As I inch towards the age my father was when I had my earliest memories of him, I start to slowly take on some of his habits. His pronunciation of a cough (mmBLEUGHHHamm), the overwhelming urge to get the car into fifth gear as soon as possible, calling every passing dog by the name of one dog we had in the 90s, and these days, every now and then, it’s picking up other people’s rubbish.
Maybe my father started doing it to prevent cows eating Tayto bags but then it became a by-product of his Walk. He’d walk along the boundaries to see what people had thrown out of their cars. Most of the time he was muttering darkly about chip-bags. Sometimes he found a pint glass or weirdly, a working slate clock.
And now I ‘do a small bit’. I can honestly say, in apart from intermittent murderous thoughts and worries about What The World Is Coming To, picking up litter is often when I’m at my happiest.
Murderous thoughts are caused by dog-turds left in small black bags tied to a tree. Like offerings to the Shite Gods. I actually think at this stage they’d be better letting their dogs do a poo and putting an ice-lol stick in it. That way we’d know where it was and it would biodegrade. But the plastic bag tied to a tree says ‘I thought about not being an asshole, but then I changed my mind.’
But then I clear an area that was looking manky and I feel like for the first time that week, I’ve actually achieved something.
Then I see broken glass and I wonder what the world is coming to. Can I just make a plea? If you see a craftily stored glass Hooch bottle next to the wall beside the ESB substation, can you put it somewhere an asshole won’t break it. Broken glass is the ultimate malevolent entropy in the universe.
But anyway, I sweep up what I can, and carry on. We litter pickers – and there are tons of us- are doing it for lots of reasons. To make a place look nice for a while, to cheer up an older person who thinks things are gone to the dogs, to take back a bit of control. For me, it’s mainly therapy. An exercise in the benefits of pointless tasks. I’m generally not doing it to make anyone else feel bad. So when you pass us by I don’t want your guilt. It’s not about you. All I need from you is to avoid telling me it’s pointless and that it’ll be bad again tomorrow. I know. But for a while it’ll be nice. And tomorrow’s rubbish is different rubbish. Don’t waylay me with long conversations either. I can’t stop to discuss decades of Local Authority underinvestment and antisocial behaviour because I’ll despair and never restart.
But it’s a sort of a gateway drug into thinking about other environmental issues. Anyone can pick up rubbish. There’s no report going to come out saying you’re actually harming kestrels by removing their source of Tikka Massala in a carton. So it’s an early success to get you hooked on doing something. You get to meet other people who all fall under the vague category of Giving a Shit. People from all backgrounds and ideologies and attitudes. And you will have disagreements with them on how to do the right thing and they’ll know more than you and you'll be wrong about something and find out you're accidentally a hypocrite.
But you have the rubbish in common. The Rewilding plan didn’t work when a lad with a mower cut all the cowslips? Chin up, remember when we cleaned up the playground together? We’ll start again.