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Lovely weather yes, but litter louts bring out the Grumpy Old Man in me. Big Society please solve

Posted on 10 April 2011 | 2:04pm

Stuart Prebble is a soon-to-be 60 year old TV programme maker of considerable repute. Of the telly things I have done, the ones I felt had the greatest depth and integrity were the ones I did with Stuart’s Liberty Bell company – including a three part series on The Blair Years,  and, best of all so far as I am concerned, a film on my breakdown in the mid-80s.

He knows that I am not much of a partygoer but because it was him, I made an effort, rushed back from Burnley’s 4-0 hammering at Leicester, and joined the gathering for his 60th at Draper’s Hall near the Bank of England. Splendid venue. Reminded me of the Elysee in Paris.

Modern fame and TV being what it is, Stuart is currently probably best known in the TV bubble for his hugely successful Grumpy Old Men series and books. The grumpy theme ran though procedings, not least because Stuart likes parties about as much as I do, and had to be persuaded (bullied) by a combination of his brother and his wife Marilyn, who both made very nice speeches. Stuart refused to make a speech, rather splendidly I thought, and Marilyn gave a very funny (and to Fiona very familiar) account of what it is like trying to get Stuart to go to a party … ‘do we have to? (yes)… do I have to shave? (yes) … can I wear my jeans? (no) … I’m not staying past 9.30 …’

Anyway I am glad I stayed past 9.30 because we were treated to a fabulous performance on the piano by Stuart’s mate Rick Wakeman. Really brilliant, especially when playing nursery rhymes in the manner of some of the greatest composers in history. (We left before his rock band started up but I hear that was just as brilliant).

So as we anti-socialites like to say when perilously close to enthusiasm, it was not nearly as bad as I feared, and I woke up in sufficiently good mood to join Fiona on her morning walk with the dog …

… cue an attack of major Grumpy Old Mannishness the second I arrived on the Heath.

Hampstead Heath is one of the best reasons for living in Gospel Oak (or Hampstead as the estate agents call it). This morning, just after 8, it resembled a bloody waste recycling centre. What is it about people and litter, I grumped every step of the way? What is it about fair-weather visitors to nice places that they cannot see a link between the beauty that attracted them and a lack of garbage?

Fiona, being less grumpy than I am, said the problem was a shortage of bins. Rubbish, I punned. And even if true, no excuse for the plastic bags, the crisp packets, the beer cans, the humous tubs, the vodka bottles, the fag packets, the half-eaten salads in plastic containers which a small army of Heath staff were busy trying to clear up this morning.

I don’t know what David Cameron is thinking about out in Spain, but I wonder if he might ponder how his Big Society might tackle the problem of litter louts. I know it is hard. We tried, but if the Heath this morning is anything to go by, we didn’t exactly change the national mindset on the issue. I remember Jeremy Paxman once writing a big article on the subject and when I next saw him, we had a real Grumpy Old Man conversation about it. The frustration lies in feeling it is such an obvious thing to want other people to do -take their refuse with them and dispose of it in places meant for such disposal – and yet knowing that all around us are people who couldn’t give a toss.

Walk and grump over, I went out on the bike, (more on my BMX stunt-training soon by the way). I ended up in Docklands, taking in seven different parks and their environs on the way. All heaving with people enjoying the sunshine; and yesterday’s litter having been cleared, all starting to build up today’s. Hyde Park was the only one that looked like it was meant to. Perhaps because there seemed to be more foreigners than Brits there, who knows.

  • Robert

    Dirt and rubbish follow the second law of thermodynamics.

    It takes energy to get dirt out of clothes and dirt off the pavement.

    Dirt and rubbish always tend to spread out and there is a cost associated with gathering it back together for disposal. Be it fuel for sweeping machines or sandwiches and pop for volunteers.

    Big Society (= something for nothing) will struggle in a battle against the second law of thermodynamics. In fact it cannot win!

  • I share your anger on littering and have got into a few scrapes telling folk to pick up their litter over the years.

    There’s an organisation that should be helping – unfortunately they’ve recently had their funding cut.

    There’s a version of the organisation for each home nation. There’s Keep Wales Tidy, Keep Northern Ireland Tidy, Keep Scotland Beautiful… and Keep Britain Tidy.

    It should of course be Keep England Tidy but there seems to be considerable resistance in the British establishment to allowing anything to be called English. (See also numerous charities and the UK parliaments and assemblies).

    I wonder if the Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish versions have had their funding cut. Probably not or at least not by UK/Westminster as it’s sure to fall under a devolved area. As with 90% of legislation the UK government (with its UK wide MPs) can only affect England.

    The Big Society IS for England only – but UK MPs are still couching English matters in terms of “this country”, “the country” or “Britain”. Cameron is as bad as Brown for this with far less reason.

    Maybe things are about to change though as I read this morning that Ed Miliband is now pitching himself as the man for middle England. It’s not middle England that needs addressing – it’s the whole of England and England as a whole. Our proud historic nation.

