Is it a sign of age that I am becoming increasingly irritated by litter?
Lewisham is awash with everything from cigarette packages and fast food cartons to discarded fridges. I womble the churchyard with ever greater frequency. But what is one Vicar among so many?
Fast food and snacks are, when all is said and done, the main problem. South London is well on its way to being the world centre of ambulant eating. It was famously said of Hubert Humphrey that he could not walk and chew gum at the same time. Soon there will have arisen a mutant sub-species – a variant of humanity which cannot walk without chewing or chew without walking. How they will manage their mobile phones whilst doing both is yet to be revealed.
There is, I observe, in the local Tesco an entire aisle filled on both sides with snacks and nibbles (more space than is devoted to bread). Each one, of course, comes in a bright, shiny, non-biodegradable bag. Since none of these food substitutes is designed to be eaten indoors, at a table, where the bags can be neatly placed in a bin when the contents have been emptied, most of them end up in my garden.
But larger items of detritus are not unusual. Beside the parish hall are two large bins, labelled prophetically: LEWISHAM REFUSE SERVICE. (Think about it).
The fun starts on Wednesdays, immediately after they have been emptied. Then the rush is on, from far and wide, to refill them as quickly as possible. Large plastic children’s toys (tricycles, kiddi-cars and the like) are favourites. But televisions, computers and audio equipment also feature largely. Mattresses are hauled by night through the silent streets and dumped on top.
We tried locking the gates so that the bins were more difficult to reach. That was a mistake. Denied immediate access, the litter felons simply throw their contributions over the fence in the general direction of the bins, whence it had to be picked up and put in by someone else. The fence is five feet high, and the objects are often heavy. From which one can conclude that the culprits are tall, male, and probably under forty-five.
But is litter, you will be asking yourself, a theological issue: one of sufficient dignity to merit a whole page in New Directions? I think it is.
I am no rabid environmentalist. Whilst Bishop James Jones is out there, in one of those awful striped suits he wears, saving the planet, I will probably be at home reading a book. But I do believe, viewing the increasing filth of our public spaces, that it is easy to see that a disposable society is an ungodly one.
First, there is the matter of respect for natural beauty and the work of human hands. A garden full of crisp papers is an affront to both. A park whose primary use is for frenzied snacking (and which is covered, as a result with garish packaging, crushed cans and plastic drinks containers) is no longer a place of serenity and quiet reflection.
Then there is the human dimension. Our road sweeper (I am sure they have a new name for him by now) is an admirable man. His barrow is festooned with small cuddly toys which he has rescued in the course of his work. To shut out the street noises of Lewisham – everything from police sirens to the thumping reggae of passing cars – he listens to Classic FM; on headphones, he tells me, which had been abandoned on a bench near the railway station.
But what does it do to a man to be employed, day in and day out, picking up what others should never have put down? He is surprisingly philosophical, though he admits that his job renders him prone to bouts of misanthropy. ‘They’re all at it now’, he told me the other day. ‘I wouldn’t mind if it was just the school kids; but the grown-ups are as bad. Even the blokes in business suits from Citibank. Munch and throw, munch and throw. It’s the way it is these days.’
He is precisely right.
The munch-and-throw society, what is more, is one which has almost given up on real food, and totally lost interest in gastronomy. Apart from McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s the gastronomic highspot of the High Street is a van in the market selling polystyrene bowls of Vietnamese noodles. At three pounds a bowl they are not cheap. But they poignantly represent the prostitution of a great culinary culture to the tastes of a post-culinary populace. The proprietors, no doubt, weep all the way to the bank; and the polystyrene bowls blow merrily along the pavement – the remains of noodles-in-monosodium-glutamate a welcome addition to the diet of an increasing number of rats.
Nutritionists are not my favourite people. They have an obsession with the effects of food (rather than with its taste) which borders on the macabre. But they have a point. Food, like the Sacrament to which it is so closely related it, exists to build up the Body. The food which is being eaten in such quantities on our streets, resulting as it does in obesity and litter, is a sort of anti-sacrament – of which the only real beneficiaries are vermin and parasites.
Perhaps the vision of a world where responsible people take their litter home to neat houses where food is lovingly prepared and where every meal is a feast of reason and fellowship is hopelessly naïve. Perhaps such things are gone for ever. But when Mr Wesley acclaimed cleanliness as next to godliness, he would have done well to include those other things as well.
Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham, where he picks up litter, guards his dustbins and regularly returns supermarket trolleys to the shops from which they came.