Walking through Litter by Nirmal Puwar

Very recently I have moved back to Coventry and the neighbourhood I grew up in to be near my frail elderly mother. There is something eerie about walking with my three year old daughter the same streets I walked as a child, hand in hand with my parents, on a daily basis. Even when we take the same routes the footsteps are not the same. There is an uncanny spirit to our everyday walks, such as walking to the bus stop or going to the local shops, visiting the library or going to the park. The spectral absence not only of people but the specific configuration of people and places hangs as a layer in the geographic atmosphere of the strangely familiar environment. Some lived well, worked hard and had long lives, like my father whose absence is palpable and whose loss is deeply felt in our daily lives. But other losses, of young lives, of my brother Harbans and sister-in-law Kulwarn, continue to take hold of us as we walk the streets. They too worked extremely hard, but their right to walk the streets into old age, as my father did, as well as to witness the changes around us, as I do with my three year old daughter, was snatched away from them by complex health issues. Walking through the neighbourhood I traverse layers of family history, and meet with familial and familiar estranged spectres.

All neighbourhoods change, though some change faster than others. Buildings come and go at a different pace, depending on which part of the country one is in. Oxford for instance, located fifty miles from Coventry, has more than its share of heritage sites which are protected and preserved. Coventry was heavily bombed during WW2 and lost many of its medieval buildings. Since then new concrete and glass buildings have over time been raised and pulled down. The city centre decays in some parts and arises anew in other pockets. One change I have witnessed from taking a walk in my neighbourhood is the phenomenal rise in litter. There is undoubtedly a social class demarcation of litter. Well-to-do neighbourhoods are not beset with street litter to the same degree. For example, Earlsdon High Street in Coventry, which is the part of the city where Warwick University academics are likely to live if they live in the city at all, is remarkably clean and litter free in comparison. My part of the city never was spotless, but you certainly did not have flares of litter around your feet as we do today. The streets were not paved over by a scattered patchwork of paper, lids, cans, suitcases and plastic bottles.

In Coventry, as the city has been prepared to bid for City of Culture 2021, cultural icons, many of which are long forgotten, have been picked out and foregrounded as local illuminations. A central artery in the neighbourhood I grew up in during the seventies and eighties and now have come to temporarily live in has for example been mooted as a ‘music mile’ by Pete Chambers, Director of the Music Museum. Along this mile well known bands performed and lived, as did Paul King on my road. I live less than a minute away from the independently run Music Museum and the Two Tone Cafe which are on the route at one end and Far Gosford Street is on the other end. The band Lieutenant Pigeon, who lived a few doors away from my family home, actually recorded a song titled ‘Gosford Street Rag’. Alongside the rich music heritage today the walk is full of litter. Its density in places can amount to ‘grot spots’, a term used by a parliamentary committee concerned with the national rise in litter. On a morning walk my daughter scooters past the Music Museum as we set off on our ten minute walk to Far Gosford Street, where the new creative quarter Fargo village, which features prominently in the City of Culture bid, is located. As soon as we take a few steps away from our garden gate we are met by flying litter. It is a little windy. As we hit the main road, some of the light litter is dancing around my daughter’s ankles. She finds it amusing to ride amidst and against the litter. This certainly is ‘vibrant matter’ (Bennett, 2009).

Councils have a legal obligation to keep land in their area clear of litter and refuse (including dog mess). On my walks I have seen a small white lorry with a notice in blue on the side declaring its role in keeping Coventry clean. The lorry catches random bits of litter in automatic rotating brushes. It passes a busy bus shelter which has built up a blanket of litter over time. The vehicle is too big to go into the bus shelter. So the rubbish remains there. To the side of the bus stop is one of the many fast food take-aways that line the road. Subway’s large bins are on the pavement and they are bulging, with litter scattered all around them. Next door, the public pavement right in front of the window of a newly renovated barbershop, is piled with a broken worktop, rubble, litter of all sorts and even a piece of raw chicken breast. No doubt the local cats will clear up the meat fast. This mound of debris has been sitting there for days. There are several household bins with different coloured lids which have items hanging out of the lids and on the pavement around them. One is bright yellow labelled ‘Clinical Waste’. Clothes and paper are falling out of it. The lorry scuttles down the main thoroughfare with the driver seemingly not noticing what can’t be caught by the wheeled brushes. He is focused on the route.