  • Sarah Dodds

    And just don’t start me on the dog poo side of things…..I resent the fact I can’t take my kids to schools without every conversation being halted by me saying “mind the poo!” (Although I am also perplexed as to why my 5 year old seems to have dog crap magnets on the soles of her shoes.)

  • Gilliebc

    I enjoyed this blog post for several reasons. I hate parties also, mainly because I am useless at “small talk” I just don’t see the point of it. However,
    if dancing is involved, then I’m more than happy!
    Regarding litter, it’s not a very big problem where I live thankfully. Whether that’s because people here are generally tidier or because the local council is onto it very quickly (at the moment!) I don’t know. I do know that litter is also a problem in theatres, cinemas etc. Recently our family went to Westpoint, near Exeter to see Holiday on Ice. There was a group of youngsters age range from about 7 to 14 years in the row behind us, their parents/minders were in the row behind them. The young people were well behaved during the performance, enjoying it as much as we did. However when the lights went up at the end of the show the mess behind us were the youngsters had been sitting was unbelievable! Also, I was annoyed to see that some of their rubbish had been kicked under were we were sitting making it look as if we had left litter, which we did not. If I was their parents or whatever they were I would have given them a bag to put all their rubbish in. Obviously these youngsters are not being taught from an early age to respect others peoples space and property. Schools can only do so much. It begins in the home.

  • Dave Simons


    Genius Loci, Spirit of the Place,
    no wonder you disdain to show your face!
    You’ve been sole witness to some fun and games
    and know the culprits well, if not their names.
    They’ve gone home now and left us here to guess
    what sacrilegious eejits made this mess,
    the scattered evidence of last night’s fun –
    a far from pretty sight in light of sun!

    The finger of suspicion seldom fails
    to point at teen-and-twentysomething males,
    drunk silly, screwed up from some night-club bash
    and hunting for some sleeping street to trash.
    Or maybe Monty Python got it right –
    Hell’s Grannies in frustration struck last night?

    But let’s not bear the world upon our shoulders –
    beauty’s in the eyes of the beholders.
    Half-chomped takeaways and half-drunk cans
    might madden us, but rats are loyal fans.
    Traffic cones and supermarket trollies,
    chucked-out mattresses and wind-wrecked brollies
    all look cool to some when dumped in streams,
    like images surrealists paint from dreams.
    When local residents are deep in kip
    and half the contents of a builder’s skip
    are relocated to the roofs of cars,
    the artists surely must expect applause?
    And can we get high moral when the truth
    is we most likely did the same in youth,
    and dumping rubbish in a beauty spot
    has been a common custom since year dot,
    and isn’t ‘beauty spot’ a state of mind
    confined to some who are that way inclined?
    Let’s leave the litter to accumulate
    and spend our time in lots of hot debate,
    let excess packaging and lack of bins
    excuse this multiplicity of sins,
    not call them ‘idle louts’ who think some churl
    will pick up all the rubbish that they hurl.

    Where kingfishers and herons have been seen,
    more often now we’ll meet a Green Machine
    or squad of Street Force staff with gloves and sacks,
    adding value to our Council Tax.
    Genius Loci, where’s our pride of place?
    Is litter not a national disgrace?

  • Keane Sinead

    You and integrity are not things that match

  • Jo

    It’s not just grumpy old men – I’m a grumpy young woman and it makes me mad too.

    Just been along our canal which is very beautiful but less so today due to two burnt patches of grass where someone had lit fires, an empty packet of child’s cough sweets and an empty yoghurt pot. This is in a spot which I like to sit and sometimes sleep but not today. The (I presume) family enjoyed the scenery but we couldn’t…

  • Ehtch

    With the litter, you should have gone really grumpyman about it, and filmed it, and posted it on youtubb, with suitable narration speech over the top – “when I was in the war…/when I was young…/you kids today…” etc. etc..

    You might have got quite a few hits with it, even got into this weeks youtubb top 100 – there are a fair few grumpies about to get it in.

  • Plaingoldband

    Dr Diederik Stapel and Dr Siegwart Lindenberg, social scientists at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, have discovered people are more racist and homophobic when their surroundings are litter-strewn and chaotic:

    They tested 40 people in their study ‘Coping with Chaos: How Disordered Contexts Promote Stereotyping and Discrimination’ at Utrecht railway station during a cleaners’ strike that had left the station dirty and litter-strewn.

    They returned to repeat the experiment after the strike ended and the station was clean.

    People who took part while the station was dirty were more likely to agree with both positive and negative stereotypes….

    The small-scale experiment also examined subconscious responses to race. All subjects were white, but when they were asked to take a seat in a row of chairs, one chair at the end was occupied by a black or white Dutch person.

    In the messy station, people on average sat further from the black person than the white person, whereas in the clean station there was no statistical difference.

    Dr Stapel and Dr Lindenberg say stereotyping may be “a way to cope with chaos, a mental cleaning device”.

    “The message is clear,” Dr Stapel said. “Signs of disorder will not only increase anti-social behaviour but lead to stereotyping and discrimination.”

  • Quinney

    The only answer I could think of would be to heavily fine these idiots and make sure the rest of the popoulation knew about it My local park resembled a rubbish tip too today.

