Literary garbage

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

Share
Related Topics
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".

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Solution Architect - Contract

£500 - £600 per day: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Solution Architect is requir...

360 Resourcing Solutions: Export Sales Coordinator

£18k - 20k per year: 360 Resourcing Solutions: ROLE: Export Sales Coordinato...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Telesales Executive - OTE £35,000+

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest developer of mobile...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£22500 - £27000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Since our inception in 1986, STh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The old 1,000 Greek drachma notes and current 20 euros  

Greece debt crisis: History shows 'new drachma' is nothing to fear

Ben Chu
David Cameron leaves Number 10 to speak at Parliament  

Tunisia attack: To prevent more bloodshed we must accept that containment has not worked

Patrick Cockburn
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue