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Scraping up the Doodies

Its six thirty AM on a (nowadays) typical Pennine summers day. Dreary mist hugs the Calderdale hills and a mizzle is in the air. People dream of sunshine and blue skies, but on this autumnal July morning it seems more like the morning after bonfire night than the onset of the summer holiday season.

It doesnt bother me much. While I might fantasise about lounging in my back garden and washing down an alfresco paella with home made sangria at the weekend, I am quite content to endure dismal skies and depressing drizzle throughout the working week. You see I am a street orderly, and when the nice warm weather lures people out of doors they bring their rubbish with them and deposit it on the pavements. That increases my workload, and forces me to work harder in conditions where prudence would suggest taking things easier! Sunny weather for me equals sweat, shortness of breath, headaches, raised bloodpressure and aching swollen feet. At the end of each hot day I am burnt out with each new day offering the promise of being more exhausting than the last. Rain and cold? I love it!

Its a good day for streetsweeping. Cool breeze and overcast. I have been at this job for nine years now. Five years ago with four countryside books in print, I dreamt of being a successful writer, doing things that didnt involve picking up rubbish. But now, half a century old and standing at the gates of a new millenium, all that seems to be part of the last century, and I dream now only of being successfully retired!

Dispensary Walk Halifax. 7.30 am. I look up at the great clock on Halifax Parish Church - it doesn’t agree. It stopped at 12 some time ago and no-one seems to have got it going since. I am litterpicking around the remains of the town stocks, picking up some of the discarded meal packaging which informs everyone within a half mile radius that there is a Burger King in the area. Beer cans and smashed bottles litter the ground. I pick up one of those giant cardboard pizza boxes. The pizza drops out - one bite has been taken out of it. In the corner someone has thrown up. I stare wistfully at the stocks, imagining how wonderful if would be if they were still in use. Especially for those who made this bloody mess! Ten minutes later I am emptying bins near the register office, sweeping up the confetti. Across the road is the magistrates court. The pavement outside is strewn with dog ends. The inexorable rise of the social unacceptability of smoking in public buildings has expelled all the cigarette ends onto the street, as smokers are forced to slip outside for a drag, turning the entrances to hospitals, law courts, offices etc. into a sea of dog ends! Later in the day youths in earrings and baseball caps stand there smoking nervously and making all this mess as they await court appearances. They ought to sentence them to pick up tab ends for a month!

Sherlock Holmes could tell you much from the observation of litter. He would have deduced from the trail of elastic bands down the road that a postman was working up ahead, or that the plastic brewery keg tops scattered in front of the nearby pub denoted the recent prescence of draymen. Woodshavings from joiners and shopfitters to idle too clean up after themselves, supermarket trolleys abandoned in the street half a mile away from their point of origin, sandbags and 'men at work' signs abandoned after the roadworkers have long since filled in their holes and gone. All these are grist to the streetsweepers dreary mill. Then the 'hot' spots - at bus stops, outside newsagents, public seats, bank cash points - all of them daily sources of unending mess. The master criminal behind this environmental pollution however, is not so easily identified. His name is Mr. Nobody, and no-one ever seems to see him at his nefarious activities!

Mid morning I am in Sowerby Bridge. The busy A58 cuts it in half and simply crossing over the road to empty a litterbin can be a nightmare! It is a long, linear place, and the only way you can clean it is on foot - end to end. This makes for a wearying plod. Half way along Wharf Street the call of nature beckons. I sigh, this means having to grapple with the potential horrors that lurk in the inner recesses of the public conveniences- smashed door locks, lurking homosexuals, no toilet paper and cold, wet slimy surfaces making contact with ones nether regions. Halfway through this hazardous operation the ruddy phone rings! (street sweeping is high tec these days!).The phone is fastened to my belt, which is currently socializing with the tops of my boots! After a scramble, Max hits the button.

"Hello - Sowerby Bridge Animal Undertakers!"

"Hello Jim its Mandy. No not a dead cat today. Its dog dirt I'm afraid."

She gives me the location. "Are you ok with that Jim?"

