Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Access All Areas: The Street-Sweeper Winked Mysteriously, and Asked Me What I Thought of His "Plan"

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Access All Areas: The Street-Sweeper Winked Mysteriously, and Asked Me What I Thought of His "Plan"

Article excerpt

I was standing in the courtyard of the Cheshire Cheese pub on Fleet Street at lunchtime, eating a chicken sandwich. A pigeon fluffed itself at my feet. Then a street-sweeper came my way, broom out, with a folded piece of paper in one hand.

"Excuse me," he said.

I moved to clear the way for him--there were cigarette butts on the ground. But instead, he held out a printed note:

Honourable citizens.

Respect the street-sweeper who keeps your city clean.

He was a dark-haired man of below average height, with deep-set eyes and permastubble. He spoke with that slightly grave tone you sometimes find in those who struggle with the English language--abrupt statements which sound portentous, even when they are not. "What do you think?" he asked.

"Well, yes." I agreed.

"I am a cleaner," he told me, gesturing to his uniform, a fluoro-yellow hi-vis with the City of London Corporation logo on his chest. He told me to read the note again, and to think carefully about what it said.

He was from Bulgaria. His name was Milan (with the emphasis on the "Mil"). He'd been in London for four years and worked as a cleaner for two. He said he thought his profession should be respected, acknowledged by the people of the capital.

Milan took out his smartphone and showed me a photo of a statue in Madrid--a bronze street-sweeper, his back erect, cap at a tilt, standing in Jacinto Benavente square.

In Spain, people understand how important the street-sweeper is, he told me. If Milan didn't sweep streets in London, "There'd be rats. And if there are rats, there will be TB! "

He was intense, but not off-puttingly so.

But why the printed note, I asked him? What was he going to do with it?

He winked mysteriously, saying something about the council, the corporation and his "current project", asking bystanders like me what we thought of his "plan". …

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