Infuriated/irritated by Radio 4
I must confess that I am a bit of a Radio 4 addict, although as anyone who has seen my recent postings on the Paul Johnson episode of Desert Islands Discs will know, this doesn’t mean that I like or approve of all their programmes. While Johnson’s obnoxious views on his hero Pinochet infuriated me, Marcus Berkmann’s A Shed of One’s Own: Midlife without the Crisis, on Book of the Week a few weeks ago, irritated.
In order to keep my blood pressure down, I had to tell myself to look on its ultra-conventional ‘middle-Englandness’ as a valuable insight into the cosy world and complacent, navel-gazing mindset of a certain stratum of the UK population. (Yes, I am aware that this is judgemental and intemperate language!)
Implied most young people don’t care about litter
The author’s ‘witty’ observations on the way his views have changed as he has grown older failed to resonate, particularly when he spoke of his newly gained fury at littering. I found this disclosure, implying that such dislike is a sign of growing old, irritating for two reasons:
- It implies that most young people don’t give two hoots about littering (an insult to a generation, in my opinion).
- For as long as I can remember I have loathed littering. I have long struggled to understand the mentality of those who do it, but may be approaching such understanding now – read on! (Incidentally, I use ‘mentality’ in the way it is supposed to be used, not as Frank Sinatra misuses it in order to fit a rhyme scheme, a clumsy contrivance that ruins the song for me – Yes, you certainly know how to get under my skin, Mafia man! – but don’t get me started on the abuses of singers/songwriters: ‘Lay, lady, lay‘ etc. Was Zimmerman wanting an egg for breakfast? Stick to the plagiarised painting, boyo!)
No longer foaming at the mouth
Getting away from my trivial annoyance at language-butchering songsters, and taking the second point further, one thing that has changed with regard to my reaction to littering is that I have recently learnt to control my litter-induced rage. I no longer hurl rubbish back through the car windows from which it has emerged, or run, foaming at the mouth, up to pedestrian litterers, screaming at them to pick up what they have dropped. Probably safer for my life and limb, I now simply inform miscreants, with a smile, that I shall put their litter in the bin for them.
The other night, when a drunken youth pulled a bottle of cheap liquor from a plastic bag and dropped the bag on the pavement, I did such a thing. I did not lecture him on the possible severe environmental consequences of his actions, but instead enquired as to the reason for his littering: ‘Prithee, kind gentleperson, wouldst thou condescend to inform me of the reasons for disposing of that imperishable receptacle in such a manner?’ (No, I didn’t use quite this language, but it would have been amusing!)
Edinburgh a ‘shit hole’?
He replied: ‘Because Edinburgh is a shit hole.’ This is the second time I have received such a response from a young person interrogated as to his motivations for littering (it could equally have been old people). Of course, for me Edinburgh is a beautiful place where I feel honoured to live, but I live in a pleasant area of central Edinburgh, and not in a depressing council housing estate (‘scheme’), such as depicted by photographer Morag Livingstone.
Dog poo and a vicious circle of hopelessness
…And, speaking of ‘shit’, littering is akin to failing to pick up your dog’s excrement; such behaviour has similar causation and consequences. Mounds of dog poo and piles of rubbish tend to accumulate in the most deprived areas, worsening the environment and so affecting people’s quality of life and attitudes, contributing to a vicious circle of hopelessness.
Life on a neglected council estate in moving detail
Rather than attempt myself to describe the multiple and inter-related factors pertaining to life on neglected housing schemes, I refer you to this brilliant, moving essay by writer and artist Clare Galloway. Please, if you read no more of my blog ever, read this. You will notice the references to litter and dog poo, but the essay is far more than a mere description of the physical environment in a neglected scheme; it amounts to a masterful analysis of the causes and consequences of people’s behaviour, and the role of complacent officialdom, and of many of us who don’t live in such places, in perpetuating disempowerment and misery.
Dyslexic discarder of plastic
Returning to my recent exchange with the young discarder of plastic… He went on to talk about why he dropped litter in his neighbourhood, saying that there were very few bins around. Rather than berating him for his laziness, I asked him why he hadn’t approached the council about this, and he said he didn’t know who to approach and that he was dyslexic. Clare Galloway’s experience would suggest that even if he had the literary talents of Shakespeare, knew the names of all the Edinburgh councillors and wrote to them each twenty times over, this wouldn’t help in the face of negative, obstructionist, labelling, blaming and buck-passing officialdom, but his answer opens up further topics, for example: some teachers and lecturers feel that children’s early experiences and home environments are largely responsible for such syndromes as ‘dyslexia’ and ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’ (see this outspoken guest post on the latter). In other words, if children are neglected at an early age, their mental and psychological development is damaged such that it’s not easy to fix things later.
