I was standing in the courtyard of the Cheshire Cheese pub on Fleet Street at lunchtime, eating a chicken sandwich. A pigeon fluffed itself at my feet. Then a street- sweeper came my way, broom out, with a folded piece of paper in one hand.
“Excuse me,” he said.
I moved to clear the way for him – there were cigarette butts on the ground. But instead, he held out a printed note:
Honourable citizens. Respect the street-sweeper who keeps your city clean.
He was a dark-haired man of below average height, with deep-set eyes and perma-stubble. He spoke with that slightly grave tone you sometimes find in those who struggle with the English language – abrupt statements which sound portentous, even when they are not. “What do you think?” he asked.
“Well, yes.” I agreed.
“I am a cleaner,” he told me, gesturing to his uniform, a fluoro-yellow hi-vis with the City of London Corporation logo on his chest. He told me to read the note again, and to think carefully about what it said.
He was from Bulgaria. His name was Milan (with the emphasis on the “Mil”). He’d been in London for four years and worked as a cleaner for two. He said he thought his profession should be respected, acknowledged by the people of the capital.
Milan took out his smartphone and showed me a photo of a statue in Madrid – a bronze street-sweeper, his back erect, cap at a tilt, standing in Jacinto Benavente square.
In Spain, people understand how important the street-sweeper is, he told me. If Milan didn’t sweep streets in London, “There’d be rats. And if there are rats, there will be TB!”
He was intense, but not off-puttingly so.
But why the printed note, I asked him? What was he going to do with it?
He winked mysteriously, saying something about the council, the corporation and his “current project”, asking bystanders like me what we thought of his “plan”.
He winked again.
I was the tenth person to whom he had shown the note. Nine of us had had a positive reaction, he said. But the man he’d approached before me told Milan to drop whatever crazy plan he had, because all that would happen was, Milan would get fired. Here was a man who was passionate about his job. As I stood in the courtyard, putting the last of the chicken baguette into my mouth, Milan told me about his conversion moment, and how he had come to love sweeping the streets of the City of London.
“At first I was sweeping, sweeping, sweeping, my head down, pushing the broom,” he said. “I see someone drop a cigarette, I sweep it up. But then he drops another cigarette. And I sweep it up again. He does it over and over. It was very hard.”
Then, something changed. “I think: I will pick up the cigarette butt with my fingers,” he explained. “I walk up to the man who has dropped the cigarette, and I pick it up with my fingers. Next time, he picks it up himself.”
After a few weeks of this dirty finger strategy, according to my direct source, the City of London, exponentially, became a far cleaner place. Word had spread: there’s a sweeper round here who picks up cigarette butts with his fingers. The strategy was watertight: guilt, weaponised for a cleaner London.
I took my sandwich wrapper back to my office, folded it up and put it in my desk.
A few days later, I saw an older man wearing a fluoro-yellow, hi-vis uniform with the City of London Corporation logo on his chest.
I asked him if he knew Milan. “Of course,” he replied. They were colleagues.
And did he know about Milan’s printed note? About his mysterious plan?
“No,” he said. “No one knows what Milan’s plan is. Probably a good one, though.”
This article appears in the 17 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history