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August 4, 2011

There’s something about a chute. No, I’m not talking about the thing you strap on your back when you jump out of an aircraft. Nor am I referring to the thing you go sliding down at a water park.

I’m talking about the aperture in my apartment block that leads straight down to God knows where. He knows and I don’t, because I have never actually visited the destination of my garbage in the two years I have lived here.

My chute is wonderful. Walk out of the door, through the door opposite, open the hatch and let the black bag fly. A very satisfying second or so, and crunch! I imagine the bag spewing its contents into some subterranean container. Broken class, burst food containers, newspapers, cardboard boxes. All exploding into a distinctly un-green mess. A haven for cats, rats and cockroaches. I think of them eyeing each other warily, before agreeing that there’s enough for all, and declaring a cat hour, a rat hour and a roach hour. The question is, how do they decide who goes first?

Here in Bahrain, recycling is in its relative infancy. There are bottle and paper banks at a number of supermarket and at one or two mosques. But that’s about it. In Britain, by contrast, at least in my area, we have blue bins for paper, plastic and glass, a little green bucket for food slops and big green bins for everything else. If we throw out a plastic container, we have to wash it first. If we put the wrong thing in the wrong bin, we’re liable to have a man from the council knocking on our door. And we feel very virtuous, as jumbo jets cross the skies above us and big diesel trucks rumble past our front doors. We’re doing our bit, aren’t we?

Not so many bits being done in Bahrain. In this Holy Month of Ramadan, the cats and rats do especially well, because the amount of food thrown out rises dramatically. Some public-spirited souls do promote the virtues of recycling, but they are far and few between. Even though I and my fellow residents know that a few miles away lie the paper and bottle banks, do we make regular runs? I doubt it. The swoosh-crash of the black bag hitting the deck is just too easy. And more fun.

Why this discourse on garbage chutes?

Well, after two years in the delightful apartment with a balcony from which I have watched life go by – car crashes, raucous parties hosted by fun-loving Filipinas, plaintive sermons in surround sound from nearby mosques and, on a couple of sad occasions, the crackle of gunfire a couple of miles up the road – I’m moving. Not far, just across the highway in fact.

So there has been plenty of swooshing and crashing through my hatch of late. And what a wonderful exercise it has been. There’s always the temptation to pack up and move everything. After, all that stuff I haven’t used or looked at in ages might still be useful in the future. In 2027, perhaps.

But this time I decided to be ruthless. Those shorts with holes in unlikely places. Swoosh crash. The grandiose corporate brochures I keep collecting. I couldn’t throw those out, could I? After all they cost so much to produce. Swoosh crash. The half-eaten curry sauce excavated from the back of the fridge. Swoosh crash. All those magazines I should have read but didn’t. Sorry, but Bahrain Woman should have gone out the day it slapped on my doorstep. And those social magazines full of pictures of grimacing partygoers. Swoosh crash. The boxes that once contained equipment I will never resell. Swoosh crash.

Guilty as I might feel about not recycling, chucking out stuff that has no use in my life or anybody else’s lightens the soul.

I wouldn’t go as far as George Clooney’s character in Up In the Air, who, in between flying all over the US to fire people on behalf of squeamish employers, does a nice side-line in inspirational speaking. He encourages people to “lighten their rucksacks”. To get rid of people who burden our lives, who sap our energy.

I have done some of that in the past and continue to do so. There’s often a tension between cutting ties with those who extract more energy from you than they ever seem to replenish, and fear of the consequences. In business it’s not too hard, especially when you’re not the employer. You tie up the loose ends, disengage and that’s it.

With friends, not so easy. You stay friends a person because you can’t face the emotional fall-out of disengaging. You justify your decision on the grounds that they’re an old friend, and they weren’t always as they are now, and you shouldn’t abandon them just because they’ve become self-obsessed, boring or obnoxious. But actually they’ve stopped being your friend, and have turned into a good cause – the object of your charity. They have become your dependent.

This year has been notable for swooshing and crashing.

The people of Egypt have discovered that they can depose their leader. Hosni Mubarak and his family have discovered that the apparatus of the state is insufficient to prevent them from being brought to trial to answer accusations of murder and embezzlement.

Hafez Al-Assad has found out that he can’t quietly snuff out opposition away from the public gaze as his father did in Hama thirty years ago.

America has discovered that there is a limit to the amount of money it can borrow, and has had to jettison cherished public spending projects. Britain too. Greece in spades.

Japan has found out that its nuclear power industry is not immune to the forces of nature. The Europeans now realise that they can’t take the Euro for granted. Some of them are thinking that default is not unthinkable.

FIFA executives have discovered that there is a limit to their gravy train. And Rupert Murdoch has discovered contrition as a tactic to save his business.

Everywhere you look, you will find people re-evaluating their options. Applying Obama’s “yes we can” in ways that the President could never have predicted. Some have discovered “no we can’t”.

It has been a year for junking preconceptions, and there are many months to come.

As for me, I walk out of my apartment this morning with a spring in my step – well, slightly less of a trudge anyway. My year of swoosh and crash is far from over. But junking preconceptions and unwanted detritus serves to remind you not only what you can live without, but also what is important for today and tomorrow.

Whether through necessity or by choice, it’s a handy process. The old world never dies. The new one is there if you look for it.

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