Got a phone call from my West Highland agent. “James! I’ve got a treatment for your next book.”
“Make your pitch.”
“Is it a sequel to Skyfall?”
The movie trailer voice-over was rendered in an impossibly deep, gravelly, mid-Western tone.
The ocean depths spawned the kraken;
Transylvania sent us the undead;
Martians visited us from the red planet;
And from beyond our galaxy, our worst nightmare…
But now looms a new threat
Stirs a creature of our own making
Yet, beyond our imagination,
Here with us, now
Beneath our feet…
He dropped the accent. “What d’you think?”
“It’s a million dollars. Run with it. Kerching kerching. But listen. It’s your Landfill, not mine.”
“There’s something down there, I know it.”
“Of course there is.”
“Miramax will snap up the film rights. It’ll be huge.”
“Ace in the hole. Cash in on it. You don’t need me.”
“I need you, James. You can do this.”
“Yes I could do it, but it would become a spoof. And let’s face it, it’s no laughing matter.”
I’m rather concerned about landfill. I’m trying to take my recycling more seriously. We have five rubbish bins – green: paper and cardboard; blue: plastics, cans, and cartons; brown: garden waste and foodstuffs; blue box: glassware; and grey: non-recyclable items, that is, landfill. Four of the receptacles are each in their own way rather picky and fastidious. Green: no plastic bags or bubble wrap, polystyrene, wrapping paper, or disposable cups; blue: no hard plastics, batteries, or electrical items; brown: no non-organic material; blue box: no broken glass. But grey bin: the grey bin has a capacious maw and will seemingly take anything. Now I don’t think that’s right. In an ideal world we wouldn’t need a grey bin at all.
I’m actually short of a brown bin at the moment. Last April it vanished. I suspected, uncharitably, that somebody in the street had nicked it, but I guess it could just as easily have been swallowed up by the refuse disposal van. Anyway I phoned the council at the time. “Rest assured, Dr Campbell. We will put a new brown bin by your door.” It hasn’t appeared. I phone them periodically. “Oh yes we have logged your calls. This is quite unacceptable. I’ll get this sorted for you.” This saga has been running for eight months. I even offered to drive in and pick a brown bin up but that is, apparently, out of the question. My trouble is I’m too polite and self-effacing. “Sorry to bother you. I’ve been on the phone a couple of times. Would it be possible to chase up…” I need to take some lessons from movers and shakers who know how to put a rocket under somebody. “Aye yes Dr Campbell here. No no no – you see, you don’t understand – this has gone way beyond a joke. Your name? How do you spell that? Who’s your line manager?”
But I’m not really irate, more fascinated in a sickly way. I’d quite like to get to the bottom of the process that is currently going on, or not going on, to understand the cause-effect relationships. I suspect there is a management protocol at work. It will be in the form of a digital algorithm, with multiple potential steps to be taken. Perhaps I’m half way down a cascade shaped like a Christmas tree.
So what have I been doing in the interim? I’m afraid some of my organic detritus has gone into landfill. I may well be the route-cause of the next great apocalyptic cataclysm to threaten mankind. I’ve also manifested cuckoo-like behaviour and furtively added my detritus to the neighbours’ brown bins. I don’t like to do this because I myself get irritated when people top up my grey landfill bin. Last week I got home and opened the bin at the kerb to see if it had been emptied, only to find somebody had stuffed in a child’s pram.
My other option is to drive seven miles to my nearest local tip. That’s fine – visiting the tip does have a recreational side. I’ve heard it said – doubtless this is fake news – that some east-end Glasgow families regard a visit to the tip as a great day out. My particular tip is run by a wonderfully helpful if somewhat taciturn wee man. He is a Dickensian character. He has an office that he has personalised and turned into a snuggery by decorating it entirely with stuff that was intended for landfill. Several times he has stopped me on my way to the last skip on the lot and said, “That’s a lovely piece! Can I have that?” He is like that character in Our Mutual Friend who is responsible for an enormous mountain of dust. Our Mutual Friend must be the definitive study of the relationship between money and rubbish.
