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May 01, 2007

Our new national obsession with weekly bin collections shows what a trivial people we have become, argues Jon Davies

Posted by Jon Davies

Jon Davies asks, are weekly bin collections really the most pressing political issue facing Britain?

On 19th April 2007 the Daily Telegraph's main front-page headline screamed "9 MILLION HOMES NO LONGER HAVE WEEKLY BIN COLLECTION". Most of the Telegraph's page two was given over to a list of those local authorities so indifferent to their citizens as to inflict this monstrous dereliction on them. An article by a Tony Travers (an academic) seemed to relate this bin business to "green" issues, the Mantra of Mantras of our politicians. My local Tory candidate committed himself to a battle for weekly bin collections. That's the man for me. The Daily Mail's Max Hastings called for a "crusade" on the One Bin Baddies. The Mail itself insisted that fortnightly bin collections were a (24th April 2007):

body blow to democracy . . . weekly bin collections are a civil right in Britain.
Both newspapers set up a write-in campaign. The Telegraph, seeking our views on this crucial topic, has been publishing letters by evidently deranged readers, letters which on 23rd April appeared under a mini-headline "ABOLITION OF HOUSEHOLD BINS COULD BE THE FUTURE FOR BRITAIN".

Well, that's a relief. At times, we are told to expect, as our not too distant future, terrorist attacks of a Hiroshima or Nagasaki scale. There are, it seems, about 2000 demented Muslims in the UK determined to get on with that little task: and for every one of them there must be another ten who must know, more or less, what their demented brothers have in mind: that's about 20,000 lunatics whose minds are not on their bins. The viability of British companies is being corroded by regulation and by unsustainable pension commitments. Our falling birth rate almost guarantees that these commitments cannot be met, anyway. Thugs and druggies appear all too often in our schools and streets: and idiot "experts" waffle on television and radio conferring, by offering "explanations", some form of civic status on these people. Worse, much worse, our armed forces have been humiliated, not by being captured, but by behaving as if they were under no obligation to behave, when captured, as if they were British. Perhaps they, too, were worried about their bins.

The other night the BBC offered us Kingdom (what a terrible mis-use of a noun) in which Stephen Fry gave us his dumbed-down imitation of Miss Marple - except, of course, Miss Marple actually manages to knit her way to some kind of resolution: she has a certain sharp rather unpleasant quizzical ability. Mr Fry blobs his way nicely and amiably about the screen, with trivia trumpeted and tripped over at every opportunity, as if that is what we have become. Not even the Great Bin Issue is allowed to disturb this sub-bucolic cartoon, in which the scenery alone seems both willing and able to act. There will be no need for Muslim Bombists to pull out their nasty weapons. There will, in Mr Fry's Kingdom, be no resistance whatsoever, merely a nice place offering itself up, complete with a flaccid solicitor offering to draft the articles of surrender. We have no society. We have become scenery.

The Battle of the Bins tells us almost as much about the nature of our society as the recent behaviour of naval personnel. Clearly, the Matter of Bin was in Archbishop Rowan Williams's mind when he said that (Daily Telegraph, 24th April 2007:

Without a notional [sic?] standard of human excellence and human flourishing, the definition of what is good for people is always going to be vulnerable to what happens to suit a dominant interest group.
It is usually difficult to understand what the Archbishop is saying, but here he clearly has in mind those local authorities who have secretly fitted microchips to your bin, so that improper bin use can be spotted immediately. The State, says Dr Williams, should recognise:
wider considerations than those of immediate profit and security.
Why, one is inclined to ask, when "wider considerations" seem to be located around bins, and when neither security nor profit seem sufficiently well-founded as to make it safe to dedicate our democracy to the pursuit of bins? For the sake of a bin, we have absolved the State of its major functions - the provision of security, the facilitation of prosperity. What a trivial people we have become.

I have just spent two months in India. Not many bins there. Are they bothered? Yes, a bit. Does the lack of bins make headline news in the Assam Sentinel or the Cherrapunji Chronicle? No. Is India shining? Yes. Are we? No. Does the Indian Government cherish its Armed Forces? Yes. Does ours? No.

It is true. This is all sour grapes. The Daily Telegraph refused to print my letter on the Bins of Britain, even though I offered them money. Here it is:

BINS! BINS! BLOODY BINS! Is the fact that a few million of us have our bins emptied 24 times a year, and not 52, really front-page headline-screaming news? In the last few weeks we have been humiliated enough by the pathetic behaviour of our military personnel: and we are humiliated daily by the dumbed-down sniffling of the BBC and the media it exemplifies. You are a major national newspaper - not a local freebie. Please, please, give your front page over to serious things - if you cannot think of any, leave it blank.
Jon Davies - who served for many years as a Labour councillor - recently retired as Head of Religious Studies at Newcastle University. He is the author and editor of books on urban planning, contemporary social attitudes, and death in the ancient world; and is currently working on a book on the patterns of enmities surrounding the West.


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I do not think that bin collection is a triviality. Quite the contrary – it is symptomatic of a state where the public servants have said “we are the masters”. And this is certainly one of the most pressing political issues facing Britain today.

I do not, though, dismiss the author’s concern over the other issues such as falling birthrate, mad Mullahs, etc. If any great 19th century figure is turning in his grave over this state of affairs, it must be T.H.Huxley. Since the author is a former head of religious studies, may I suggest to him that what we now see is Huxley’s nemesis, since his crippling attack on the religious element of our national life is one of the things that has left us vulnerable to any charlatan who grabs our consciences by the short and curlies.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 7, 2007 07:04 PM
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