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May 17, 2006

Litter and the A55: Theodore Dalrymple on the social and cultural meaning of the littering of our country

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple has recently reflected upon the littering of the A55 - Astonishing Quantities of Rubbish: Theodore Dalrymple takes a drive along the A55 - and finds litter, great mounds of it. Dr Dalrymple now explores what the littering of Britain means. Unsurprisingly perhaps, his conclusions are not optimistic.

Having remarked in a previous posting upon the excess of litter to be seen as one drives along the A55, I promised to try to explain its significance. Of course, I do not claim that the A55 is the only road in Great Britain where such an excess of litter is to be seen: on the contrary, it is typical, or emblematic, in this respect rather than extraordinary. If you want to know what we have become, look around you.

Of course, it might be argued that once littering has reached a certain point or intensity, the marginal deterioration to the landscape caused by a further piece of litter is too slight to discourage anyone from using the landscape as his litter bin. Still, even in our day, there are many people who believe that litter should not be dropped in a public space, whatever the condition of that public space.

I suspect, however, that there are also many people for whom the virtual world of electronically-reproduced distraction and fantasy-fodder - music, soap opera and so forth - is now more real to them than the real world they actually inhabit and in which they move around in. They live and move in it, but have their being somewhere else. If you travel on our trains, for example, you see people with headphones in a kind of trance, their skulls full of loud rhythms, their feet up on the seat opposite, dropping their litter unselfconsciously as they consume snacks without hunger or thought. The world about them hardly matters to them: the trance is what counts.

Similarly, people in cars are in a private bubble, as often as not suffused with the kind of music that prevents thought and destroys the possibility of reflection. Society is reduced to an association not of individuals, but of self-absorbed solipsists who come together purely for convenience. It would be surprising indeed if such solipsists cared very deeply about what kind of mess they were making. Other people do not truly exist for them, except as instruments for the satisfaction of their whims.

More importantly, however, the litter represents a loss of self-control on a mass scale. Can it really be that millions of Britons cannot wait until they reach their destination to refresh themselves with the drinks and snacks whose wrappings they so carelessly discard by the roadside? If so, why should it be so?

Loss of control over appetite is not, of course, the only form of loss of self-control to be seen en masse in contemporary Britain. Mass public drunkenness is another example; incontinent and public sexual behaviour is another; an increasing propensity to excessive gambling yet another; drug-taking and constant shopping in search of trifles, leading to credit-card debt, yet others.

The manner in which people eat at home has changed decisively. For an increasing proportion of the population, eating is no longer a social activity (a large number of prisoners whom I treated as a doctor, for example, had never known what it was to sit down at a table and eat with other people); at best, eating has become a semi-furtive satisfaction of hunger, the nutritional equivalent of masturbation.

The old disciplines of social eating have been lost; and I suspect, though of course I cannot prove, that they were very important in the general socialisation of children.

A child would once have had to learn that he must wait till mealtimes to eat. The discipline of mealtimes led to apparently absurd paradoxes: often the child would not be able to eat when he was most hungry, and sometimes he would be required to eat most when he was not hungry. The reason for this was that eating was above all a social activity, and the state of his stomach was therefore not the only thing to be considered in the decision whether or not to eat. In other words, he had to consult something other than his own inclinations of the moment when deciding whether to do something or not.

In large numbers of households now, however, meals, let alone mealtimes, can scarcely be said to exist. The refrigerator and the microwave and the purveyors of snacks and fast foods are the prairies upon which people graze like ruminants. Only their inclination of the moment counts; and frustrations and dissatisfactions often find their comfort in food. Obesity is to our physique what litter is to our roads.

There have never been as many single-adult households as now. Even those of us who are used to living with others know that, when we are on our own, our eating habits are inclined to change. Few of us are like those colonial officials, possibly apocryphal, who dressed for dinner in the jungle just to maintain civilised standards (they, of course, had houseboys and girls to steel their resolve); most of us, when on our own, resort to the kind of grazing I have described.

No doubt there are other minor contributions to the littering of Britain as well. A certain defiance is sometimes discernible in those who drop litter. I once saw a fattish girl, eating chocolate, at a bus-stop. Next to her was a litter bin; when she had finished her chocolate, she suspended the wrapper in her fingers very near the litter bin, and then let it drop beside it. Since it would have been just as easy - perhaps easier - to place it in the receptacle provided as to drop it very nearby, I could not help but think that she was making what some in the recent past have called "a mood statement".

A littered country is aesthetically displeasing for those of us who do not live in the virtual world of mass distraction, the world in which so many people now seem to live. I think it was Sir Lewis Namier who said that in a drop of dew all the colours of the rainbow could be seen (I suppose he was justifying his historical attention to parliamentary minutiae); well, in an examination of the litter along the A55, some of the deep processes at work in our society can be seen.

I shall soon turn my attention to the meaning, if any, of the aesthetics of the A55 itself.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and recently retired as an inner city and prison doctor. To read Dr Dalrymple's two other pieces on the A55, see Astonishing Quantities of Rubbish: Theodore Dalrymple takes a drive along the A55 - and finds litter, great mounds of it 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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