As the wheels of my daughter’s scooter whizz down the hill, the crushed cans, crisp packets and cardboard pizza boxes offer entertaining games for her. The debris now seems to come with the territory. Sadly, I recall how this was not always the case, certainly not in my childhood. In fact, in the last three years the litter has escalated exponentially in the area. We walk past houses with gardens full of litter. Weeds and overflowing bins line the pavement, as do discarded suitcases. And it’s not even bin collection day. A great deal of the Victorian housing stock has become prime rental property, especially for students who can walk to Coventry University from here. On average the weekly rental charge is £80 per room, which is high, but still undercuts the much higher rental charges of Coventry University halls of residence. These are in keeping with national averages for student rent; a sector which is not only not subsidised any more but has become a burgeoning source of profit through the student debt cycle. Investors carve up housing for multiple occupation without turning an eye to how the properties will be maintained and rubbish collected, or, how transient tenants will dispose of superfluous goods without leaving them in front gardens, pavements and over flowing bins which are not collected. Uncollected bins can be reported to the council, but the relentless energy involved in reporting each and every one of the many uncollected bins on a weekly basis is unsustainable. It is also an inefficient use of council time. A universal rule to collect all bins might be one solution. More responsibility could be imposed on landlords and letting agents whose profits have altered the landscape. Whilst the walls of the university extend across the city and into our neighbourhood so does the litter and rubbish. The old conflict between ‘town and gown’ is exacerbated by the enterprising university without civic responsibility. There is much the university could do with respect to students and litter.

On our route we reach the Carnegie designed Stoke library, a listed building built between 1912-13. This is my childhood library. I have written about the books I have met here, and of how it became a second home to my ageing father (Puwar, 2016). Now my daughter frequents it. She has become attached to the library to the extent that she laments the removal of the shelving in the children’s area which was designed as a wooden car you could sit in. The library is maintained extremely well on the inside. But on the outside there are over-growing weeds and litter. Broken glass, cans, plastic bottles, crisps packets and the usual fly tipping of take away eaters depresses the spirit as one approaches this treasured public service. Library services nationally are having to find ways to carry on under the threat of closures and job cuts. The street cleaning services too have been drastically cut. I have been told Kingsway is only swept by the council once a fortnight. By then a storm of litter has built up, especially after the bin collectors have been. Their interaction with the bins noticeably adds to the amount of litter on the streets. Austerity policies are felt here in the most palpable ways. Ironically, the council supports huge flower pot hangings on the side of the dual carriage way on the approach to the city centre. It prides itself on being awarded gold for the Heart of England in bloom competition, whilst the litter flies around us. Walking is full of litter, fast depleting everyday pride in the environment of the city. Regardless of which awards are achieved, or whether the city bid is selected for City of Culture. It already is City of Litter.

The empty grass verge at the side of Stoke library, on Walsgrave Road, has become one phenomenal litter verge. Should you want to conduct a content analysis of the litter to understand consumption and discarding habits, here you would have your work cut out for you. This is a mega ‘grot spot’ on our route to Fargo village. A few seconds walk away, in the park that follows it, I have often spotted two men with a van and bags randomly picking litter whilst leaving other bits to rest and rot or fly around some more. I have witnessed them drive off whilst litter is still scattered in the park. On many occasions they must have also have driven past the litter verge. Even if it is only in their job description to focus on parks one hopes they have reported the ‘grot spot’ to their colleagues. I have complained several times about this specific litter verge to the Council. In response to the complaints it has on occasion been cleaned up. But it is not cleaned up as a matter of course, on a regular basis, even though the council pick up litter in the park right next to it. Again, like the continuous line of over flowing bins, I would need to complain on a weekly basis just about this specific site of litter to get it cleaned up regularly. Each spot one identifies as a source of complaint to the council requires a singular entry, online or via phone. With a repetition of the same personal details for each and every spot of complaint. You can’t complain of several litter issues in one complaint. Needless to say, one tires of the cumbersome process involved in the complaints and more often than not gives up. Serially logging litter complaints is not a long term option. Besides, it is unsustainable and no way to run a city.

My daughter and I rush past under the bridge located next to the litter verge, laughing nervously. We don’t want to be caught by the pigeon shit falling from overhead. Very recently workers have spent at least four weeks of night time shifts to paint the underside of the bridge blue. It was a fine dark green before. The signature colour blue for all city logos refers to the shade of blue the cloth was dyed in Coventry when it was at the centre of the weaving industry in the medieval period. The blue paint under the bridge was another initiative in memory work, in preparation for the City of Culture. Other bridges have also been painted blue in keeping with the heritage colour of the city. Who knows what the costs are, residents are rarely consulted. Unfortunately the plastic spikes which deter pigeons from taking occupation under the bridge were not replaced after they had been removed for the paint work by the contractors. As a consequence of this oversight, now the pavement, and the pedestrians if they are unlucky, are plastered with pigeon shit. I logged a complaint about this. Now the contractors are on site again, placing netting under the bridge to deter pigeons. This is going to take approximately two weeks of labour time and money. Ironically, the underside of bridges are painted blue, in the name of heritage, while the streets under it are paved in litter.

