If I ask you to imagine a heavily-laden litter bin, I don’t know exactly what will come to mind – but I’ll bet it’s some sort of container, cylindrical, square, rectangular, with a lot of litter inside it.
Not if you’re standing just outside Victoria Station, it won’t be. In that case, what you’ll be seeing is a much more Marcel Duchamp-esque deconstructed approach, featuring two or three very large wheelie bins with lids locked shut and items of litter in great profusion balancing precariously on every horizontal or near-horizontal external surface.
The reason the lids are locked shut is that as Magritte might have said, These Are Not Public Litter Bins. They belong to the Victoria branch of Pret, and I suppose that if they didn’t lock them they’d fill up with the public’s litter and there’d be no room for Pret’s. And the reason why the public are so keen to use Pret’s bins? There are no public litter bins at Victoria, or at any other major London station. And the reason for that is not entirely clear, but it’s something to do with anti-terrorism. (If I tell the full story you’ll go to sleep, but an IRA bomb went off in a station litter bin 20 years ago, and since then there’s been a sort of off-and-on ban on bins.)
Banning the bins must be the stupidest anti-terrorism strategy of all time. Can we really imagine any terrorist, or group of terrorists, planning a major London bombing campaign based around putting bombs in station bins, heading out on an initial recce, finding that there are in fact no bins available at the stations and seeing no alternative to abandoning the whole enterprise?
But I don’t really think it’s the stupidity of the strategy that interests me. It’s more the way people react. People generate a lot of litter at railway stations. What do they do with it?
One segment, clearly, consists of people who just chuck it on the ground. Another group, less visible but more virtuous, take their rubbish away with them and chuck it in the bins that are readily available nearby. (If the disappointed terrorists left Victoria Station and walked 50 yards to Victoria Street, they’d find a major shopping area thronged with people and offering nice conveniently-located bins every 20 yards or so.) And the third segment – very likely the biggest, I reckon – consists of people who don’t want to chuck their litter just anywhere but equally don’t want it clogging up their bags and pockets: looking for a third option, and finding there are no open bins, they decide that the least bad course of action is to balance it on the lid of a closed bin.
In fact this isn’t a particularly good option, because when the Pret staff come out and unlock the bins and open their lids, all the balancing rubbish falls off and falls to the ground, where the Pret staff leave it because clearing up other people’s non-Pret rubbish isn’t in their job descriptions. But although it’s actually the wrong thing to do, it’s a well-meaning thing to do. It’s what you do if you’re a person who wants to do the right thing, but can’t see how to.
I suspect that a lot of what we think is bad behaviour is actually of this wrong-but-well-meaning kind, not least in the field of financial services. I am unpopular with my health insurer at the moment, for example, because I’ve had a couple of sessions of physio on my dodgy shoulder without getting authorisation first. This, in the health insurer’s eyes, is bad behaviour. But it isn’t really. For one thing I didn’t know how many sessions had been authorised, or how many I’d had. But much more importantly, worrying that I might be nearing my limit, I’d called the call centre three times but on each occasion, during a busy working day, my call had been unanswered after 20 minutes and I’d simply had to hang up.
Making those calls, getting no reply and going ahead with the physio anyway strikes me as pretty closely analogous to looking for a bin at Victoria, not finding one and balancing your Upper Crust packaging on top of Pret’s bin. A lot of the time, a lot of us don’t really want to break or even bend the rules. It’s just that the people who make the rules don’t seem to give us an alternative.