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May 10, 2006

Astonishing Quantities of Rubbish: Theodore Dalrymple takes a drive along the A55 - and finds litter, great mounds of it

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple takes a drive along the A55 in North Wales. Throughout his journey he is confronted by litter in astonishing quantities. Theodore Dalrymple reflects on how much of Britain's population now seems to regard this country as one huge, collective rubbish tip.

If I had to choose a single road that, by itself, had ruined more towns than any other, I suppose I would choose the A55 in North Wales. The number of charming and elegant little Victorian and Edwardian seaside towns and villages it has defaced and destroyed is staggering. It is tragic that the only efficiency demonstrated by British transport and town planners has been in the destruction of the appearance and atmosphere of the whole country. There they have managed a giant effect with the slenderest of means.

A drive along the A55 is very instructive. Of course, it passes through landscapes and countryside of great beauty, some of the most beautiful in our islands; but, as the drive will also instruct you, the first instinct of the modern Briton when he sees a fine landscape is to throw litter at it. Indeed, it is almost a reflex with him; I hesitate to say that he cannot help himself, but he might as well be unable to help himself for all the effort he makes actually to do so.

The verges, the bushes, the trees are festooned with astonishing quantities of rubbish. It is not only the major roadways, moreover, that are the repositories of such detritus; any of the lanes that are frequented by visitors are also used as their personal rubbish dumps.

The nature of this rubbish is very instructive too. The vast majority of it consists of the packaging of food and drink consumed en route by passers-by. Indeed, when the sun is out, the rays of the celestial body glint on all the plastic bottles and tins cans, just as in inner cities they glint on the shards of shattered glass of the windows of cars that have been broken into. Of course, much of the litter is matt and reflects much less light: for example, the discarded polystyrene containers of fast food and drink.

I have no idea of how many pieces of such litter are strewn on the roadside, but it must run into the hundreds of thousands or perhaps even millions. And when we consider that each individual piece of such litter constitutes evidence of an act of unbridled egotism by an individual, we must conclude something very unflattering about the nature of at least a large proportion of the British population. The fact is that so much rubbish could not have accumulated if there were only one or two people who used the country as their personal litter bin.

I can already hear the arguments in my mind's ear of people desperate to deny that anything has deteriorated in Britain. By analogy with the argument that there is so much more theft, burglary and robbery nowadays because there is so much more to thieve, burgle and rob (as if inanimate objects were auto-alienating from their possessors), people will argue that there is so much more litter because we have so many more wrappings to dispose of than formerly, and indeed we are now so prosperous that we can afford to eat and drink all the time, wherever we go. Litter is thus a sign of material progress (I once read a caption to a picture in a book about Guatemala, that the town square was so clean because the inhabitants were too poor to throw anything away), just as in communist iconography, chimneys on the horizon belching black smoke spelled the promised land.

Then, of course, people will argue that there is no objective evidence that the country has become more littered than formerly, and that our memories of a time when people did not dispose of their litter through car windows or by dropping it in the street wherever they happened to be are the effect of the rose-tinted spectacles through which we all view the past once we reach a certain age. On this view, Britain has always been the rubbish-tip of Europe; there is therefore nothing to concern ourselves with.

I confess that it is to refute this imagined argument that I look very carefully at photographs of town and landscapes taken during the Victorian, Edwardian and later eras, right up to the 1960s and 70s, to see if the country was as littered then as it is now. I have never seen in such pictures litter on the streets or in the hedgerows to compare with what one sees nowadays.

Ah yes, I hear the modern disciples of Dr Pangloss say, but who would ever take a photograph of a litter-strewn scene? When you take a photograph of a landscape, they will ask, do you not try to screen out all that is ugly and disfiguring? How, then, can you take the photographic record of the past to be of any value in deciding whether there is more litter in our streets and verges and hedgerows than there was in the past?

I suppose this is analogous to the rearguard action fought by criminologists to deny that the crime rate in Britain had increased dramatically. First they told us that our memories of a comparatively crime-free world were false; and second, the increase in the crime rate was and is an artefact of the changes in the way in which crime was and is recorded.