Of course the other option I have as yet not succumbed to is fly-tipping. I stop short of that. I don’t approve of litter. Yet I come from a city that has a litter culture. I was standing at a traffic light in Glasgow not so long ago beside a guy who was eating kebabs out of a polystyrene container of the sort that I can’t put into my green or blue bin. (I could empty the contents into the brown bin, if I had one.) When the wee green man came on he dropped his entire half-finished dinner on the road and crossed. I know he was completely oblivious to the idea that this might be a failure of civic responsibility. If I had taken issue with him he would have been completely gobsmacked. Oddly enough, I have the notion that if I’d berated him as rudely as possible, he would not particularly have minded. I might have said, for example, “Oh for ****’s sake Jimmy what the **** d’you think you’re playing at?” and he would probably have taken it as banter, shrugged, and walked on. On the other hand, if I had taken him to task in an elaborately polite way – “Excuse me sir, I hope you don’t mind my interrupting you, but I think you’ve dropped something. Would you mind picking it up and depositing it in that receptacle, handily sited for the purpose?” – then I would be in deep trouble and there would be a raucous and potentially violent stand-off in the middle of the road, to the blaring horns of the traffic trying to get by. Incidentally, I have heard the actor Nigel Havers is on a mission to get people to cut their car engines while sitting in traffic. Discharging CO2 emissions and diesel particulates is after all another form of littering. Apparently Mr Havers taps gently on the driver’s door and says, “I’m terribly sorry, but would you mind…” I would strongly advise Mr Havers not to bring his mission – at least in that form – to Glasgow. Saying that, if anybody could get away with it, Mr Havers could. I could even imagine kebab-man looking bewilderedly at him and then stooping to pick the remnants of his dinner.
Litter culture is an index of a lack of self-respect. And a littered city is like a man who is down on his luck, a professional man who begins to descend the social scale and who loses interest in his personal hygiene, dress, and appearance. But I daren’t be pompous and sanctimonious about this. The fact is that homo sapiens is by nature a litter-lout. Kebab-man merely does in an overt and honest fashion what we all connive to do in secret. I can’t think that we really take our waste disposal seriously. We just spill waste into the air or chuck it into the sea or stuff it under the earth and try to forget about it. I particularly worry about my blue bin – plastics. Remember The Graduate and the conversations between Benjamin and his parents’ grotesque friends.
… “I’ve got one word to say to you, Ben.”
“Are you listening Ben?”
“Yes I am sir.”
A lot of plastics are very non-biodegradable. They hang around for aeons. They go everywhere. You can recover them in the gut of fish. These small deposits are called nurdles. Have you ever made yourself a cup of coffee, and a sliver of plastic from the milk carton-top drops into your Americano? That is a nurdle.
I propose that we take this waste disposal business much more seriously. We could make it our aim to reduce all waste products to their constituent elemental parts. That would be a high-tech operation. It would involve the best brains in physics and chemistry turning their minds to how to detoxify the world. People who collect and manage waste should be regarded with a degree of deference and respect.
But I’m conscious that there is an element of absurdity attached to the bourgeois habit of hand-wringing at the parlous state of the world. Last week I chanced to come across Conversations with Menuhin (William Heinemann Ltd 1991). This is a celebration of the great violinist’s 75th birthday, and is a protracted conversation between Menuhin and David Dubal, a pianist on the Juilliard School faculty in New York. It is in two parts: Part 1 on music and musicians (intensely interesting) and Part 2 on music and life (intensely amusing and not in a good way). Menuhin and Dubal seem in broad agreement that, even in 1991, the world is going to Hell in a hand cart and there is precious little we can do to stop it, that everything is being driven by the carnal instincts of the mob whose insatiable desire for gratification is turning the world into a gigantic rubbish tip. Popular culture is ghastly. Interestingly, Donald Trump gets a mention.
Nigel Kennedy does a wonderful impersonation of Menuhin, capturing his horror at Kennedy’s attempt to introduce him to the delights of Heavy Metal. “Oh Nigel…”
I read Conversations with Menuhin with an inappropriate sense of mirth. I was reminded of a character in Woody Allan’s film Hannah and her Sisters, Frederick, played by Max von Sydow. Frederick is an artistic European intellectual living in New York. He has a Svengali relationship with Lee, a beautiful and much younger woman played by the wonderful Barbara Hershey. Ms Hershey’s character has benefited much, culturally, from the relationship, but you can tell it is coming towards its end when von Sydow launches into a great diatribe about the state of the plebeian world, and Ms Hershey says, “Lighten up Frederick.” Frederick gets terribly upset when he realises he is about to lose her, and who could blame him?
It’s a thankless task, being a profit of doom. It’s almost built into the role, the expectation that nobody will listen to you. The classical world understood this. Cassandra was cursed never to be heeded. People who are pessimistic about the future are dubbed “Jeremiah”. It doesn’t really matter if you are right; you will always be thought of as an odd ball precisely because you put yourself apart from the relentless onrush of the Gadarene swine.