Attention: scum


Remember Keep Britain Tidy? It was a ubiquitous campaign when I was growing up, emblemised by this enduring, rudimentary graphic figure dropping litter into a wire bin. Apparently, Keep Britain Tidy became a limited company of the same name in 1984 and expanded to cover various environmental issues in this century, including beaches, anti-social activity and tree-planting. Good for them. It’s hard to argue the case against keeping Britain, or anywhere, tidy. Like charity and barbarism alike, you might say that tidiness begins at home, but it doesn’t. I actually don’t care if your house is tidy or not; it’s the outside of your house that I’m worried about. The part I have to look at as I walk past. The part that’s in public; in Britain.


The term “scum” is overused. It is also misused. Too often it is applied to denote a social class and is thus implicitly snooty, when in fact scumminess knows no economic boundary and comes in many forms.

The photo above, which I took last month but could be taken any day of the week, shows the tip of an iceberg. As I’ve mentioned before, at the British Library, patrons of the reading rooms are required to use supplied, reusable, transparent bags. This is to reduce the import and export of forbidden items into and out of the reading rooms, such as pens, umbrellas, food and drink on the way in, and books belonging to the British Library on the way out. As such, you collect your bag from a neat stack in one of the boxes pictured, and return it to the same place.

These bags can easily be patted back into a flat shape for stacking. I do it every time I go into the library. It takes seconds to do: empty, pat, flatten. However, as you can see from this pictorial evidence, even by mid-afternoon, misshapen, unpatted bags are already being frankly chucked in the general direction of the box, as if perhaps the litterbug imagines his or her mum to be coming round to clear up after them. A polythene volcano effect is the result. British Library cleaning staff – and not patrons’ mums – must then collect them all up and pat them into shape after the library’s inconsiderate, lazy patrons have left, to prepare them for the next day. In the meantime, an ugly eyesore is created. Even a patted-flat bag cannot be neatly stacked once this transparent cancer starts to grow, so the mess snowballs in mocking imitation of chaos theory.

I mention this again, with illustration, because I’m getting increasingly sick of the attitude of people who create mess or litter in places that aren’t their homes. I have re-joined a gym after about four years away, and although the gym itself is well tended, and the staff there vigilant in terms of cleaning, I have noticed some very bad habits on behalf of the club’s members. I can only vouch for men, as I use the men’s changing rooms, but despite the near-spotless surfaces at the beginning of the day, which is when I opt to use the facilities, pre-work, it amazes me how often I go into a shower cubicle and find the wet floor already littered with discarded membership wristbands (which are disposable, but disposable in the bins provided), empty shower gel bottles and – eek! – sticking plasters. It’s clear that some men, like British Library users, think it’s acceptable to drop these things for someone else to sort out.

A gym is a communal space. It requires a certain degree of spatial and social awareness for it to run. You wait for someone else to finish on a piece of resistance equipment; you do not crowd other members on the exercise mats; you put exercise balls and dumbbells back on the rack after use; you wipe your sweat off the machines; and so on. But you have to take this courtesy into the changing rooms with you, and treat the showers and locker areas as if, hey, someone else might be using them after you.


There is a copycat fried-chicken outlet on the parade of shops I walk to each morning to pick up the newspaper, or to take the bus to the station, and rare is the day when I don’t walk past some discarded takeaway packaging from this outlet. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the scene: drunk bloke, late at night, staggering home, gets the urge to eat something and the only thing to eat is some fried chicken, starts eating it, stops eating it, drops packaging where he sways, staggers home. These places thrive on late-night custom and I seriously do not blame the shop for the litter. Equally, it’s hard to blame drunkards. We’ve all been pissed and bought some takeaway food we barely knew we were buying, let alone eating. It’s an occupational hazard of the leisure society. But this doesn’t stop me seething at the dropped boxes, paper bags, cups, plastic stabbers, napkins and polystyrene coffins. They really are a ghastly symbol of the throwaway culture of capitalism.

Mind you, a simple walk down the street where one lives is rarely a happy occasion, even on a lovely day, as litter creeps in from all angles. I’ve lived in more deprived and depraved areas of London than the one I’m in currently, but there are left plastic bags of dog shit in the gutter, all tied up and ready to be collected by someone else; cigarette butts and those cellophane sheaths from around the box which are often just dropped because they’re see-through and almost not there; and assorted flotsam from the refuse collection, a ritual now so complicated by the compartmentalisation of recycling and composting it takes a number of visits by a number of refuse collectors to scoop it all up, and old flyers and menus and flaps of card tend to be carried off by a gust and left for dead until a resident snaps and picks it up themselves.

And it should not be the responsibility of the refuse collectors to have to gather up all the rubbish that has been nosed by hungry foxes out of bin bags left out by fools the night before. (The main bin collection does not happen until well after breakfast, so there’s no excuse for putting the bags out the night before.) Foxes do not recognise or respect the boundaries of a thin black plastic membrane; they smell food, they get food, assuming it to be food for them, which it is if you handily leave it out at night. I’ve defended foxes before. It’s not their “fault” if your path is decorated with licked-out readymeal trays and tuna lids. Think about it.


I have written before about “broken window theory”, which I first read about in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point but originated in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article by two criminologists: “Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows.” This eventually leads to a rip in the fabric of order – the building’s broken into, squatted, set fire to, and so on. But the line I’m interested in is this one:

Consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.

I’ve seen this in action. You must have, too. There’s a minicab firm nearby whose drivers habitually park up in nearby residential streets as there’s no room for them outside the cab office. As long as they don’t leave their engines running or have their radio on loud at night, I don’t begrudge this. But I do begrudge their habit of eating snacky food and dropping the litter out of the driver’s door into the gutter. Which some of them do. This minor starting point of litter is the broken window. It says: litter has been left here; little can be left here; litter should be left here. (I say: take it with you, you scumbags.)

There are troubles in the world more grave and lethal than litter. Governments using pepper spray and chemical weapons on their own citizens springs to mind. Moronic “revenge” attacks on mosques in this country. A disabled man going on hunger strike to protest against being declared fit for work by Atos and losing all of his benefits. But if society breaks down, it has to start somewhere. Every inferno begins with a spark. And that spark might be a dropped gym wristband, or a lobbed British Library bag, or a surreptitiously squirrelled sandwich wrapper at a kerbside.

I used to live near a railway bridge, under which cars and vans would pull up by the cover of darkness and empty out all sorts of rubbish. This is fly tipping, by definition: “the deposit of any waste onto land … with no licence to accept waste.” This includes any path or pavement. It also includes the area outside a charity shop which has had the temerity to have regular opening hours and to close on Sundays, so that you were left with no option but to dump your unwanted clothes and a jigsaw outside their door. The often voluntary, always nice people who work in charity shops don’t deserve to have to pick up discarded junk, often soaked with rain, on a Monday morning. They are not your mum either.

Tidy Britain, tidy mind, tidy democracy.