Sunday. Litter picking. The Lane, a shady, tree-fringed road, a vestigial remnant of the pre-1980s countryside as it was before tracked arthropods rumbled and the housing estate I live on was thrown up. A small piece of the city’s noncoding DNA, and a very nice piece it is too. Birds. Squirrels.
A man, standing next to a red estate car.
(The leafy Lane is where I found my hat. A woollen ‘Nike’ cap filled with sick that I uncovered one winter. What’s your problem? I scrubbed it out with handfuls of snow and it came up a treat in the washing machine. That’s a £15 hat for nowt. If a litter picker can’t benefit from urban recycling, who can?)
‘There’s two types of people,’ says the man. I nod, mentally thumbing my storehouse of ‘there’s X types of people’ gags: two types, the type that splits people into two types and the type that doesn’t; 10 types, those who understand binary and those who don’t, etc., etc. Jokes and hats, all game for reuse and recycling.
‘Yes,’ I reply. Together we contemplate the extinct fridge, the smashed up kitchen units, the lumpy sacks of rubble fly-tipped on the grassy verge. I devote what I calculate to be a millionth of one percent of an average UK male life expectancy to sucking in air and tutting. The trash is ugly, broken, dirty, as unutterably useless as one Nectar point, the quantum of worthlessness.
‘Those that care,’ huffs the man. ‘And those that don’t.’
‘True,’ I agree. Heady stuff, this dialectic. But then, I find litter picking and litter itself conducive to thinking. I’m not alone. Lise Meitner developed her theories of radioactive decay by studying how discarded doner kebabs fell apart when she speared them with the tip of her umbrella in 1920s Berlin, and they say Keats’ poem was originally titled Ode on a Bottle of Yazoo Milkshake Some Git Threw Into My Carriage before his editor unwisely changed the receptacle under discussion to a boring old Grecian Urn. (It’s always Yazoo milkshake. I swear, when they land people on Pluto, there will be a bottle of that lactic muck awaiting them, festering in a crater under a crust of frozen ammonia.)
The man puts his hands on his hips and sighs. His car is large, I’m hoping he’s about to offer to transport the dumped junk to the tip for me. ‘People, eh? Tells you something about people.’
You can over-philosophize. Litter doesn’t teach you much about people, apart from how perverse they can be. Why take the trouble to bag up your dog’s waste, then sling the bag into an inaccessibly high tree branch?
My favourite example of this twisted thinking is when I pick up, say, a curry sauce stained polystyrene takeaway carton from the front lawn of a house. Not a scruffy house like mine, a nice house with block paving and UPVC soffits and hanging baskets. Billions of Nectar points’ worth of love and care.
‘Ooh, thank you,’ the owner will say, breaking off from giving the Mitsubishi a shiatsu massage with a Dyson. ‘I’ve been wondering for weeks when someone might do that.’
‘Did you ever think of picking it up yourself?’ I might ask. (I used to ask. Not nowadays. Never ask, never criticize, never comment.)
The answer: ‘Oh, no. Well, I didn’t put it there, did I?’
I’ve even seen people mow around the litter on their lawns, looking away, not seeing it. I should form an enterprise to exploit this prevalent attitude. Blue asbestos? Secret documents? Rival crime gang body parts? No problem. Just stuff a little of each into Pringles tubes and have someone drop one tube under every pyracantha and privet hedge they see. Guaranteed not to be touched for thirty years. Just don’t employ the people nominally paid to deliver pizza flyers and free newspapers. Not unless you want it to all end up being burned underneath the swings in the kiddie park.
Zoom back. The present.
‘I mean,’ says the man, ‘It must be more effort to drive here and dump stuff than to go to the tip. And the tip is free, as long as you’re not commercial.’
The conversation has run its course. The man gets into his car, starts rummaging in the glove compartment, ‘I’ll find my mobile, ring the council,’ he says, before signing off with, ‘You’re doing a grand job there, pal.’
I continue with my picking, working my way along an adjoining cycle path. People defy classification, but there are definitely two types of litter.
Some rubbish writes its own stories, most not worth telling. Today’s fly-tipped mess: a kitchen-sink drama, DIY on the cheap. More finds: a school report, the place for a parent’s signature left blank; a blister pack of antidepressants, a cheap bracelet inscribed ‘Charlene’ and a screwed-up photo of a young soldier in dress uniform, all these together. Heartache, perhaps, but no more mystery lies behind their arrival on the pavement than behind that can of Tennents Super, now serving as a lethal drop-in hostel for slugs, a Bates Motel for molluscs.
Other litter challenges you to discover the story behind it. Half a table-football table. Half? A pile of French pornographic magazines mixed with a judo instruction manual in Bengali – multiculturalism in action; a whole stilton, big as a bus wheel; trays of furry minced meat and sausages; a carrier bag containing a dozen 400g jars of Dolmio pasta sauce. I hear theories that the food is shoplifted by drug addicts, that sausages are a favourite. I buy this (or steal it) only to some degree. What drug, I ask myself, induces a craving that can only be satisfied by eating almost eleven pounds in weight of bolognese sauce, gives you sufficient gall and alertness to smuggle a heavy bag laden with clonking glass jars out past security guards, yet causes you at the final moment to decide you can’t be bothered to lug them home and dump them on top of a bus shelter? Whatever it is, I don’t want any.
I return to the Lane. A red estate car rips past at speed, the driver ducking low behind the dashboard. He exits the junction without waiting or indicting, anxious to spare himself the embarrassment of flashing me a shrug and a sheepish grin.
A fridge, smashed up kitchen units, lumpy bags of rubble, now joined by a jigsaw of splintered worktop fragments.
Two kinds of people…
(Just in case: Of course I made up the bit about Lisa Meitner. What were you thinking?)