"Yes Mandy - I can find that OK. Any problems I'll ring you back,'bye!"

I hitch up my kecks and head back for the van. I hate clearing up dog foul. Its not the job I mind - its the attitude of the people who complain about it. For some reason there is a segment of the public that rates dog fouling as a worse problem than paedophilia or abortion! If gentle dobbin drops half a ton of equine excrement onto the street they will not bat an eyelid, but at the mere suggestion of a doggy doody or a canine cocktail sausage they hit their phones and start baying for blood! They always tend to be cranks or cat lovers. (Cats dont foul footways you see, their owners put them out at night to foul their neighbours gardens!). Thus it is that you can almost guarantee that within minutes of being seen clearing up dog dirt someone will start poking their nose into your business.

Today is no exception. I soon find the offending doggy bits, grab a little shovel and a bag and start scraping the stuff off the pavement. A gate opens in the adjacent yard. A young bloke in his mid twenties appears. Crewcut, earring and fag.

"You from the council are you? Clearing up that dogshit then?"

I reply in the affirmative. "Bloody animals done some in my yard as well. Frightened of the kids treading it in. Could you shift that too?"

"Of course. Show me where it is."

I enter his yard, scrape up a tiny little piece of dog dirt, and I'm on my way. He calls me back.

"That it then?"

"How do you mean?"

"Well aren't you going to rinse it down and disinfect it?"

"No I cant do that. I'm a mobile litter patrol. I dont carry water or disinfectant."

"Well what are you going to do then?"

I stare at him in puzzlement. Young, able bodied, built like a bricklayer, he's hardly an ailing old lady with a zimmer frame. Realisation dawns. The mans a pratt. I try to be tactful. "Nothing I can do mate. If it's a problem, just nip in and swill it down with a bucket of hot, soapy water. It'll be OK."

I climb into my van and return to Sowerby Bridge. I am now way behind schedule. Somehow I feel I've not heard the last of this guy. I'm right. I'm hardly back on the street when the phone rings.

"Jim. The gentleman who reported the dog fouling says you haven't cleared it up properly. It needs swilling down he says. Can you come up to the depot and collect some water and cleaning fluid to wash it down ?"

Biting my lip I explain my side of the story. I make it abundantly clear that a return visit from me might find a certain member of the public being swilled down with said disinfectant. Furthermore I am now behind with my work. Mandy seizes the escape route.

"OK Jim. You've been diverted long enough. I'll get someone else on it. Bye!" I pocket the phone, and continue grumpily on my rounds. That I should be lowered to this - playing politics with dog shit!

Next stop Ripponden. The posh zone! It is a place to mind ones Ps and Qs. A place to keep up ones guard. Here people tend to complain about the slightest most petty things. Actually its one of the tidiest places in Calderdale, but you wouldnt think so to hear them talk. The only time it gets seriously messed is after the September Rushbearing festival when all the bins are filled to the brim with empty beer bottles and broken glass is everywhere. This year I am quite looking forward to it - I will be in the South of France at the time!

As I empty litterbins along the Oldham Road, providing a free trade waste removal service for shopkeepers who think they are put there for their own private use, an elderly, distinguished looking man is sitting astride a bicycle outside the post office. He speaks as I empty the adjacent bin.

"Disgraceful the mess they leave isn't it? There are so many dirty people around. Its sad they let things get in this deplorable state."

I concur heartily. Leastways thats what he thinks. I learnt long ago that a council worker who disagrees with a member of the public is treading on dangerous ground.I gaze down the road. The mess looks pretty minimal to me, but I play along.

"I know. There's some sad people around I'm afraid."

"And the dog dirt! That really makes me angry. A threat to public health! They should be caught and heavily fined!" I nod my head in assent (a cat person! Good job I kept stum! But he's not getting away with that one!).

I smile at him. "It's a problem - but you know people are much dirtier than dogs - dogs dont daub excrement on lavatory walls or dump soiled nappies from passing cars."

The man stares at me with a look of genuine unfeigned horror."Soiled nappies? Thats horrible! how can people do that?"

