Litter in Glasgow’s West End

SINCE the storms of early January a plastic bag, blown by the wind, has lodged in a tree outside the window and has assumed the shape of a bird. In some lights it looks like a roosting heron. On the rare occasions when it is caught by the rays of the winter sun, its appearance is more that of some exotic dove from the rain forests, its dirty white transformed in the rosy glow of sunset.

Here in our corner of the West End the human zoo produces much spoor. From time to time its accumulation is such that I don gloves and old clothes and sally out with brush and shovel. As I work away in the midden, restoring it to some kind of order after the depredations of various visitors, or extract the week's offerings that have been jammed into the hedge by passers-by, I amuse myself by reconstructing in my mind the provenance of the jetsam and flotsam.

Little scraps of plastic that litter the ground, empty single ”paks” of brown sauce, are simple to explain. They match the greasy papers from the chip shop rolled into balls and thrown away. This is traditionalism, the relic of the fish supper after too many pints, ballast taken on board to steady the ship. The lurching figure carrying a fish supper is still a distinctive species on our streets at night and so is the sweetish perfume of the fat in which it has been fried.

Then there are the polystyrene packs that contained chicken or more exotic delicacies. I seem to remember that the fast-food industry promised to stop using them, but they continue to be washed ashore on the tide of litter at our front door. The traditional wrapping of brown paper and old newspaper is of course environmentally much friendlier, though it makes litter just the same.

An empty packet of ”Savoury Moments” has almost disappeared in a decomposing pile of leaves. Its jaunty promise of delight must have offered some brief oral comfort to a jilted lover on the way home.

And what of the bottle of ”Vin du pays des coteaux de Quercy”? Like the can of Swan’s lager beside which it lies, it is not entirely empty. I pour the wine away and add the bottle to the swelling rubbish bag. I doubt if it had much quality in the first place and now I wrinkle my noise at the sour smell of vinegar. It seems an odd choice of tipple for the roadside. A dinner for two ending daintily with a little alfresco conversation, glasses miraculously produced from the inner pockets of a voluminous leather coat, the chauffeur of the white Mercedes coupe waiting stolidly until the picnic under the stars is over? Unlikely, but better a dream of elegance than the squalid reality.

In the midden itself it is impossible to escape from gloomy reflections. From time to time from the window we have seen passers-by use it as an impromptu loo. A stout bag full of household rubbish, put out only two hours earlier, has already been broken into. Animals do raid the bins from time to time, cats, dogs and, one fears, rats. In the South Side, we are told, foxes roam the suburban gardens and so we are ready for anything. A well-gnawed bone is among the general litter on the ground round the bins.

But this predator was obviously human. The first reaction is blimpish irritation, followed quickly by the shameful thought that in our society of plenty, men and women still find it necessary to search its discards for sustenance. Shame because of excessive consumption amounting to greed, shame that we have no better way of providing for those in poverty.

True, there is a professional class of beggar in other parts of the world, even in prosperous countries like France and Germany. There are people who systematically trawl the bins and bags of our cities, extracting from them anything of value. And they predate the Thatcher decade: I remember them in Edinburgh in the seventies, trotting briskly along the road about 20 minutes ahead of the binmen, in winter coats and curiously respectable in a shabby sort of way, like professional mourners.

Here in Glasgow there was a group of urchins who tried their hand for a season at the ”Mind your car, mister?” form of extortion racket and were one night discovered by a neighbour ransacking the midden. But this latest raid on the rubbish bag speaks more eloquently of need than devilment.

Outside the window the plastic bird still stands guard over the midden below but a gust of wind must have spoiled the perfection of its shape. It now looks bedraggled, or as if it has been shot and has died on its roost. This is the undignified end of a downstream product of oil, over which we are fighting in the Gulf.

Within a few hours of my efforts with brush and shovel, another tide has deposited its rubbish in the garden. When the wind comes it will blow it all over the place, and it will be time once more to gather the grimy harvest of our consumerist paradise.