Literary garbage

Are dons so far removed from everyday life that one working-class bloke looks like another?

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Whenever I read stories of men who have been crushed by animals falling from tall buildings, or who have been experimenting with some exotic device for achieving solitary pleasure and now need to have it surgically removed, I tend to think "there but for the grace of God go I." Even if I do not use such aids myself, or go near such buildings, I can quite understand the circumstances giving rise to these accidents.

But this week's story about the tragic destruction of much of the valuable library of world-renowned Cambridge don, Sir Frank Kermode, goes beyond easy comprehension. Sir Frank (whose name I first heard on the radio, and thus expected to be spelled Commode) was moving house, and had packed many of his books and papers into cardboard boxes. That day the removals men were to pick them up. At the same time the unwanted detritus of many years had to be shifted, and the council's dust collectors were also due to make a "special collection" to take the rubbish to the dump.

Unfortunately (and amazingly) the dustmen called first, and were directed to the boxes of books by the septuagenarian professor, and asked to bear them off. I have been unable to discover whether the rubbish was subsequently carefully re-installed in the new house by the removals company; but in any case, by the time the error was detected many of the books had been physically compressed in one of those great lumbering manglers.

There are several extraordinary features to this tale which make it difficult to credit. Many will find it hard to believe that the dustmen called at all. There are areas of Britain where it is necessary for one of the inhabitants to hide behind the garden hedge on collection day, and jump out in front of the refuse lorry, so that it has no option but to stop. At this point his or her neighbours emerge and - before they can be prevented - throw their rubbish bags in the back. And even then there is no guarantee that they won't be thrown out again. They must view Cambridge a la Kermode with envy. I worry lest they decide to travel to Sir Frank's house, and leave all their refuse outside.

But even allowing for the fact that Cambridge may be better served than some cities, it would seem odd that the cultured knight should not notice that he was dealing with dustmen rather than moving men. As David Hopkins, the council officer responsible rather acidly commented, "We have large white and green dustcarts with a huge hole in the end where the men stick the rubbish. Usually when people see a refuse truck and a couple of dirty blokes, there isn't a problem."

This would seem, therefore, to place the blame squarely on Sir Frank himself. Does he therefore belong to a class of person so removed from the grubby encounters of everyday life, that one working-class sort of bloke looks pretty much like another? The sort of chap, in fact, who would be likely to stop Gary Lineker in a restaurant and ask for a gin and tonic? Or who will happily accept the right of a burglar to wander around his home stealing things, providing the thief looks confident and has a card inside a clear plastic holder?

This is, I think, unfair. Close textual analysis of the Kermode saga reveals that the dustmen involved were rather nattily dressed in "blue shirts and orange trousers". In other words, they did not look like the refuse collectors of old, but squeaky clean, new, skilled garbage operatives. For this is increasingly an era of image creation for all. We are becoming used to slogans such as Welcome to Camden; Hudderfield's working for you; Council Services, Your Services; and so on. It's a ten to one bet that many image-conscious garbage operatives are doused with a pleasant (if inexpensive) eau de cologne by their supervisors between collections. So now not even the smell is likely to give them away. Or, as Lonnie Donegan didn't once sing, "My old man's a dustman, 'e wears a bowler hat".

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