  • susannah

    It’s not just the parks, which at least get cleared every now and then. Roadsides are strewn with bottles and other debris chucked from windows as people in cars seem to think they are litter bins. Greatly depressing and seems to be getting worse.

  • Ehtch

    I like it, the application of science at its best.

    Any council cuts going on in the Netherlamds at the moment, by the way? Say, a cut in the environmental department services “on the ground” going on – less brooms being bought, less of those litter picker-up stick gadgets being bought, and less hands employed to use them?

    Council cuts equals litter about, it looks. A maths lesson!

  • Ehtch

    My classic grumpy man clip that I’ve seen, on global waming – the last bit is the funniest bit, vroom-vroom!

  • Gilliebc

    Good poem Dave. I notice you haven’t attributed it to anyone. So this begs the question, did you write it yourself?

  • Anna

    Litter makes me furious too and I can harrumph with the best of them. I live in the country not far from a cathedral city and am always astounded when I see pretty lanes, and even the green in front of the glorious cathedral strewn with litter. I always carry a screwed up plastic bag in my pocket to pick up anything I see and bring it home to bin it if I can ‘t find a litter bin. I was once doing a marathon clean up after partygoers had left a mess and was delighted when people gradually joined me. If I see someone dropping litter, I’m never brave enough to tackle them but I do often pick up the rubbish discreetly. A brave friend of mine is more forthright and tackles litter-droppers head on. She sometimes gets a mouthful but has never yet been hit. One woman looked at her in amazement and said, ‘Do you know who I am? I am a dentist’s wife’!

  • Dave Simons

    Yes Gillie. I’m a volunteer litter-picker, supported by my local council. It provides a high-viz jacket, gloves and a litterpicker. The council has a Spring-Clean month this time of year, and a lot of volunteers are currently in action. My pitch is a green corridor into the city centre, which I walk down on my way to work. It follows the course of a stream. This time of year especially it is a wonder to walk down – but it is in an area of high student population and unfortunately students are the source of most of the litter that blights it. The area can be cleaned up one day and returned to its former state the next.
    Under the auspices of the ‘Campaign to Protect Rural England’, American author Bill Bryson has been doing his bit to counter our national bad habit and I recommend the organisation ‘Litter Action’:
    The Ramblers’ Association’ also has an excellent and long-standing record of battling against litter – its various local groups often litter-pick when they go on rambles in the countryside and in urban areas.
    But ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ has been around for decades and it seems to me that the situation has never been worse than now. One particular habit that baffles me completely is the situation at cash dispensers, where people choose to have a printed statement of their transaction, which they then discard on the floor below the cash dispenser, despite the fact that if you don’t want a printed statement you don’t have to ask for one, and in any case there is usually a litter receptacle stationed immediately next to the cash dispenser!

  • Plaingoldband

    I would think litter collection would be one of the first services squeezed councils would consider cutting….

    ….then I remembered the ‘Work for your Benefit’ Scheme, making jobseekers pick up litter etc in return for their benefit.

    What ever happened to that? That pilot scheme was launched with a great fanfare…Daily Mail readers nodded in absolute agreement….and then it went very quiet.

    I understand it is dormant at the moment…and someone somewhere is working on the ‘Mandatory Work Activity Scheme’…similar with more regulations and sanctions attached.

    Like my segue from litter to politics?!?

  • Ehtch

    As long as south-east english know that they can actualy pick up their own litter, even on Hampstead Teeth, we will be getting there, even with those rich kids, like Campbells offspring, polluting their places.

  • Gilliebc

    So you did write it then Dave. I am very impressed (for what that’s worth).
    I read your post with great interest. “a green corridor into the city centre, that follows the course of a stream” could be any one of a number of cities. Sounds like a never-ending job picking up litter after sudents, who should know better. Also what you said about people causing an unnecessary litter problem around cash machines, that is indeed baffling,
    for the reason you gave, it makes no sense whatsoever. Some people are very odd (imho).
    Anyway, spring has really arrived now, all is not right with the world, but life is still good in spite of human efforts to wreck everything.
    I expect you are looking forward to some nice walks/rambles soon Dave.
    I believe I’m right in thinking that it was you who wrote a post about a hill walk last year sometime? It was very good. These sort of topics make a refreshing change from the usual politcal machinations.

  • Dave Simons

    Thank you Gillie – much appreciated!

  • Ehtch

    Jonathan Meades, I have had a gutsful of what I had to put up with today, NewStatesman internet site, not let me allow to visit, all of a sudden.

    Jonathan, you no doubt have your own ananograms, and other such shite,

  • Ehtch

    The best bit, as it always is, is the last bit, as is Jonathan Meades on his Worcestershire, Bewdley,
    A la la France!

  • Ehtch

    Sums up us, even adverts before this, summer coming, but who cares, only the money fascists it looks.

  • 1st time ive agreed with Campbell – Saw a number of Parks in London this weekend – Bloody disgrace how people litter – Where are the fines!?! Shoreditch Park was a disgrace. Far worse than Hampstead Heath.