On a recent visit to Manchester I walked down Oxford Road. The thoroughfare is the haunt of students, there being two universities along it, Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan. I do not recall a filthier street anywhere, and I have visited more than 80 countries.
One positively waded through litter, kicking aside the detritus of a million refreshments taken on the hoof. A fair proportion of the students carried a plastic bottle, complete with something uncommonly like a dummy's teat, as if global warming had transformed the road into the Sahara Desert. I assume that the students at the universities are mainly middle-class.
Perhaps it isn't their fault, though. No one has ever told them that to eat or drink in the street is a degraded thing to do; and if they were told it would only make it more attractive to them, for what more sincere expression of sympathy for those who suffer from bad behaviour is there than imitation of it?
I wrote to complain to the Lord Mayor; I said that while I understood that the behaviour of people in Britain was generally disgusting, it was nevertheless the council's duty to keep the streets clean. I did not receive a reply, no doubt because everyone was too busy. Manchester Council has a 48-page document describing its anti-discrimination policy, the latter including monthly ethnic monitoring of the staff.
I wrote a similar letter to the Lord Mayor of Birmingham after a recent visit there. At least he replied, through a minion.
Manchester and Birmingham are filthy because England is filthy. An Englishman's street is now his dining room, and his country is his litter-bin. When Englishmen – or a sizeable number to judge by the results – arrive at a beauty-spot their first impulse is to chuck at it a vividly coloured empty bottle or tin of revolting drink with which they have recently refreshed themselves.
Drive down the A14 from the M6 to Huntingdon or Cambridge and every verge, every roundabout, is littered by the thousand, or the million. Such filth is not the handiwork of a handful. Until I drove down and saw it flapping in the trees, I hadn't appreciated how much polythene there was in the world. Where does it come from? Who knows? Even more to the point, who cares? Certainly not the local authorities, that have so many other bigger worries – like how to pay the pensions of staff who took early retirement.
Dreadfully incompetent and dishonest as public authorities are, our pavements are not mottled by discarded chewing gum because of them; and it is not only because of them that our streets are the filthiest in Europe, if not the world.
Not long ago I had the humiliation of being answered with an aggressive and flat refusal. Perfectly politely, I asked a woman, who threw her cigarette end down at my feet as we entered Euston Station, to pick it up. If in retaliation I had criticised her slovenliness, I should no doubt have been arrested for insulting behaviour. In the absence of any sense of civic duty, we have no defence against litterers.
Britain was not always so filthy. I suspect that it is the result of a toxic mixture of excessive individualism (there is no such thing as society), and of an easily inflamed awareness of inalienable rights (who are you to tell me what to do? I know my rights). What I do is right because it is I who do it; the customer is always right, and life is my supermarket.
The virtual world has become more real and all-encompassing to us than what used to be called the real world. Those who toss rubbish from cars are in a bubble, and in a trance; separated physically from the world, bathed in music, usually trance-inducing, they glide past everything around them like ghosts in haunted houses.
The study of so despised a thing as litter brings us close to deep questions of philosophy: how should we live, what are we here for, what do I owe my neighbour? The answer that we have given to the latter in Britain is 'Nothing.'
7:30AM BST 16 Jul 2011