Inequality, powerlessness and mental and physical consequences
Whether or not you think that such ‘excuses’ as dyslexia and ADHD are overplayed, the fact remains that many people in our grossly unequal society do feel powerless to change anything in their bleak lives, and feelings of impotence and isolation are hugely damaging mentally and physically. (Please read Katherine Trebeck’s succinct and referenced thoughts on inequality and see this abstract on health, well-being and social connections and this graph demonstrating the lack of social mobility in grossly unequal countries such as the UK and USA.)
Are some people’s grandchildren doomed to die young because they live in deprivation?
Research suggests that the life-shortening effects of deprivation are to some extent explained by the shortening of telomeres (a concept I played with in my novel, in which the elixir of life, which prevented telomeres from shortening, was discovered and then deliberately destroyed) and other work suggests that telomere length is heritable, so it even seems possible that deprivation suffered by one generation might affect the longevity of subsequent ones! Is this the long-sought explanation of the mysterious Glasgow effect? Such enduring effects would make it even more important that we eradicate deprivation.
Turning things around
Feeling powerless, with little hope of improving their lives, is it any wonder that people drop litter and describe Edinburgh as a ‘shit hole’? However, it is possible to turn things around, and there are hints of this in Clare’s essay. Read, for example, the passage that starts with the words, ‘I began clearing two small plots directly below the flats’. Seeing something positive done, the residents became enthusiastic supporters, but Clare’s heroic attempts to make a difference to this community were ultimately crushed by the attitude of the authorities I have described above.
There are many great community projects and initiatives but, to be successful, not only must they be initiated by members of communities themselves (as Clare, a member of the community she was attempting to improve, did), they must also, I think, have a certain critical mass of support behind them to break through a dead weight of cynicism and ‘we-cannae-dae-‘at-here-ness (‘we-can’t-do-that-here-ness’). (Incidentally, Clare also writes about the latter kind of attitude in the context of Scottish independence and Bruce K. Alexander talks of the huge value of community arts projects in turning around communities and people’s lives in his seminal work on addictions.)
So what can we do, here and now, to help disadvantaged communities? How can we build the critical mass of support I mentioned? This brings me back to my old topic of the Occupy Movement and its role.
Occupy must balance negative with positive, and do practical things in the real world
It’s all very well to demonise greedy bankers (and I have been involved in a small way – see this and this and, by the way, shall be involved in a related but more positive campaign connected with this soon) but we should remember that bankers are people too and, as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett state in The Spirit Level, inequality damages the whole of society, even those at the top. Indeed, Bruce K. Alexander has spoken to me of the addictive behaviours exhibited by many of those supposedly at the top of the capitalist tree, including obsessive chasing after ever more wealth, indicating that they too can suffer from ‘psychosocial dislocation’ (which he argues is he most significant cause of addiction), paradoxically worsening things for everyone. In her essay, Clare Galloway also states that the ‘problem’ people in their deprived estates may well actually be healthier and more functional in some ways than the rest of us, with our more covert forms of dysfunctionality. So, on the one hand, I am saying don’t be too nasty to individuals as they themselves may ‘have issues’. On the other hand, I think people are turned off by too much negative campaigning, and the best way to help people is to build bonds with them and help them help themselves, preferably in ways they want.
It’s a case of LOVE!
In a nutshell, I suggest Occupy Edinburgh sets up a register of people who wish to help local communities with whatever they ask for help with. It would be up to community organisations and individual activists to approach this register to request assistance with such things as clearing rubbish, turning wasteland into gardens, wildlife areas or playparks (greenspace has huge spin-off benefits), repairing infrastructure and setting up classes and community groups. I suggest that this register be called ‘Local Occupy Volunteers, Edinburgh’, or ‘LOVE’. I don’t think I need spell out the goodwill and opportunity for networking and mutual education and enrichment such a project could generate, and perhaps there could also be a tie-in with Edinburgh LETS?
I would like to think that an initiative along these lines would help break down negativity, and shame (is this too negative a word?) the council into doing more for disenfranchised communities. An improved environment, I am willing to bet, would also reduce littering and the amount of canine ordure left lying around. However, I have another idea relating to the latter…!
Leaving your dog’s poo lying around could be called vandalism, in my opinion, so why not set up a neighbourhood-based campaign, this time with no connection to Occupy, by the name of ‘Local Ordure Vandals Exposed’? Campaigners would use cameras to catch owners and their pets in the act of abandoning faecal material and post photographic evidence on the Internet: naming and shaming!
On second thoughts, this might simply engender a hostile and defensive response, and bearing in mind what I have said about negativity, it’s perhaps not such a good idea. So how about ‘Local Ordure Vandals Educated’? A group of activists could visit offenders, talk to them of the consequences of their actions (a generally depressing effect on the neighbourhood, great unpleasantness and inconvenience for some – the visually challenged in particular…) and ask them if they need help with anything in their lives, bearing in mind that people who are antisocial to this extent probably have big problems.
Who knows, perhaps we could even get Radio 4 to cover these campaigns? It would surely be a better use for their airwaves than allowing supporters of Pinochet to air their obnoxious views!