My message to the gum-chewers of Britain is if you chew, then swallow, too. And if you can’t swallow it, then find a bin or face a fine
I was standing outside the new Tube station at Shepherd’s Bush last week, and marvelling at the regeneration that can be achieved by sensible investment in transport. The proprietor of a local coffee-cum-ice-cream bar was telling me how much better things were going, and how many new customers he was getting from the nearby Westfield shopping centre, when another man seized me by the elbow.
“Mr Boris,” he said, in tones of despair and an accent that suggested he was not native to London, “what are you going to do about all this?” As I followed the sweep of his arm, I saw the gleaming London Underground signs, and the capacious concourses, and the happy crowds of shoppers and commuters milling in ergonomically efficient patterns over the spanking piazzas; and then – beneath our very feet – I saw what he was driving at.
Imagine if you were Leonardo da Vinci and you had just immortalised the complexion of the Mona Lisa, and then you came back to find some vandal had used a magic marker to blob black stubble on her lovely cheeks and chin. Or put yourself in the shoes of the head groundsman at Wimbledon, and imagine that you had spent a whole year mowing and watering to produce the perfect lawn and then – on the eve of the men’s final – 200 moles had simultaneously erupted through the grass of Centre Court.
Or think what it is like to be a parent who rashly allows a teenage party to take place in your home, only to find a series of red wine stains and cigarette burns distributed in every square foot of your expensive, oatmeal-coloured, wall-to-wall carpet.
How would you feel? You would be fit to be tied. You would want to find each and every culprit and hit them with the penal code of medieval England or modern Tehran – whichever is the more barbaric.
Such are the feelings of many good citizens when they see the effect of chewing gum on our streets and pavements. It is a plague. It is a monstrous acne of sticky grey blotches. It is an awful self-inflicted impetigo on the face of modern London, and it costs a fortune to treat.
The manufacturers spend only a couple of pennies to produce every stick or chiclet of gum, yet once they are gobbed on to the pavement and trodden flat by human traffic they adhere with such barnacle-like ferocity that they cost up to £1 each to remove.
It takes three months to clear 300,000 splodges from Oxford Street alone, and, as every councillor will tell you, the chewing gum scourge is costing us all – as taxpayers – millions of pounds a year.
In an ideal world, we might help to empty Ken Clarke’s overcrowded jails by sentencing offenders to squat in chain gangs over our gum-lichened pavements, scraping and sanding and water-blasting until our public space is clean and their debt to society is repaid.
In reality, my friends, it ain’t gonna happen. Any such punishment would be deemed an infringement of their human rights, and a breach of health and safety, since the offenders would claim to be exposed to any bodily fluids still immanent in the gum.
Nor is there, frankly, much hope of a technological solution. A great deal of money and research is going into water-soluble gums. The trouble is that chewing gum is, by definition, composed of stuff that is water-soluble and stuff that isn’t, and you extract the water-soluble flavourings and sweeteners and colourings in the process of chewing the indissoluble host – otherwise there would be no chewing in chewing gum.
The only answer, therefore, is to stop people spitting it out, and end the culture of great expectorations. But how? We could emulate Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, and ban all chewing gum from Britain, with the threat of several strokes of the rattan cane on the soles of anyone caught masticating in the streets.
Well, they run a tight ship in Singapore, but I have to say that seems harsh, and especially cruel to all those whose oral cravings have been intensified by smoking bans. What we need is a more systematic use of the on-the-spot fines that they have developed to such effect in Croydon and Southwark, where an £80 instant charge for gobbing gum is now a serious deterrent.
To those who say this is too punitive, I say pshaw. We are putting out more bins, and there is a growing number of Addison Lee gum ‘n’ butt receptacles on the walls. If you have finished with your gum and you can’t find an immediate bin, you can put it behind your ear, you can wrap it in paper, and above all you can swallow the wretched thing. Yes, you can. To say that it interferes with the digestion is a complete old wives’ tale.
It is probably not too good for under-fives, and there was one case of an 11-year old who experienced a “gum bezoar”, or semi-asphyxiating bolus in her gullet, but then she had also eaten several coins. For adult human beings, a small gulp of gum would make no difference whatever.
Think of the things that are pummelled every day in the muscular bag of acid that serves as the average British stomach. Think of the prawn heads, the vindaloos, the industrial quantities of gristle and bone that are chomped in the course of one evening of fried chicken – and we balk at a tiny bit of tree-sap!
According to leading American dietitians, swallowing gum can actually boost the fibre in our diets and help to prolong life, and by giving us the impression that we are full it can help tackle obesity. My message to the gum-chewers of Britain is if you chew, then swallow, too. And if you can’t swallow it, then find a bin or face a fine.
Boris Johnson writes for The Daily Telegraph