I did something a bit weird yesterday. There’s a bit of green space near where we live, surrounded on four sides by a hedge, two lines of houses and a road. There are several trees, a few footpaths, and a swing put up by some social entrepreneur. And somebody has added a few easy-to-climb slats up the side of one of the trees so it can be easily climbed. Sometimes, children come here with a football. And that’s about it. Nothing spectacular, this green space is simply there, it occasionally gets its lawn trimmed by council workers, and it does what its meant to do. Like Charlie Dimmock, it’s green, it provides a bit of space between all the other stuff, and it’s easy on the eye.
And it collects litter. Nothing massive, of course. This is Morpeth, so no supermarket trolleys (getting them up the hill would cause a heart seizure) no needles (at least, not yet) and no burned out cars (Although I’m expecting to see a burned-out mobility scooter turning up soon). But we do get cigarette packets, plastic bottles, sweet packets, tin cans, and the usual what-have-you.
Of course, it’s partly the wind. Green space can’t create litter all by itself, unless you’re counting the leaves, blossom petals, or the odd dead branch. And the litter probably won’t be coming from the houses immediately next door, because those places look fairly tidy, and there’s no obvious point to keeping one side of a fence tidy, if the other side is visible and reminiscent of the back streets of Basra. So the wind is probably part-responsible for bringing all these blessings from elsewhere.
But most of the litter comes from people passing through. Commuters, school pupils, adults going to and from the pub. What’s interesting is this- that they probably wouldn’t drop litter over the fence of someone’s house or garden, because that would be an imposition, a symbolic assault on someone else’s territory. An Englishman’s Castle, and all that rot. But a shared green space, maintained by the council? That doesn’t belong to anybody, so why not drop litter here? It’s not as if there are any litter bins.
But that attitude’s just daft too, because the green space actually does belong to everybody, which is why we pay our rates to get underpaid council workers coming round on the occasional basis to pick up litter at unsocial hours.
So yesterday, I did something weird. I took out a black binliner, and went out picking litter. Gosh, I did feel smug about it. I was just waiting for someone to stop me and ask ‘Excuse me, what do you think you’re doing?’ but of course, thankfully, they didn’t, or else my head would have exploded with self-satisfaction. But once the Smug Factor faded away, there came Curiosity. How did that bottle actually get there? How did a bottle top become so half-buried, it needed to be dug out? Why do they still make Monster Munch crisps, when they taste so awful? And why do people drop litter if they don’t like to see the places where they live, looking scruffy?
After 30 minutes, my bag was full, the place was looking better, and all of a sudden, something had changed. This green space, in a strange way, now had a personal dimension. In a curious way, it had become mine, because I’d gone to the trouble of looking after it. How odd. I’d had a little exercise and fresh air, and a local space was now a little bit greener and loved. And it was so easy.
Try it, yourself, this week. Wear gloves if you really have to. Buy one of those litter-picker things for under a fiver if you want to get serious. Trust me, you won’t be putting anyone out of work. But litter-picking gives you a wonderfully strange sense of connection with the area where you live- this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.