I smile at him angelically. "Quite easily I assure you. I've picked up four this morning!"

He hops on his bike and cycles off, shaking his head. I grin and resume my work. One nil to Jimbo!

From Ripponden I head out to Sowerby. My route takes me over the tops through Cottonstones, a haven of peace and tranquillity deep in the hills. Here, with sweeping Pennine vistas, bleating sheep and lapwings wheeling over the marshy moorland intakes, replete with nardus grass, the coke cans and crisp packets might well be on another planet. Unfortunately it doesnt last.

Now I am working outside the shops in Sowerby Village. What should be a tarmac area is a byzantine mosaic of compacted chewing gum. Attempts to remove it would require a pneumatic drill and a visit from the boys from the blackstuff. A chewing gum surface is indestructible - they ought to lay it on motorways. The shops are steel shuttered, graffitied and embattled. The phone in the gouged public phone box is wearily ringing. I wonder if its the local drug dealer. Only the little Post Office with its old fashioned grocers and cheery pensioners is a bastion of pleasantry in this otherwise lout infested community. Sowerby was once a charming little Pennine hilltop village, until some bright spark in the sixties got the idea of demolishing half of it and surrounding it with council estates and schools. The litter here is horrendous, the juvenile source of most of it being bussed in on a daily basis during the school term.

Nearby three teenage schoolgirls are giggling in the bus shelter. They are not giggling in English. Exchange students perhaps. As they watch the scruffy-guy-with-the-bin-on-wheels plodding towards them their disdain shows. Momentarily I am perplexed, then suddenly their high speed banter crystallizes into intellingible form-

"Mais Non Simone, je dois acheter une carte telephonique."

"Tu n'as pas de la monnaie?"

"Non je n'en ai pas!"

"Hola! regardez l'homme la bas - il est fou!"

I look up at them and smile. "Mais non - je ne suis pas fou. Sauf quelquefois.....quand j'ai faim! Aujourd hui par example je crois que je dois manger de la viande... vous voulez regarder?"

Silence and shock descend upon them. The bus arrives - they leg it toute suite! I wander on my weary way... TWO - nil to Jimbo!!

The French are by no means alone in thinking that anyone who sweeps streets for a living must be somehow mentally defective. At one time this may have been so, but Mrs Thatchers' planned unemployment culture changed all that forever. You gotta be smart to get any job these days! The English attitude to street sweepers tends to manifest itself in a matey condescension of cliched 'bon mots' which they fondly imagine you've never heard anyone say before - 'You've missed a bit!!' - 'Ho Ho Ho I bet YOU'RE good with Chopsticks!' 'You're wasting your time doing that you know!' 'you've got a job for life there!' I smile wearily - I've heard it all before - HUNDREDS of times! How little people know.

It is now afternoon and I am collecting the litter bags from Halifax Town Centre. Pat and Ian (the town men) are waiting for me. Pat is a jovial Irishman and Ian a Scotsman from Dundee. Together we could make the preamble for a thousand jokes! Pat normally drives a 'green machine', one of those tiny twin brushed vacuum sweepers, but it is perennially breaking down and he's working with the barrow today. Hes happy with this arrangement. The machine is unwieldy, inefficient, needs endless servicing, and really only is there as a political hi tech toy to overawe the public whom the council perceives as being more likely to be impressed with noise and flashing lights than a mundane bloke pushing a barrow. I ask Pat if he ever gets 'smart' comments from the public when he's on the machine. "All the time" he replies."Think they're clever they do. A copper said it last week. I was riding the machine towards him, and I knew what he was going to say before he opened his mouth!"

"What did he say then"

"Shine my shoes!!"

Battinson Road Depot. "Club 1500" is convened. There is talk of bins, rubbish, contract specs, sick pay issues, blue jokes and all the idle banter of an all male council workforce couched in language that you would not hear in your local conservative club. Around us, minibus drivers are finishing their afternoon break and heading back out to work. Not us. Three pm and everyone bolts for their cars! Its street cleansing one-upmanship. Lowest of the low maybe - but we go home early!


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