Trvael Author, Bill Bryson
PUBLISHED: 11:51 29 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:08 20 February 2013
Litter strewn about the countryside is part of a more sinister problem: traditional English ways of decency, queuing and making the best of the weather are being forced out by a new 'Me me me!' culture...
"Bring out the beer! Where are the Pretzels?" you feel inclined, festively, to call out. Oh come on - you can't be in the company of Bill Bryson and not have a good time. "How's Mrs Bryson? How are the kids?"
There he sits looking so familiar you feel you've met him a million times before. Although he gives the impression of being agreeably rumpled, close inspection reveals him, confusingly, to be nattily turned out: smart brown tweedy jacket, green knitted pully, neatly-ironed checked shirt. That impression, like everything else about Bill Bryson, is probably a generous ruse designed to put you at ease.
And then you remember you don't actually know him at all, do you? You're not here simply to have a good time and to chat - it's to talk about serious things. Litter. Fly-tipping. About Bill Bryson's passionate campaign against abandoned plastic bottles jeering at you from railway sidings, and luminescent crisp packets leering out from under hedgerows...
But what the heck. "We'll recycle our beer bottles and put the empty Pretzel packets in the bin. Bring them on anyway," you say.
Litter? Fly-tipping? Bill Bryson could be talking about imminent and unavoidable nuclear war or an asteroid hurtling on a dead-set course towards your particular town - coupled with a road-blocking transport strike - and you'd still catch yourself smiling genially and chortling in the face of impending annihilation.
Nor is it strictly true to say you don't know him. You are acquainted (sort of) through his travel books; his tales of growing up in small-town America in the '50s; from his fascinating 'polymath' studies (which always impart and never lecture) on the English language, Shakespeare, and, well, Nearly Everything. (Whoever thought physics was such a hilarious subject?)
And he knows you, too. OK, when he first pitched up on our shores in 1973, he began by being a bit puzzled - stunned even - by all things English: multi-storey car parks, irony, the weather, euphemisms, and the fact that anyone could think a cooked tomato deserved a place in an otherwise edible breakfast. But part of the joy of his most popular travel book, Notes from a Small Island, is that we British felt loved. Droll and slightly peculiar, it has to be said; but loved, nonetheless.
The devastating fact is, though, we've let Bill Bryson down. And you can see evidence of how we've managed that on every railway siding in the country; on road verges and in lay-bys; in supermarket car parks; even in the midst of our countryside beauty spots. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), of which Bill is now president, around 25 million tonnes of litter are dropped each year - five times more than in the 1960s. And the news gets worse. UK taxpayers had to foot a whopping 73 million bill last year to clear up illegally-dumped waste, otherwise known as fly-tipping. That's not the odd chocolate wrapper - that's fridges, washing machines, building waste, tyres and even (ugh, really?) animal carcasses. Which is why he - and CPRE - have been driven to launch 'Stop The Drop', a major offensive against the growing blight of litter and fly-tipping in England's countryside.
"I do think there's something going on here that marks a slight change to the British character," Bill says, with an inaudible sigh (and commendable understatement). "Being responsible - doing the decent thing - was very much the bedrock of the British psyche when I first came here. The national attachment to queuing was the most conspicuous demonstration. I think most people still feel that way, but there's creeping into British life an increasing selfishness. And it manifests itself partly in throwing litter down: The interior of my car is more important to me than the exterior world out there. That's the kind of selfishness I really think didn't exist before."
'Mustn't grumble', and the feeling that 90 percent of the world's ills - from dictators to drizzle - can be cured by 'a nice cup of tea' are under threat from a new and pervasive Me Me Me culture. "People talking on mobile phones while driving - they just wouldn't have done that sort of thing at one time. And I notice when I walk round London the number of times you get honked at or treated aggressively by drivers. There used to be a lot more consideration. Now, when you step onto a zebra crossing, you're taking your life into your hands."
Bill Bryson's job in life is to tell the English the truth; to make them see what they've been looking straight through. Up to now, it's been a fun experience; but this feels uncomfortable. Not so much like that time the French teacher gave you a dressing down so fiery it singed your eyebrows. More like the shameful occasion when the headmaster you secretly liked looked sadly at you and said he was disappointed. And worse - you knew he was justified.
"I just think life has changed. People are much more urgent: My time is precious and I really need that space that you've occupied so get the **** out of it. There's a kind of aggressiveness that's crept in that I think is particularly un-British. I don't know how you get rid of that generally, but I do think it's something that needs to be addressed in particular ways - and litter is one of them. You could say: That is one kind of anti-social behaviour we're just not going to tolerate."
Even the quality of the litter we drop has gone downhill. "A crisp packet when I first came over here was just paper; not only would they rot away, but they were a pale blue and they would shrink into the background. Now they are foil-lined, like some kind of survival equipment. You drive down the road and it's practically blinding, the reflection off a crisp packet."
He is right. And the more you think about it, the odder it is. With most contentious subjects - war or nuclear power - you can at least have a stab at both sides of the debate. But it's pretty hard to find an argument to justify littering. So why has it become such a national pastime?
"A big part of why people do it is they feel it is accepted. 'Everybody seems to be doing it.' 'I looked for a bin and couldn't find one.' But what's interesting is that it's not an intractable problem at all. According to studies, about 10 percent of people are incorrigible litterers, and I suspect a high proportion is young males - 16 to 24-year-olds sitting in the town square. They know what they are doing is wrong but, because their mates are doing it, they want to seem tough and it's a kind of statement.
