Sunday, 23 August 2009

Signs of Life

The wood where I walk my dog has a clearing with a bench that looks over a small meadow and trees down by a brook. Its pleasant place, except for the litter.

Litter: a strange word. Stuff cast willy-nilly into the surroundings. Like seeds on the wind, then? What of clumps of wool left by sheep as they stray through the trees: are they 'litter'? How are autumn leaves different from the crisp packets and beer cans left by the teenagers who sit talking late into the summer evenings?

Probably the most unsightly element is a pile of discarded chewing gum stuck to the bench seat, as if someone was trying to build their own little mountain. Now an irremovable reminder of someone else's salivating, it makes graffiti look almost acceptable.

Further down by the brook is a spot where boys camp out sometimes. The first few occasions I came across beer cans strewn around their burned out fire, I was really annoyed. Why can't these louts tidy up after themselves? Camping here must be illegal. It should be stopped! And so on.

But after a while I noticed it always happened toward the end of June, and always a different group of lads each year. Like end-of-school exams, it seemed to be something fifteen /sixteen year olds felt the need to do, just once. My attitude softened remarkably when I realised this. For I am glad to live in a village where children have the freedom (and the safety) to explore.

Sure enough, it has been a phase most year groups pass through. Now, they are chatting in gangs — boys and girls "hanging out" long after dark. Later, adult responsibilities will prompt them to move on again. With a house and family of their own, they will be the ones grumbling about others littering.

A few years ago I regularly chatted to an old man on our street who's blood seemed to boil every time the conversation touched on "youngters today" and how they had neither discipline nor respect. (His part in the war usually came up about then.) I had to stay quiet, for I believe our children grow up in a much better world now than he did.

Though that pile of chewing gum is still disgusting, for me it is a sign of life. A reminder that things are as they should be. Today, children are not frightened to say what they think. Neither are they oppressed by elders who feel free to act as bullies, as if age alone guaranteed superiority. Women no longer feel constrained by social convention to stay married or have children. Their choices aren't always right, but at least they can choose.

Yes, the result is a lot messier than when youngsters "knew their place". Given this freedom, will we choose to accept the constraints of good citizenship? Perhaps, or maybe the cynics were right. Either way, at least the problems we see today are problems of the life. We are no longer slowly strangled to death by buttoned up shirts of "respectability". And where there's life, there's a chance to choose a better world.

It is a curious thing, finding that lump of chewing gum both disgusting and hopeful at the same time.