Alice Arnold, the BBC announcer, has become a national heroine by tossing a plastic bottle back into a car from which a passenger had thrown it. In view of the growing perversity of our law-enforcement agencies, she was lucky not to be charged with threatening behaviour, or worse.
As everyone knows, disputes over litter can become violent, which is why Arnold is now held in such high regard. In 2008, Evren Anil was stabbed to death in a busy London street after a youth threw a chocolate wrapper into his car and he objected. An elderly passer-by, who tried to intervene on Mr Anil’s behalf, was threatened with death. “If you do not get out of the way, I will kill you, too,” said the youth.
Not every confrontation ends so badly, of course. Recently in Nottingham – whose streets, incidentally, are paved with chewing gum – a boy of about 13 started to throw food at his friends, some of which landed by my feet at the bus stop where I was waiting. “Excuse me,” I said, mildly and politely, “could you pick that up?”
“Shut the ---- up!” he replied, and departed in triumph as there was absolutely nothing I could do to correct him without putting myself on the wrong side of the law.
Likewise, at the entrance to Euston station, a woman threw her cigarette end down at my feet, almost defiantly. When I asked her, again politely, to pick it up, she just said “No!” What could I do except bear my humiliation and despair?
It makes matters worse that I vet the people whom I ask to pick up their litter. Those with pit-bull faces I do not approach, as they are inclined immediately to fly into a murderous rage at the gentlest of implied reproaches.
Two experiences caused me to become interested in litter as a social, or anti-social, phenomenon in Britain. The first was when I drove 400 miles from London to Glasgow. The side of the road, every yard of the way, was heavily littered, mainly with the detritus of millions of snacks. On that journey, I came to the conclusion that in Britain polythene grows on trees.
The other was watching a young man, probably a student, approach a bin in London’s Brunswick Square with his litter in his hand, and then drop it not in, but near, the bin, on to the ground. It was as if he knew that litter bins had something to do with litter, but could not quite work out what it was.
No social phenomenon is without connection to other social phenomena. Walking along streets, I would analyse the litter and try to fathom what it meant. On the whole, it had been the wrapping of fast food or container of drink, discarded wherever it had been consumed. I came to the conclusion that an Englishman’s street is his dining room.
And I was not far wrong. When I discussed the question of self-control with a group of intelligent, middle-class students on a postgraduate course (whose fees were £30,000 a year), I mentioned that when I was young it was regarded as vulgar or common to eat on the street. They laughed at the very idea: they thought it primitive in the extreme. And now students come into oral examinations bearing drinks bottles with nozzles that look like a baby’s dummy.
What this signifies is a collective loss of self-control – a loss that is connected, of course, to problems such as public drunkenness and drug addiction. For the British, as for Pooh, it is always time for a little something, usually either fried in fat or laden with corn syrup. It is not surprising, then, that we are fat – the fattest people in western Europe, in fact, as well as the most littering. Why should we expect people who cannot, or at any rate will not, control their consumption to control the way they dispose of wrappings?
The British start to teach their children lack of self-control very early. At least a fifth of young Britons never eat a meal with another member of their household (family is not quite the word for it). They thus learn to graze like ruminants: and so it is not surprising that they dispose of litter as ruminants in a field dispose of their own form of waste.
The study of litter is the study of society; and in Britain it does not reassure.
First published in The Telegraph.