Herefordshire People: Bill Bryson

PUBLISHED: 16:25 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:14 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, says best-selling travel author Bill Bryson....

There he sits, looking so familiar you feel you've met him a million times before. Although he gives the impression of beigreen 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. ng agreeably rumpled, close inspection reveals him to be nattily turned out: smart brown tweedy jacket,
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. About Bill Bryson's passionate campaign against litter.
It isn't 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; through his fascinating 'polymath' studies (which always impart and never lecture) on the English language, Shakespeare, and, well, Nearly Everything.
And he knows you, too. True, 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 fact is, though, we've let Bill Bryson down. And you can see evidence of how we've done 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 73 million bill last year to clear up illegally-dumped waste. That's not the odd chocolate wrapper - that's fridges, washing machines, building waste, tyres and even 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. "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 world out there'. That's the kind of selfishness I really think didn't exist before."
"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. "I just think life has changed. 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."
Even the quality of the litter we drop has gone downhill. "Crisp packets when I first came over here were just paper; not only would they rot away, but they were a pale blue and they would shrink into the background. Now they're foil-lined, like some kind of survival equipment. "
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 so widespread?
"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, only about 10 percent of people are incorrigible litterers, and I suspect a high proportion are young males - 16 to 24-year-olds hanging around the town square. They know what they're 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, 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.
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 add the fact that we use our landscape as well - 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 grew up in Iowa, where the countryside was purely industrial and the farming was large-scale. 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 in authority (Network Rail being at the top of his hit list) who fail - in his view - in their duty to protect the land in their charge. 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 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.
"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, 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 that, not to try and make room for all of them in the countryside."
The whole point of the campaign," says Bill, "is 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."
Support CPRE's Stop the Drop campaign by visiting the website, 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

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