Language · Notes from West London

“The rubbish is piling up in the street”

There hasn’t been a strike by local refuse collectors (or bin-men as we used to call them) for many years. I can’t remember the last one in our corner of West London; 30 years ago, maybe more. Occasionally in those intervening decades there have been strikes elsewhere in the UK and they will make the national news if the strike goes on for long enough, and streets are filled with uncollected trash. The news is always reported the same way: “The rubbish is piling up in the street”. This language pattern interests me. It’s as if the rubbish had a mind of its own, and humans are not involved. I have never heard a reporter say, “People continue to leave their rubbish in the street even though there’s a strike on, so, unsurprisingly, the streets are a mess.”

I am reminded of this at the start of every year when people leave their Christmas trees out in the street, any time after 26 December. My mother brought us up with the belief that you should keep your decorations in place until 6 January, and then take them down before noon on that day. This year, for at least the 20th year in a row, I did so. I left the tree (a real one) in the front garden for a few days, then dragged it round the corner to the local park. Scores, maybe hundreds, of other trees were there waiting to be collected a few days later. That’s the deal. On the way to the park I passed three or four other Christmas trees left outside people’s houses. Most of them have now gone, but more than four weeks later there are still Christmas trees dotted around our streets, left outside by human beings, waiting for the Christmas Tree Fairy to come and collect them.

Today, outside our house, someone has clearly decided to clear the rubbish from their vehicle (a van I suspect, though it could have been a car). I know this because they have left it on the road, just beside the pavement. There’s a takeaway cup from Subway and some sheets of blue paper and white paper, the kind you get on long rolls to clean up after decorating. I haven’t examined the rest of the pile of rubbish but will probably get familiar with it at some future point when I clear it up. Like all rubbish, whether it’s on the street, on the pavement, or in a local park, it hasn’t magically appeared there. Someone has chosen to leave it there. Rubbish doesn’t magically pile up in the street. People make it happen.


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