Magazine article The Spectator

Dishing the Dirt

Magazine article The Spectator

Dishing the Dirt

Article excerpt

SUMMER is over. The last of the British holidaymakers - bar a few stragglers - will land at Heathrow this weekend from France, Italy, Spain, Greece, the United States (or, if they are really posh, from Scandinavia) and make the trek from landing bay to baggage claim under the relentless gaze of advertisements for the Tower of London and Virgin Express and Hertz. Outside the airport they will enter a grim and grey world of utilitarian architecture (where 1950 meets 1970) and overpriced black cabs. Only a man as decent and uncomnlainine as John Major could rejoice at being home.

The misery of returning holidaymakers is, of course, partly explained by the prospect of a winter of work; but there is much more to it than that. One of the chief gripes among Londoners and indeed among people from all parts of Britain - is that their streets are filthy, their air is dirty, and the people are pretty bloody too.

The Blairs are perhaps less familiar than the rest of us with that feeling of terminal depression. Their street in central London is not what you could ever call normal. There are gates at the end of it, plenty of bobbies on the beat, and, however much the wind may blow along Whitehall, it is unlikely to deliver to their door a daily shipment of greasy paper smeared with tomato ketchup, crisp wrappers, crumpled Coke cans, cigarette butts, paper napkins, bottles of water, the occasional soiled nappy and, at weekends, a condom or two - all of which come with the territory in my part of gentrified south London.

Not long ago I summoned up the courage to ask a group of schoolgirls to pick up the crisp wrappers that they had discarded near a postbox. There were five or six of them, aged about 16, each wearing identical expressions of contempt at being addressed rather firmly by a stranger. `What's it to you, lard?' said the one with spiky hair whom I assumed to be the group's spokeswoman when she turned on her platform-soles and led the others disdainfully away. Perhaps it is as well that there was no confrontation. I was spoiling for a fight and you seldom win when it comes to direct action. After reprimanding two men for dropping litter recently, a woman in the Midlands was beaten up so badly that she ended up in intensive care.

We go in for litter in a big way in my street. Two cars and a van have recently been dumped across the road. One of the cars is without a steering-wheel and the van has three flat tyres and broken headlights. All three vehicles have been abandoned but, because their road-tax has not expired and they are not parked illegally, nothing can be done. To remove them would be theft. Meanwhile, the graffiti boys are having a riot and it won't be long before bricks have been thrown through all the windows.

Britain spends more than 330 million a year clearing up litter which should never have been dropped in the first place. Surveys are thin on the ground as to how this country compares with others but the anecdotal evidence is pretty overwhelming: Britain is filthy. Even the hedgehogs would tell you that. When McDonald's introduced their McFlurry ice-creams, they came with an ingenious cover not unlike a lobster pot, which people either threw out of their car windows or dropped on the street when empty. The hedgehogs came along, crawled inside and couldn't get out. The poor hedgehogs perished. McDonald's has now withdrawn the lids - at least in Britain, where throwing things out of car windows is as common as spitting in public and allowing your dog to defecate in the middle of the pavement. It goes on in towns, in country lanes and on motorways. Welcome to Mr Blair's `modern Britain'.

Barcelona once had the reputation of being a dirty city, but I drove there this summer and was struck by how clean it looked compared with London. On the way through France and northern Spain, we stooped in towns large and small and found plenty of things to grumble about but they never included the dirty streets. …

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