Tough Notes for a Small Island

PUBLISHED: 15:56 22 May 2008 | UPDATED: 15:11 20 February 2013

Bill Bryson. Photo: Mark Fairhurst

Bill Bryson. Photo: Mark Fairhurst

Bill Bryson is not scared to tell the truth about aspects of the changing British character. This June the best-selling travel author talks to 'Somerset Life' about the rubbish he sees pervading our countryside. According to the Campaign to Protec...

There he sits, looking so familiar you feel you've met him a million times before. And then you remember you don't actually know him at all, although you are acquainted (sort of) through his travel books, his tales of growing up in small-town America in the '50s, from his fascinating 'polymath' studies on the English language, Shakespeare and, well, Nearly Everything. But you're not here simply to have a good time and chat about Bill Bryson's fascination with the English - it's to talk about serious things: litter, fly-tipping and his role in the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).

When he first pitched up on our shores in 1973, he began by being a bit puzzled 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 devastating fact is, though, we've let Bill Bryson down. And you can see evidence of how we've managed 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.

UK taxpayers had to foot a whopping 73 million bill last year to clear up illegally dumped waste, otherwise known as fly-tipping. That's not the odd chocolate wrapper - that's fridges, washing machines, building waste, tyres and even animal carcasses.

According to the CPRE, of which Bill Bryson is now President, around 25 million tonnes of litter are dropped each year, five times more than in the 1960s

"I do think there's something going on here that marks a slight change to the British character," Bill says. "Being responsible, doing the decent thing, was very much the bedrock of the British psyche when I first came here. 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." 'Mustn't grumble', and the feeling that 90% of the world's ills - from dictators to drizzle - can be cured by 'a nice cup of tea', are under threat from a new and pervasive 'me me me' culture.

Bill Bryson's job in life is to tell the English the truth. Up to now, it's been a fun experience, but this feels uncomfortable. Much like the shameful occasion when the teacher you secretly liked looked sadly at you and said he was disappointed. And worse, you knew he was justified.

"I just think life has changed. People are much more urgent. 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, and with litter - saying 'that is one kind of anti-social behaviour we're just not going to tolerate' - is one of them."

Even the quality of the litter we drop has gone downhill. "A crisp packet when I first came over here was just paper; not only would they rot away, but they would shrink into the background. Now they are foil-lined like some kind of survival equipment."

Bill Bryson's job in life is to tell the English the truth. Up to now, it's been a fun experience, but this feels uncomfortable

He is right. It's pretty hard to find an argument to justify littering. So why has it become such a national pastime?

"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, about 10% of people are incorrigible litterers and I suspect a high proportion are young males - 16 to 24-year-olds sitting in the town square. They know what they are 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 was cleaned and tidied up, people wouldn't feel so free to offload crisp packets and drinks 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 environment 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. And we, the public, shouldn't just 'tut' if we pass a discarded wrapper. It ought to be as shameful to ignore it as to drop it in the first place.

"I personally believe virtually the whole of the countryside should be regarded as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty"

Before you get thoroughly disheartened, don't despair. 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. Add the fact that we use our landscape to produce food, for industry, for leisure, and 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 was in a helicopter recently and looked down to see this lovely chequerboard pattern of fields. That something like that still exists, after all you've done to the countryside for all those centuries, is fantastic. I grew up in Iowa where the countryside was purely industrial and the farming was large-scale with no real amenity side to it at all. 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."

In fact, his really harsh words are reserved for those in authority who fail - in his view - in their duty to protect the green of this pleasant land. And not only from litter. "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 that should be with the greatest reluctance. The solution is not to loosen the planning system but to make the burden on developers even greater. If ten acres are built on, they are gone forever."

There's no doubt his words are sinking in. In the past few months, trashy headlines have been replaced by headlines about trash: 'Fines for litterbugs caught on camera'; 'Bottle deposits planned to battle litter'. It shows that those of us who care about cleaning up the countryside are not alone.

"And that's the whole point of the campaign," Bill Bryson says. "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. 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."

So there it is. Bill Bryson has raised a battle cry. It's time for the English to don their macs, march out into the drizzle - mustn't grumble - and make fierce war on litter. And when we've finished, we'll all truly have earned a nice cup of tea. BY KATIE JARVIS

Support CPRE's 'Stop the Drop' campaign by visiting 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.

Do you think the British psyche has changed? What do you think we should do about littering? Make your views hears on the Forum

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