Leith on life

It's the minor crimes that count
April 24, 2013

So I was doing what I have come to think of as Archway Hopscotch, a complex series of improvisational skips and hops down the pavement outside my house that can look, from the other side of the road, like a particularly unambitious form of street dance.

It always begins with a perfectly sensible stroll down the street. But then, just before planting your forward foot down on the pavement, you spot a fresh dog’s egg exactly where your heel is due to land. Already committed to forward motion, you have to dodge to the side, which of course puts you off balance—but as luck would have it another little dod of canine loveliness is awaiting just where your other foot now wants to land in the interests of stability. So you have to spring with your original foot in order to clear the fresh obstacle, which in turn puts you off balance, and so on and so forth.

There’s a lot of swearing goes on, while all this is underway, as you can imagine. And once you’re off balance that’s about it. There are so many of these little steaming parcels of love on our street that you can get all the way to the Costa Coffee on the corner in a series of involuntary pedestrian knights’ moves before you hit enough of a clear patch to bring yourself safely to a halt.

So, as I say, this was what I was up to the other day, and swearing, when a thought struck me. I shouldn’t look at these hideous, hateful, enraging, street-polluting blackeners of my day and potential ruiners of the rug in my hallway as just excreta. I should think of them as data points. Now, rather than just being angry, I am intrigued. What if it were possible to plot a map of London in dog-doo?

Police are already trialling “crime maps,” after all—making estate agents suicidal by empowering ordinary people to pinpoint the haunts of muggers and burglary black-spots street by street. These are, no question, interesting. And, if making estate agents suicidal can be regarded as a public good, they are useful too. But there aren’t enough data points for them to be regarded as more than a snapshot. It’s the crimes so minor that they barely register—so minor that their perpetrators barely think of them as crimes—where the real action is.

Google Maps would, surely, be able to devise the appropriate software. Powerful satellites would steadily register this steaming coil, that scattering of pellets, that hideous smear, and plot their locations, the frequency with which fresh turds appear being logged and noted in a database of superb efficiency. For why? Why, to understand the very health of our society.

The uncleared dog mess is more than just a health hazard and a nuisance. It is the purest possible index of the erosion of what academics like to call social capital. Of course, we all make thumb-to-the-wind judgements about the health of communities on the basis of muggings, burglaries and such like. But these sorts of crime are a) statistically scarcer than dog poo and b) what Marxists would call “overdetermined.” Crimes of violence and crimes against property can be actuated by complexly overlapping considerations—drunkenness, anger, addiction, poverty, fear or what have you—that make isolating direct inferences from them about the criminal’s sense of community spirit nigh impossible.

Letting your dog take a crap on the pavement outside somebody else’s front door and not bothering to pick it up—yes, yes, pat your pockets and affect to look embarrassed when you catch me looking, but you’re fooling nobody—is, on the other hand, an act that speaks of a single situation, a single state of mind. It is all signal, and no noise. Your dogshit-not-clearer-upper is registering a bell-clear, pharmaceutically pure, uncontaminated vote for just not caring.

We will be able to use my dog-doo maps as an index of the final breakdown of human civilisation. I have a hunch that the vicinity of Archway tube station in London is where it will all kick off. I’ll be the one sitting on a low wall digging at the sole of his boot with a matchstick.