Mrs. Baggit Struggles to Keep Britain Tidy

The first time Wild Thing and I visited the U.K., Maggie Thatcher was the prime minister and whatever ministry was in charge of roadsides had planted them with metal signs saying, “Mrs. Baggit Says, ‘Keep Britain Tidy.’”

That bit of brilliant public relations was finished off with a picture of a tied-off bag with a face—Mrs. Baggit’s, presumably, happily stuffed with garbage. It was impossible not to connect her image with Mrs. Thatcher’s, and some small part of my brain continues to insist, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that Thatcher’s real name was Maggie Baggit.

Irrelevant Photo: Rose Behind Bars, by Ida Swearingen

irrelevant Photo: Rose Behind Bars, by Ida Swearingen

We did a lot of driving on that trip, so we spent a lot of time looking at the signs and finding funny voices to quote them in.

“Mrs. Baggit says…”

Mrs. Baggit had a lot to say on that trip, all of it scold-y, although I can’t remember exactly what it was anymore. Except, of course, for “Keep Britain Tidy.”

To understand why that kept us amused, you need to know that tidy sounds different to an American ear than to a British one. To me, tidy is fussy. It’s small. All I have to do is think about it and I want to make bitsy motions with my fingertips, as if I’m cleaning up a dollhouse. As far as I can tell, none of that is true in the U.K. It’s just a word here. It means neat and doesn’t make your fingers do funny things in the empty air, although H. tells me the Mrs. Baggit part sounds fussy.

I should stop here and admit that when I started that last paragraph I was going to speak for an entire nation: For us (us here being all Americans—every last differentiated, argumentative one of us) tidy is fussy. Then some minimal sense of modesty (not to mention accuracy) caught up with me and I thought it might be nice if I didn’t mistake my mind for the mind of an entire, not to mention large and varied, country, even if I did grow up and live most of my life there. So I’ve backed off a bit. But I still hold that it has different overtones to an American ear than to a British one. That much, I think, is fair.

Language is like that. We think of it as a solid, but it’s not. It’s one of those slow liquids, like Silly Putty, that changes shape depending on what holds it, or who.

So how successful was the campaign? I never saw British roadsides before it started, so I can’t make a comparison, but I know this much: If you look for litter here, you’ll find it. And if you don’t look for it, you’ll find it anyway. I’ve seen places with more, but Mrs. Baggit hasn’t stopped the litterbugs mid-throw.

And who in their right mind thought she would?