If you point out that you see more litter in a hundred yards in Britain than in a thousand miles in other European countries of comparable wealth, they will reply, "Yes, but the British were always like that". This is the Gin Lane argument, trotted out with truly monotonous regularity whenever the subject of contemporary mass public drunkenness comes up in polite company. Since all undesirable behaviour is, in essence, a genetic atavism at best, or a mere continuation of a perennial behaviour at worst, the only sensible thing for sophisticated and intelligent people to do is to throw up our hands and surrender willingly to it.

When finally, after much denial and a tremendous effort has gone into proving the obvious, the point is conceded - that there is much more litter everywhere than there used to be - the last and unbreakable defence will be raised: that it doesn't matter anyway. What harm, after all, does a bit of litter do? Sticks and stones may break my bones, but litter will never hurt me.

I don't want to spend my life proving to people from first principles that litter is a bad thing. Instead, in my next piece, I will examine the social and cultural meaning of the littering of our country, as exemplified by a drive along the A55.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and recently retired as an inner city and prison doctor. To read Dr Dalrymple's two further pieces on the A55, see Litter and the A55: Theodore Dalrymple on the social and cultural meaning of the littering of our country and The aesthetics of the A55: Theodore Dalrymple finds that everything built along the A55 since the First World War has been a scar on the landscape and explores why our architecture has been so bad.

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Since my childhood in America enormous gains were made against littering, started through advertising and furthered by social pressure from children in particular. One award winning ad showed a stoic American Indian, with a single tear running down his cheek. Nothing else needed to be said, and almost everyone who saw that 60s era ad remembers it vividly.

Rarely visiting America nowadays, I wonder if litter has returned along with the ghastly self-centredness that typifies modern Americans and Britons. I had once thought that the anti littering ads worked by generating community pressure, but not so, since American communities were already fragmented 40 years back. No, they worked by family pressure and influencing one's conscience. In England people have been sensitised to other environmental issues, so perhaps education could work again. It is however an ancient problem, vis-a-vis Flander's & Swann's immortal song about the British Bedstead Men ensuring that our ponds each contain a rusting bedstead.

Posted by: s masty at May 11, 2006 07:05 AM

Certainly in the part of the US where I live (Michigan), what you might call individual litter along the roadside is rare. We have a bottle-return law, so you'll never see a soda can or bottle on the shoulder. And we have volunteer highway-beautification programmes. The one litter problem we do seem unable to solve is vehicle debris - tire fragments from semi-trucks, bits of broken cars, and a steady tide of things like furniture that have (literally) frallen off the back of a lorry.

When my (American) wife and I vacationed in the UK a year or so back, she made note of two things:

- even in areas of outstanding natural beauty (we spent a week tramping and biking through the Lake District) you could literally never, ever be out of sight of a discarded supermarket bag.

- there are apparently a grand total of 3 public litter bins in the entire nation, which must be shared. She hauled a grocery bag of litter from Edinburgh to Peterborough on the train, in a taxi and all the way back to our hotel, without encoutering a single litter bin. The only thing more clesely rationed than litter bins, it seems, are ice cubes . . . .



Posted by: llamas at May 11, 2006 11:53 AM

Is the absence of public rubbish bins in Britain a remaining legacy of the Irish Troubles? I was told the IRA had too much fondness for those.

Posted by: Omri at May 12, 2006 04:04 AM


I have been told so - after tramping around The City for a few hours with a plastic bottle, forlornly looking for a bin, I was later informed that it was no al Qaeda but "the lads" who had led to this lack of litter bins.

Yet another wonderfully perceptive article from Dr D - it is an amazingly obvious thing, but I had never fully digested the implications of the fact that "each individual piece of such litter constitutes evidence of an act of unbridled egotism by an individual." Litter doesn't get there by some mysterious osmosis, or as a by product of consumer culture. Every piece of rubbish is there as a result of an individual act. Dr Dalrymple is excellent at pointing out what is staring us all in the face.

Posted by: Seamus Sweeney at May 14, 2006 09:30 PM
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