Fri, September 20, 2013

Thane's World: A day as the queen's dustman

By THANE BURNETT, QMI Agency


QMI Agency's Thane Burnett works as a "dustman," collecting trash in London including behind the gates of Buckingham Palace. Thane Burnett/QMI Agency

LONDON - I was the Queen’s dustman.

I have worked behind the gold-tipped palace gates so I know something about the haves and the refuse they do not want.

But first, let’s back my trash cart up, and explain how I found myself taking out the garbage at the world’s most famous royal address.

The streets of London during these Olympics are remarkably clean.

The city gleams.

So what happens to the unwanted and discarded debris?

While many Londoners have fled until the Games end, thousands of tourists still move daily in great herds from hotels to venues.

To follow the migration of the litter, the City of Westminster — a London borough that includes national jewels like Hyde Park, Westminster Abbey and the Palace — has accepted taking me on for a shift as a London garbage collector.

This is no small position. After all this is — in 1842 — the birthplace of the ‘age of sanitation’.

The English Parliament has tackled proper waste disposal since 1388 — banning residents from tossing their litter in waterways and ditches.

Planners for Veolia Environmental Services, the contract company that does the dirty work in London these days, had thought the Olympics might be a logistical nightmare. So they created a military-grade plan to get a mountain of rubbish out of grid locked London each day and every night.

On a planning board, operations manager Gary De Grout penned: “Expect the Unexpected”.

In the past few days, he’s added: “But We Didn’t Expect This.” London is practically licking itself clean.

Olympic tourists arrive, create waste, then pack it all up and carry it to a proper bin later.

Street sweepers have watched in bewilderment as Olympic fan events end, leaving clean fields behind.

“It’s come as a shock to us,” admits De Grout.

“People don’t want to throw things on the ground.”

But there is still plenty to carry away as it sits patiently in bags along crammed streets, deep into alleyways and down slippery Victorian stairwells.

As London opens an eye, our truck — one of a convoy of 35 that leaves the yard — bumps across Lambeth Bridge and the Thames moving below.

We are a crew of four — my three fellow dustmen having worked together for years.

The easy chatter runs from English football to an estranged mother to the incredibly attractive Dutch field hockey team to the British medal count and back to the Dutch squad again.

Shopkeepers have given us so many free coffees, the cups wobble and spash onto the dash.

Midway though the shift we’ll gratefully pee in a staff bathroom in the low-slung ceiling, bottom level below one of the world’s most impressive private clubs.

These dustmen likely have the most beautiful trash route in the world — running in figure eights around London’s best-known real estate.

The path will be repeated seven days a week — adding and subtracting streets.

The dustmen of London dig deeper into the city than almost anyone else. They scrape parts clean and know what dinge remains.

The marques of up-market restaurants and media offices of the SoHo district attract the ritziest of clients.

But the dustmen see the sewers of refuse right out back, where the rats duel the roaches for world-class scraps.

The dustmen grab bags that contain the spoils of some of the most privileged people on Earth, but still must watch not to get pricked by needles tossed inside.

As they go, they joke and speak to the help that arrive or leave at the break of day, as well as, today, a familiar bag-lady who refuses to accept a free coffee and always insists on tidying up after herself when waking up in any old London corner.

“They’ve pushed her out of her usual place because of the Olympics,” explains our rig’s driver, Martin Cooper, a Londoner by birth.

“She just wants to get her head down.”

Onward we go, tossing just shy of ten tonnes of garbage in back — including past the guards of Wellington Barracks, 300 yards from Buckingham Palace and housing the Foot Guards Battalion who would protect the royal residence in any emergency.

But today, it’s only the dustmen who breach the palace walls.

We move the lorry first past a side-entrance checkpoint, and jump out to grab bags of trash in a courtyard.

It’s largely styrofoam sitting next to a broken and bruised dishwasher.

Then it’s into a second more privileged entrance — past gates, protectors and no questions and into a hub for the 775 room royal household.

There’s a Maserati. Over there, another sports car under a cover. And behind wooden stable doors, the royal carriages that have ferried kings and queens through the masses.

From the truck, we walk in deeper, to where trash bins are hidden behind pristine white walls.

I grab clear plastic bags and wonder if those are the Queen’s torn nylons?

And who in the Royal household has a sweet tooth for Smarties?

I want to look deeper, but I am overcome with a sense of responsibility to the dustmen working beside me.

They don’t pry. They turn a blind eye — gathering what everyone else pushes aside.

As more royal bins are emptied of regal filth, my crew jokes with a night security officer heading out.

There is a fraternity among those who watch over and tidy up after us all — even royalty.

I don’t see a single grey hair of Her Majesty or anyone else you would know.

But I’ve taken out their trash.

Though the real dustmen of London know it even better.

The novelty of driving through the golden gates wears off after a few loads, says crewmember Dean De Grout, manager Gary’s son.

“We don’t think of them as posh places,” adds driver Cooper, a dad of three. “It’s all garbage.”

From beside me, third man Kevin Gillet chimes in: “And it all smells the same.”

Later this week, they’ll add Prince Charles’ residence to their rounds.

But I won’t be there to cart away his scraps.

I was the Queen’s dustman.

So I’m not about to lower my standards now.

Thane.burnett@sunmedia.ca

Twitter.com/thane.burnett