An interesting experiment took place on the London street where I have an apartment. A few years ago, the borough council permitted a developer to build six apartment complexes across from my building, on the condition that he reserve three of them for “social”—what Americans would call public—housing . . . .
The little gardens in front of the publicly owned apartments are overgrown and jungle-like; they look as if no one really cared for them since the construction of the housing. Litter and household detritus—from diapers to the packaging of fast-food meals—covers them, some of it festooned on the overgrown bushes. At a certain point, private property takes over. The little gardens are cared for and neat; not a single piece of litter clutters them. If one were to appear, a property owner would soon remove it.
What accounts for this startling difference? Raw poverty cannot force someone—even someone almost certainly a single mother—to dispose of diapers in the front garden. After all, the council collects trash from the public and private sectors alike.
Could the tenants of the public housing feel hard done by? No doubt they could, given the human capacity for resentment, and perhaps they express it by little acts of nihilism, but surely it is the providers of the “social” housing—that is, the hard-working taxpayers of the borough—who have the right to feel hard done by. The rent that the public tenants pay would be derisory compared with the market rate, and furthermore many such tenants would be exempt from local taxes. Taxpayers are making an involuntary gift, extracted from them by legal force, year after year, and no doubt decade after decade, to people who probably despise them for it. Where, one might ask, is the justice in that?
What is clear from the distribution of litter in the street is that it is the private that is social, and the “social” that is not so much private as solipsistic, egotistical—and antisocial.
Look, I love Dalyrymple, so much so that I have already borne his children (he won't admit this, the bounder). But there are times I just want to say to him: you really know how to harsh people's mellow, man, and give him a good shove on the beezer. This is one of those times.
It just so happens that across the street that runs along the side of the Drunkablog manse (it's on a corner lot) is a two-story, 20-or-so-unit, low-income, publicly subsidized apartment building.
The Dalrymplean problem for me is, none of the tenants over there seems to understand that it's not okay to dump trash they've accumulated in their cars (and they all have cars) in our yard. Beer cans, fast-food crap--the same trash Dalrymple describes--I pick up every week, at least a grocery sack's worth.
Naturally this pisses me off, to the point where once or twice I've pegged an empty Mr. B bottle or whatever from some jerk's clean-car campaign over to smash on the sidewalk in front of their building. (I've done this, needless to say, only when no one's around so I don't get shot or otherwise disfigured.)
But unlike Dalrymple I get over it, and occasionally (rarely) even find some humor in it. One time a couple of years ago, for example, I found dumped in the yard amid the usual busted glass, dirty diapers and Happy Meal cartons: a) an old microwave oven; and b) the November, 1984, issue of Hustler magazine, only slightly "used." Blech. But see, look at me laugh: Hah!
Theodore, on the other hand, wouldn't think it was funny at all if he found a microwave oven and the November, 1984, issue of Hustler magazine in his old garden. He'd be all Death of the West, the mutants are taking over, I'm moving to Fwance. But me, I find an old microwave and the November, 1984, issue of Hustler magazine thrown in my yard and I'm just: Hah. This means that I'm cooler than Theodore Dalrymple.
Update: "Willie Nelson, Mr. T and Wolfman Jack like you've never seen them before." Hustler's always been obscene, all right.
Update II: Forgot to attribute (yeah, surrrrrre) the "shove on the beezer" line, which is from S.J. Perelman.