In Elon Dann’s CLOCKWISE TO TITAN, the three heroes scour the brutal Institute for rubbish in order to make the equipment they need to break out and survive the wild journey ahead of them. Just like his teenage protagonists, Elon too spends a lot of time picking up litter and sifting through it, pondering its origins and potential uses. Today’s blog is about his findings…
Most people who see me probably assume I’m ‘on a scheme’. Or serving out a court order. The oldest young offender in town…I don’t blame them. I can’t be from the council, not working on a weekend. And I do look a sight, with my stick, my bag, my filthy overalls and a reflective safety vest shredded to fuzz by the need to dig deep into scratchy hedges. My vibe is a janitor / scarecrow / wino three-way splice.
But I’m not planning to escape, and I’m not a scheme. I’m on a mission. Well, an errand: volunteer litter picker. The badge says ‘warden’, but that makes me sound like I have a peaked cap and the authority to shake my fist at kids (pesky kids) and confiscate footballs. I favour ‘litter vigilante’. A maverick, I work by my own rules. Any route. Any day. See this stick, discarded fag packet? This is a Helping Hand Litter Picker 940mm, the most powerful extended reach gripping tool in the world…
I began litter picking (not to be confused with pitta licking) when walking one day to Tesco with my wife and my son, still in his pushchair. Funny, the connections you make. I saw all the cans and the crisp packets dripping from a particularly well-adorned hedge, fumed at the unutterable ugliness of it all, and snapped back to a visit I’d made years before to the Checkpoint Charlie museum in Berlin. One of the escape stories described there was of a group of East German pensioners who dug a tunnel to the West. Months, it took them. Even when they’d broken through to freedom, they refused to depart until they’d enlarged the tunnel sufficiently for their wives to walk along it without stooping. They absolutely refused to permit their loved ones to emerge with bowed heads, looking as if they had anything to be ashamed of. I love that story; gets me every time. Anyway, I saw the way my wife turned away from the litter, saying she didn’t notice it. Orbs, she didn’t. She saw it, she hated it, she accepted it as another of life’s belittling belches in the face, just as I did. And I thought: no one has the right to make my wife turn away in disappointment and disgust. That’s my job.
After the shopping, I went back with my gardening gloves and picked it all up. Three visits, it took. I joined the Duckworth Worcestershire Trust, and they issued me with my picking stick and the comforting knowledge that there were scores of other local people who felt the same way and were Doing Something About It. I could have bought a stick on ebay for a fiver. The support of a group is good, but a stick is essential. Without a stick, you’re a nutter, scrabbling around in the dirt. Slipped discs and TENS machines await you. With a stick, you’re hobo erectus. You’re a professional. Actually you’re a volunteer, but you feel like a professional.
Common questions for the volunteer litter picker:
I bet you get loads of hassle. Loads. Every week I get gangs of up to two people swaggering up to me. ‘You’re doing a lovely job!’ they scream, their faces contorted into masks of unreasoning hatred. ‘Thank you so much!’ the heartless fiends will call out as they depart. In truth, I get lots of thanks, and in ten years the complete catalogue of hassle is three counts of ‘Oi! Ya missed a bit!’ one ‘Get a proper job!’ and one ‘HOW BIG’S YUR WILLY?’. That last was a little scary because it was shouted out by a massive youth through the passenger window of a car that screeched into a lay-by ahead of me for no reason other than to pose that query. Unable to think how best to respond, I raised my picking stick and clacked the grippers in a manner I hoped went over as comically boastful but in no way suggestive of any desire to take the matter further. The car drove away. Weeks later, as I was picking in the steaming July heat, the same youth stopped me in the road and passed me a can of cold lager. No mention of my willy was made.
Besides, I can never really be scared. If I ever was attacked (and why should I be?), I’d need only to open my bag. It’s not the dog mess that honks the worst, it’s the beer tins. The beer attracts the slugs, the slugs die, the smell is…funky.
I bet you find loads of money. Yes. I now manage an investment fund portfolio standing at over £800 million made up entirely of coins worth 50p or less.
The real figure is less than ten quid in eleven years. Plus my hat, one pair of jeans, a fleece I gave to charity, and a pristine copy of ‘The Smartest Giant in Town’ by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Hah. The irony.
If you tidy an area, doesn’t it encourage people to drop more litter? The opposite. People drop litter where they see litter. Once cleaned, areas pretty much stay tidy. Oddly, I have never once seen anyone drop rubbish. Never. Apart from when they approach me and drop it into my bag, and even then, they ask very tentatively beforehand. ‘Alright if I…I mean, can I actually…cheers, mate, nice one.’ Can’t imagine why they think I’d object. What else do they think I might be doing, taking my bin bags for a stroll?
Droppers must do it in the style of Great Escape prisoners disposing of dirt down the insides of their trouser legs, or sneak out at unpopular hours of the morning specifically to festoon verges with Wotsits bags, two litre bottles of Diamond White cider and Yazoo milkshake cartons. Similarly, I’ve never seen people pin up or remove those ‘Happy 40th Birthday Shamir / Daz / Fido’ placards and balloons you find tied to roundabout chevrons and bollards. The dirty work must all be done by inhabitants of a crepuscular demi-monde, driving around in Ford demi-Mondeos.
No. Wrong demographic. My own trash-analysis leads me to believe most litter originates from heavy drinkers and school age kids. You draw your own Venn diagram, but neither group should be driving.
I recycle what I can, I bin what I can’t, I keep what I feel for.
The toys I always wash and house. That’s my rule – if it was loved once, it’s safe. I’m a lanky, latter-day Bagpuss more than a Womble or a Borrower. So if your kids have mislaid a dolly with one arm, a wooden rhino, a cyberman’s gun, a car with a Lego brick stuffed inside, ask me. I might have it.
And if you’ve a can of cold beer to hand, I’ll be very grateful. Just don’t ask me about my anatomical dimensions.