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A Few Trashy Tales From Scotland

An American friend opines that British terms for stuff like "garbage" are effete.

Maybe. But this is the country where a car hood is a bonnet, so what does she expect? We do not throw our "garbage" or "trash" into a "can." We put our rubbish (or "rubbidge" as one great old Scots word has it) in a dustbin. There is something indelibly polite - isn't there? - about this reduction of all forms of wastage to "dust."

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It seems logical that those whose vocation it is to cheerfully carry the "dust" away from the "bin," are the "dustbin-men" or "binmen." Some call them "dustmen."

There is a famous literary dustman, of course: George Bernard Shaw's Doolittle. Today that name - GBS surely chose it for its connotive meaning - would be politically incorrect. One should, indeed I do, only admire those who manage our waste and engineer its disposal. Without Dustmanship (a Shaw-ism, to be found in his afterword to "Pygmalion") the chaos in urbs and suburbs would rapidly become unimaginable, as strikes have shown.

Garbage is rightly taken seriously (I even hear rumors of a US magazine and museum devoted to it, and a book of poems called "Garbage" by a lionized American poet). Garbage is a potent metaphor and literally of ubiquitous concern. The surface of our planet is conceivably liable to be overwhelmed by rubbish. In fact, it might not be entirely fanciful to suspect that one motive of the space program is to find remote stars, uninhabited by olfactorily-endowed life forms, where we might deposit our detritus without offense.

The time is surely ripe for what we in the UK call "bin lorries" (garbage trucks), once loaded, to be fired into outer space. The only difficulty might be the kind of Mir-type space collision of which we are currently only too conscious. Our Glasgow bin lorry drivers are a roaringly projective breed whose sensitivity to smaller traffic is hardly acute. Too many Cleansing Department vehicles in orbit could be hazardous.

The visit of our weekly binmen (some Glasgow kids call them "midgie-men") has its own special character. They arrive before we are up. They clearly dislike sleepers, and their native woodnotes are as wild as possible. Their shouts make the dog bark. Morning has broken.

Apart from the statutory yelling, there is also the obligatory Tossing of the Bin Lids. They must be flung discus-like to the four winds. It would be easier to lift and replace them, but not half so much fun. One of my postprandial duties is to discover where in the bushes the lids have landed. If it is a gale, all the better: I have been properly punished for being a lag-a-bed.

There are certain sorts of rubbish at which our regular binmen balk. Understandably, heavy metals and broken glass. But one day recently, without any explanation, none of our rubbish was lifted. I phoned the Cleansing Department. (Lovely, isn't it? Sounds almost baptismal.)

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An inspector called. He snooped in our bins before ringing our bell. I was out. "Your husband is an architect working at home," the inspector informed my wife accusingly. "I know. I have had a look."

She insisted vehemently that I was far too stupid to be an architect, even though she was unsure of its status as a criminal activity. Eventually, half-convinced, he left.

A few days later, a special bin lorry, manned by a uniformed task force, silently removed our rubbish.

THIS morning, I phoned the department to ask how I might inveigle them into removing some carefully bagged garden rubbish - another case of refuse refusal.

"Weeds or earth?" the lady asked.

"Weeds - and earth."

"Because if it's earth," she went on, "there is a charge. Weeds are free." Complicated. Finally we agreed it was wiser for me to drive the bags to the dump myself.

At the dump, as I heaved them into the void below, an adjacent couple was dispatching enormous, pristine sheets of glass. Involuntarily, I suggested that to trash such good glass was a shame. (I was remembering a photo I had published once. I kept it on file for years. Then one day, I threw it out. The very next day, a magazine phoned wanting to republish it. A tale with a moral.) "Could come in handy," I said.

The husband's eyebrow lifted. "That's what my father-in-law has been saying for the last five years." They dropped another sheet over the parapet. It smithereened conclusively in the depths, dust to dust.

Some houses are equipped with tall green affairs known as "wheely-bins." The binmen roll them to their lorry, lock them onto a tipping device, and - untouched by human hand - the contents are engorged.

There is a wheely-bin story going the rounds.

A binman asks a householder: "Where's yer bin?"

"I've been to Spain," she replies.

"No - I mean where's yer wheely-bin?"

"I've really been to Spain," she insists.

OK - some jokes are just rubbish.

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