We venture through Gosford Green Park. Testing terrain for a toddler with a scooter making steering turns through the windy paths. Once, hedgerows, now removed, walled the small park. Today traffic noise and fumes wall the park. At the traffic lights we stop at the dual carriage way which cut up the local walk to the city centre, demolished local shops, and flooded our walk with cars and lorries to make way for the ironically named Sky Blue Way highway which was opened in 1986. In the late 1300s a single combat event between the Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Hereford was set to take centre stage on Gosford Green and was called off at the last minute. Despite this historic significance, Gosford Park is not one of the five parks in the city which have been awarded the Green Flag award by Keep Britain Tidy . Perhaps the design of these awards could mitigate against cities being able to cherry pick parks to maintain and spruce up for the selection for awards whilst neglecting others, by auditing conditions of parks across cities. Green spaces, nationalism and litter are often discursively connected in rather emotive ways. The ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ clean campaign for instance was started by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes.  Inspired to take action because of the increasing ‘throwaway culture’ in the post-war boom of the 1950s, they wanted to stamp out the rising problem of litter. Campaign materials speak of “Pride in our country” and “Get England back to the green and pleasant land”. Anti-immigrant sentiments can sit alongside nostalgia for a mythical idyllic past. Indeed they are easily surfaced by far right organisations. In 2016 the magazine Country Life in partnership with Keep Britain Tidy launched the campaign ‘Clean for the Queen’ for volunteers to pick litter in time for her 90th birthday. Regardless of this campaign for queen and country, there are hundreds of volunteer litter pickers who have integrated litter picking into special events or everyday walks. Litter picking and walking are activities which are increasingly occurring together out of necessity. Well known figures, such as David Sedaris, are heralded as heroes in Sussex. Others are quietly getting on with it, because they don’t want to walk through mess or see litter in their parks and streets. They are impassioned by a right to the city as a clean city (Lefebvre, 1996). If citizenship is approached as an urban practice, developing the capacity of citizens to control and influence the urban environment, then the practice of walking through litter needs attention.

Pressure has been placed on national government to respond to the issue of litter. The Local Government’s Select Committee on Litter and Flytipping (2014-15) used photos to illustrate the problem. However the government responded by considering visual proof to be perceptual and not valid evidence. Instead data provided by the Local Environment Quality Survey for England was acknowledged as incomplete but still used to authorise the government’s view that there was not a national epidemic in litter. A government National Litter Strategy for England was announced in April 2017. Part of the strategy will involve data collection on litter. Data based on walks and visual records will need to be considered as part of evidence. Not least because visual reportage from citizens via words or digital photographs is treated as noteworthy by councils when complaints about litter are registered. Volunteer litter pickers across the country are mass observers. Walking methodologies need to be instituted amongst social policy administrators as both practice and evidence.

Finally we reach Far Gosford Conservation Area (as of 1992). Since 2005, this down at heel high street has benefitted from a Townscape Heritage Initiative with economic and physical regeneration. Parts of the architectural heritage, some of which goes back to the 12th century, have been restored. Many of the shop fronts are occupied by low cost food suppliers. The predominant trade on the heritage high street consists of African male barbers, of which there are at least ten. Some of the buildings above the shops are rented out as flats to students, usually to international students, at rents of around £1400 per a month by Coventry University. Here the enterprising university meets the civic heritage industry and international markets. Should you take a bus along the dual carriage way, which offers a view of the back end of buildings on Far Gosford Street you will see litter collected together here, there and everywhere. Nothing is protected from litter. My daughter scooters ahead of me into Fargo village, located in a turning in the middle of Far Gosford Street. She sits in the kids’ book corner of The Comfy Bookshop, whilst I take a much needed tea. I ask the assistant if they have had any books come in on litter. I too have become obsessed with this problem, in the context of the civic, commercial and educational states which have placed us in this desperate situation of living and walking through litter.


Thank you to Lyn Thomas for asking me to write at a time when this piece was almost waiting to be written. And for her fine hand in editing.


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