The “Keep Britain Tidy” campaign was founded in 1954 by the Women’s Institute, and has existed since as an organisation to cut littering, end waste and improve public spaces.

In her essay “Keeping Britain Tidy: Litter and Anxiety”, Rosemary Shirley describes a bizarre series of litter-related events that began to unfold in Cambridgeshire in 1940: assemblages of litter appearing, very obviously intentionally placed, throughout the countryside. With World War II under way, suspicions of invasion and secret agents were already running high, but the appearance of the litter revealed a deeper anxiety: the idea of the invasion of the rural by modernity and by the urban working class. The prevailing thought was that “litter is urban and when it appears in the countryside it is evidence of the urban invading the rural.”1

Later, when “Keep Britain Tidy” was founded, the idea of orderliness in the country continued: “everybody as well as everything should be in its place”2 . I see this as evidence of the paradoxical association of the rural with both a natural state and a carefully managed landscape, which is bound up in the pastoral and deeply impacts our collective notions about agriculture.

it’s interesting to think of who the ‘outsider’ is in the countryside. The inhabitants of the rural are often depicted or depict themselves as outsiders to society, yet the strongest defensive reactions against perceived invasion are often found in rural inhabitants themselves.

The notion of a kind of purity of the countryside which can be claimed by its inhabitants is also contradictory, particularly in the present day. Inhabitants of cities have smaller carbon footprints than rural-dwellers, at least when looking at the necessities of life like transport and home heating. The perception of rural living conferring a more symbiotic relationship with nature than city living is just that: a perception.

Image: Part of the “Keep Britain Tidy” advertising campaign in the 2000s

1. Rosemary Shirley, “Keeping Britain Tidy: Litter and Anxiety in Documents of Contemporary Art: The Rural, ed. by MyVillages (Massachusetts: The MIT Press and Whitechapel Gallery, 2019) p30.
2. Ibid, p35