They come over here, they like it, and then they start to criticise. American humorists have a knack for noticing a particular characteristic of the British. Bill Bryson, who has lived here most of his adult life, has built a campaign around the subject. Now David Sedaris, who bought a house on the South Downs in 2010, is following the same litter-strewn path.
Neither can understand the attitude of the British to their own country. We famously enjoy trashing our character, our history and our position in the world, but what Bryson and Sedaris have noticed is less easy to understand. The British also trash their pavements, their playing-fields, their footpaths and their roads. For all the brave talk of the environment, the country's littering habit is growing worse, not better. The cost to local councils increases yearly and will reach £1bn by 2015.
Being generous-spirited Americans, and visitors, Bryson and Sedaris have taken a gently admonitory tone to what for the rest of us should be a matter of national shame. "It is a wonderful country, you should look after it," Bryson has said in his capacity as President of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England. Writing in the Sunday Times, Sedaris confessed his feelings of surprise and frustration. "In such beautiful countryside, it's heartbreaking," he wrote.
Struggling to find a reason why a supposedly evolved culture should be so relaxed about scattering about its own mess, he concluded that "it's about anger, for isn't every piece of litter a way of saying: 'F*** you!'?"
It is more, and less, than that. There are millions of people who if not actually leaving trails of trash behind them, make no particular effort to be tidy. They let their personal rubbish fall as they walk along, or casually chuck it through a car window as they drive. A recent CPRE survey revealed that a quarter of those questions admitted littering occasionally – and there are many more who are in denial, turning a convenient blind eye to their own behaviour.
What these people share is not so much anger as a selfish determination to keep their own little territory – the car, the house – free of rubbish at the expense of everyone else. There is also a bleary, apathetic attitude towards our surroundings, particularly in the countryside. Unless an area is formally designated as an area of special beauty or of cultural interest, it is worthless and can be taken for granted, treated as a resource of personal convenience.
Is there anything about these attitudes which strikes a chord? The putting of self first? The utter lack of interest in ordinary rural beauty? They are, of course, personal versions of the prevailing political wisdom.
No politician has done more than make quietly sympathetic noises when the great and growing British litter scandal is mentioned. It is unglamorous; there are no votes in it (nor sales for manufacturers). It is, figuratively, chucked out of the window for someone else to pick up.
The landscape is there, above all, for human use; the pleasure that it can give people of all ages is of secondary importance in a busy, growth-obsessed world. The attitude is not just that of the small-time trasher; it is shared, on a rather grander scale, by George Osborne and Eric Pickles.
Their planning revolution, with its "presumption in favour of sustainable development", will be published this week – greeted by those hard-lobbying developers in the building industry, their bulldozers revving hungrily. Ordinary countryside will no longer be protected.
It is not too fanciful to see a connection between a political class which puts such a low price on our landscape and whose policies reflect an agenda of self-interest, and the kind of attitude in which millions give themselves permission to litter.
In their own way, the Government is delivering the same message to our beleaguered, beautiful countryside as the trashers, and it is the one identified by David Sedaris: F*** you.
The cream of the crop
It is difficult not to feel faint stirrings of national pride at the news that a British author is at the quivering forefront of an exciting new genre of fiction which is currently taking America by storm: "Mommy Porn".
EL James, said to be "a former London housewife", has written three books of erotica, Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, which have so far sold over 250,000 copies, and have just secured a lucrative Hollywood franchise for a series of films.
It was apparently the arrival of the Kindle, allowing women to buy and read raunch without others knowing what they were up to, which has led to a new boom in explicit fiction. In addition, there are also genres known as "slash" and "femslash". The Fifty Shades books are built around a submissive-dominant relationship between Anastasia Steele, a 21-year-old student, and Christian Grey, a young tycoon, with plenty of smacking, riding crops and rough talk.
Suddenly, the success of a British author in this area becomes easier to understand.Reuse content