The crow being on his lamppost early this morning, and the window of my office being open, we had a brief conversation which was really more of an ice-breaker, because we haven’t spoken properly since the Pauncefoot Pigeon affair. I mentioned his obvious prosperity.
“Never known the like, mate. It’s these fine evenings, see? I mean, just look!”
So prompted, I looked down at the grassy recreation area opposite my house. It was strewn with litter: half-eaten kebabs, pizzas, bags of oily chipped potatoes, all displayed in open invitation.
“A boy’s just got to open his beak and it falls in! I tell you, I need to lose a few inches or I won’t be able to fly high enough to reach the nest!”
As if to demonstrate his point he launched (or rather toppled) from his perch on the street lamp and flapped soggily away. End of conversation; beginning of a thought.
Well, perhaps less of a thought and more of a journey – a journey back to my earliest memories of morning; waking up to the sound of the electric milk-float as it hummed up the street, the clinking of milk bottles on doorstep after doorstep. Paul the milkman came from the Channel Islands. His milk round was his livelihood and his life; delivering the full bottles, collecting the empties to be washed into recirculation back at the dairy. He was one of several workers with similar missions performing their morning rounds: a postman whose name I have forgotten, a bread man (Jim, I think he was), and of course, a roll-call of paper boys and girls. The ‘pop man’ came twice a week, with wares dispensed, like the milk, in glass bottles which we collected for return, earning two or three pence refund for each bottle. His vehicle was electric, too.
We had coffee bars, social gathering-places where we drank weaker or stronger coffee (‘can I have it milky, please?’) from china cups that were washed and used again. There was no ‘fast food’ in the city of my earliest years; no takeaways or sandwich bars, therefore little or no discarded wrapping; even newspaper tended to be recycled through charities. The police patrolled on foot; mostly ex-services men with weighty presence whose local knowledge well equipped them for the war on crime. Our parents bussed or pedaled to work because cars were expensive and not always efficient.
My school uniform had to last for at least a year – the shoes that went with it were inexpensive, all-purpose and had no particular brand. There were no ‘trainers’. I possessed very few electrically-powered toys and those ran from batteries, not the mains. The very concept of carrying a battery-powered telephone around with us would have been greeted by laughter – why on earth would anybody want to do that?
We bought food at local markets, because ‘supermarkets’, again, did not yet exist. We ate frugally, our diet honed by the strictures of a recent war, leaving little to waste. We drank water from the faucet.
This week I have driven at least eighty miles purely to cover journeys that public transport fails to provide. I have parked on acres of sterile concrete to visit huge, expensively lit ‘malls’ where I may buy my milk in plastic canisters, general comestibles shrink-wrapped into pack sizes too large for my needs, even beer in tins over-wrapped into groups of six, or twelve. I know the highly-priced perishables I pass by have only made it to the shelves because they look attractive, and a third of them will be thrown away unsold. Even water, a staple of human existence, is sold in plastic bottles. I have passed shoe shops selling trainers for children at prices as high as three digits, people holding congenial (sometimes otherwise) but meaningless conversations with four hundred pounds-worth of under-used technology glued to their ear.
Every street has three or more ‘takeaways’; you won’t need satellite-guided navigation to find one, just follow the paper trail. Their proprietors have learned ways of charging more for beverages by disgorging them from slow, power–thirsty machines into polystyrene cups.
I rarely pass police on foot anymore. Mostly they pass me at extravagant speeds in sixty-five thousand pound cars kitted out with computers and radar. I never hear the morning tune of a milkman, or any form of electric delivery vehicle. The milk bottle is dying, the glass pop bottle with a refundable deposit has passed on long since. The jobs these services created are gone, so Paul’s and Jim’s successors are probably the recipients of State benefits.
Our council have allotted us three separate bins so far in the name of ‘recycling’. We are supposed to put some types of rubbish in one, some types in another, anything left in a third. A special diesel lorry collects the contents of the first two once a week for sorting in a central depot where it is baled, and either sent to a wharf-side in Rotterdam, or in some cases, I am told, shipped all the way to China, while someone decides what to do with it.
We can certainly furnish them with an excess of rubbish. Plastic milk canisters, several drinks cans, unimaginable amounts of food wrap, food waste, dog pooh in plastic bags as well as acres of paper that have been delivered by our overloaded postman, peddling goods in which I have no conceivable interest. The three bins, by the way, are very large and made of plastic. No-one has ever raised the issue of recycling them.
Accepting the futility of railing against change, my mind is moving on to other things. The crow is back on his lamp standard. He has a huge piece of kebab pinned under one foot, which he pecks at moodily.
“I mean, really! You’re a bit of a sci-fi nut, aren’t you? Can you imagine what a Martian would think if he looked down at you lot and heard you talking about recycling – saving your planet and stuff? Hypocrisy? He’d laugh ‘is little silver boots off!”
“I suppose if you look at it that way, we’ve made a bit of a mess of it.” I say, humbly.
“Not your fault. Well. It is, sort of. A fault with your species, I mean. When the earth’s falling in on your head, you make the hole larger. It all started goin’ wrong when somebody up there decided to bring you lot ashore and leave the dolphins in the sea. Big mistake! But there you go, it’s an ill wind – worked out well for us corvids; you should be thankful we’re here to clean up after you.
“This hot sauce is a bit of all right, innit? I might take some home for the kids.”
“Do you think there’s anything we can do to put things right?” I ask. He is quite a wise old bird, after all.
I’ve never actually seen him laugh, but I think I have come quite close to witnessing it now.
“What, you mean like when you all tried to agree about using less fossil fuel? And the result of that was? Frackin’, mate – f*****n’ frackin’! A way to get more fossil fuel!”
He begins a peculiar foot to foot dance, which I put down to bird-like hilarity. “I know! I know! Here’s a good idea, innit? You want fast cars to finish off the few jobs you’ve got left faster. So…so…I know! Yeah, I know! Let’s extract more fuel from the ground and burn it so it goes into the air! That’s a good one, innit? You pull all the combustible stuff from underneath you until the planet shrinks like a prune but it won’t matter ‘cause you’ll all be dead anyway, unless you can breathe carbon monoxide. Oh dear! I can’t stand it!”
He flies off clutching his kebab, and my eyes follow him, admiring his ability to stay airborne even though he is clearly suffering from a powerful stitch.
He is, after all, possibly the only genuine recycler we have left.