April 16, 2008

Dirty secret

Most visitors to England are too polite to point out the obvious. I guess they don't want their hosts to feel insulted.

Last year, we had a Canadian couple over for Christmas dinner. Nice folks. It was they're first visit to England - they were impressed by some things, unimpressed with others. They were divided about the merits of old Victorian houses: she thought they were charming and full of character, he thought they were drafty and hard to maintain.

Mostly, they said nice things about the country and the people. They rarely ventured any kind of criticism, and even when they did they were fairly non-committal about it: "I guess that's just the way they do things over here.".

So I had to bring it up: "What do you think about the litter?"

It was like I'd opened the floodgates - all reticence disappeared. I'm paraphrasing but here's what it boiled down to: "The streets are filthy, people here don't seem to care, it shows a complete lack of civic pride. Don't people get fed up with it?"

It might be distressing for the English to learn this (though, in truth, I doubt they'd care very much) but, in my experience, most North American visitors to these shores are truly shocked at how dirty the place is.

Which makes it unsurprising to find that Bill Bryson (currently England's favorite American and head of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England) has launched an anti-litter campaign:-
Bryson is obsessed by litter. He can't walk past a piece of chewing gum without getting out his penknife to scrape it off of the pavement. "It gives me a sense of achievement," he says.

He is kept awake at night by the thought of drivers throwing apple cores out of their cars. So, last summer, he devised a cunning plan: he became the new President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, just so he could "get my hands on the headed notepaper and start writing to politicians".

Today, he moves into the next phase, launching a three-year campaign to "Stop The Drop", aimed at eliminating stray rubbish and casual fly-tipping.
Good luck to him, but I doubt it will have much effect - it's not so much that the English are set in their ways, they just can't really see the problem.