"A high proportion of the rest of us do litter, but stealthily and secretly and guiltily; and those are all people who are susceptible to being persuaded not to do it again."
How should we do that? Well, he points out, if the environment were cleaned and tidied up, people wouldn't feel so free to offload sweet-packets and drink-cans onto grass verges. For another, it should be easier than it is to report transgressions. "That's the hardest part. If you're driving in a part of the country you're not familiar with - passing through Worcestershire or something - and you see a lay-by that's filthy, you could spend the rest of your life trying to work out who to complain to." It might not be CPRE policy to put up more signs, but its president would like discreet badges on all lay-bys and country car parks sporting a relevant council phone number. "And that council should be compelled to take an official pride in the environments it is managing, not be allowed to hide and have them as anonymous property.
There should be more bins; weekly rubbish collections maintained; packaging drastically reduced, as well as being made inconspicuous and biodegradable.
And we, the public, shouldn't just 'tut' if we pass a discarded wrapper. It ought to be as shameful to ignore it as to drop it in the first place. And here speaks a man who can barely pass a piece of chewing gum without scraping it off the pavement.
Before you get thoroughly disheartened, or slink off to your room to sulk, don't despair. Bill Bryson does still have praise for the English and their countryside - and plenty of it. We are, he acknowledges, a very small island with a truckload of people jostling for every available space. When you throw into the melting pot the fact that we use our landscape to boot - to produce food, for industry, for leisure - it's amazing we have an inch of grass left between us. "Yet here we are in 2008 and it's still very, very beautiful, and I think that's the most incredible achievement.
"I was in the Scilly Isles over the weekend, and one of the unexpected highlights was coming back in a helicopter. You look down as you come in off the Atlantic Ocean and there's this lovely chequer-board pattern of fields. That something like that still exists, after all you've done to the countryside for all those centuries, is fantastic.
"I grew up in Iowa where the countryside was purely industrial and the farming was large-scale - purely economic - with no real amenity side to it at all. People would think you were mad if you went out for a walk across farmland. To come to a place where land is worked and used - but also kept beautiful so that people use it for pleasure - is just brilliant. I do think that coming from another place helps intensify my appreciation for that."
In fact, his really harsh words are reserved for those with authority (it's a pleasure to report that Network Rail are at top of his hit list) who fail - in his view - in their duty to protect the green of this pleasant land. And not only from litter. Perhaps, he agrees, part of the current crisis derives from an urban leadership; a pervasive zeitgeist that sees the countryside as an adjunct to the city. "There are a lot of people in authority these days who seem to believe that the countryside and the greenbelt are this kind of underutilised resource - virgin territory waiting to be built on. You actually hear people talk about 'low-quality greenbelt', as if that automatically gives it some sort of development potential. My answer is: then make it high quality greenbelt.
"I personally believe virtually the whole of the countryside should be regarded as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I appreciate you will need to build business parks and supermarkets and housing estates, but I do think the position ought to be to do that with the greatest reluctance. The solution is not to loosen the planning system, but to make the burden on developers even greater. If 10 acres are built on, they are gone for ever."
He particularly loves the Cotswolds because they haven't been developed. "Time passed them by. My wife and I had a spare day so I booked us into the Lygon Arms and it was gorgeous. It's rare that it's just the two of us. And we walked up to the tower, down through Snowshill, back into Broadway, and we had the best time. The town is so pretty that it's almost painfully twee, but it's also just so perfect. You wouldn't want it to be grittier or to put something industrial in the middle of it. I want it to be lovely.
"The fact is, you have the most amazing urban sites in this country - all these glorious old Victorian brick-heaps that make the most wonderful loft apartments. You go to places like Burnley and you think, God! What they would give to have those things in other parts of the world! The solution is to get people to want to live in places like Blackburn, and Little Germany in Bradford, not to try and make room for all of them in the countryside."
There's no doubt his words are sinking in - at least litter-ally. In the past few months, trashy headlines have been replaced by headlines about trash: 'Fines for litterbugs caught on camera'; 'Bottle deposits planned to battle litter' and even 'Core Kate in Victory' (well, be thankful the Daily Mirror covered apple-core litter at all).
It shows that those of us who care about cleaning up the countryside are not alone. "And that's the whole point of the campaign," Bill Bryson says. "To let the world know there are lots of us who care strongly about this; and then to let people in authority know this is something that we care about: We have certain standards we expect you to maintain. And if you're an elected official, this could actually be factored into whether we vote for you next time. We're not as indifferent as you might think we are."
So there it is. Apple cores in the bin and core values back at the heart of this sceptred isle. Bill Bryson has raised a battle cry. It's time for the English to don their macs, march out into the drizzle - mustn't grumble - and make fierce war on litter. And when we've finished, we'll all truly have earned a nice cup of tea.
Support CPRE's Stop the Drop campaign by visiting the website www.cpre.org.uk, and doing the following:
Take action: lobby your local authority, and ask them what they are doing to clean up litter and fly-tipping in your area.
Get involved: join the online community LitterAction, helping individuals and local groups organise clean-up drives and awareness-raising activities in their local area;
Get informed: sign up to support the campaign, receive Bill Bryson's e-bulletins, with information and campaigning updates