fast food mecca, there was only Wimpy and even then you drank out of a rough glass and ate off china plates. Britain was yet to been colonised by the legions of US style fast food outlets churning out hundreds of tons of packaging every day and in those days people ate out much less often, were not so mobile, less people owned cars, so they didn’t visit a drive-thru MacDonald’s and then travel ten miles into the countryside to leave the remnants of their ‘happy meal’ at the entrance to a pristine field of young wheat. They took a picnic they had made themselves.
Now it is April in Suffolk and the hedgerows turn hopefully from shrew brown to Lincoln green, but one is physically wounded to see this natural landscape sullied, with litter caught up in surging clusters of daffodil stems or beakers, beer cans and soft drinks bottles rammed into hedges of greening hawthorn. Often one hears people complain with the old trope that many of our roads resemble those in third world countries. Yet the air-conditioned occupants in the endless streams of military style high-tech cars surging down Britain’s dual carriageways of filth and wreckage, are not inhabitants of the third world, since they can access four hundred different world cheeses in Waitrose. But they are comfortable with the fact they can pass through these sights of degradation because this is not where they live and these are necessary transit routes not the destination. Only the homestead and the place of destination are sacrosanct, the rest is a place to get through as quickly as possible, like having a tooth removed. Two of the most overused, polluted and poorly maintained major roads which happen to transect Suffolk, are the A12 and A14. Both of these low investment shockers offer their unfortunate drivers an alarming variety of rough and noisy road surfaces, some of which appear to have been lifted wholesale from a World War II era airfield. The unceasing picture of squalor to right and left recalls scenes from Brueghel’s apocalyptic masterpiece ‘The Triumph of Death’ in the Basel Kunstmuseum; torn off vehicle parts, severed exhausts, plastic sheeting waving from saplings like the flags of a defeated army, mouldering childrens’ toys, half-burned tyres, dead bloated animals ripped open by crows, carpets, paint and oil tins, whole sacks of household rubbish, perhaps sacks of human remains… One is reminded of the landscape in which a tsunami or flood has retreated leaving its calling card of destruction.
Enough. Something has to be done declares the concerned citizen, old enough to remember the pervasive smell of fresh tarmac in summer when whole roads were resurfaced even when they didn’t really need to be. But just who is responsible for cleaning up these highways of ordure and carrion proves predictably hard to ascertain and it took me an hour of frustrating phone calls and a semi-deranged robot’s assurances, before I was told to address myself to Norse, the division who deal with litter, or rather apparently don’t, within Suffolk County Council. The man who answered was heavily armoured with an irritating contrived cheeriness and said I needed to speak to ‘The Cleansing Department’, a rather unfortunate moniker I reflected. For even without the flashing neon of ‘ethnic’ present, it leaves a queasy feeling… , had they not even considered this? It did not bode well. The team were currently unavailable. No-one called me back. The bell tolled and the ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ symbol could be made out on flags at half-mast. Tumbleweed bounded over old potholes ringed in orange paint on the High Street of Yoxford.
Will Stone is a poet, essayist and literary translator. His first poetry collection Glaciation (Salt, 2007), won an international award for poetry in 2008. His subsequent collections Drawing in Ash (2011) The Sleepwalkers (2016) and The Slowing Ride (2020) are published by Shearsman Books. Will’s translations have been published by Pushkin Press, Hesperus Press, Menard Press, Dedalus Books and Arc Publications. They include works by Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Simmel, Gérard de Nerval, Emile Verhaeren and Georges Rodenbach. Pushkin published Poems to Night by Rilke and Encounters and Destinies – A Farewell to Europe, by Zweig in 2020. Surrender to Night – Collected Poems of Georg Trakl appeared in 2019 along with new editions of titles which first appeared with Hesperus Press. Will has contributed reviews, essays and poems to a range of publications, including The TLS, Apollo, The Spectator, RA Magazine, The White Review, Agenda, Modern Poetry in Translation and Poetry Review.
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