King of the road

Mike Yeomans: A foot soldier in Coventry's army of city cleaners. Photograph: David Sillitoe/Guardian
Mike Yeomans: A foot soldier in Coventry's army of city cleaners. Photograph: David Sillitoe/Guardian

As the sticker on his cart says, Mike Yeomans keeps Coventry clean. It’s a healthy lifestyle, he tells Chris Arnot, apart from clearing up after dogs the size of ponies

Mike Yeomans spends part of his working life in the gutter. Another part involves delving into the cracks and crevices between garden walls and city paving stones where weeds sprout in summer, damp leaves congeal in winter, and crumpled crisp packets cling all year long. The rest of the time he’s pounding the pavements, pausing occasionally to shovel up the unsavoury deposits left by those elements of society addicted to fast food and binge drinking.

Not for this street cleaner the cosy cab of a council lorry with automatic brushes rotating around its wheels. Yeomans, stout-hearted by name and nature, is more hands-on than that. Not literally hands-on, you understand. The most antisocial offender on a community service order wouldn’t be expected to get too close to the dog turds and “pavement pizzas” that he has to shovel up in the course of his daily round.

He is a foot soldier among the small army employed by Coventry city council’s cleansing department to clear up after 300,000 citizens. There are 10 of these infantrymen throughout the city. Their job is to pick off, or rather pick up, what’s left behind after the advanced motorised division has swept through in the early hours. They are known as the “barrow boys” – a change of metaphor and a term that, in this context, has nothing to do with market trading. “Mind you, the lads on the bins call me Trigger after that bloke on Only Fools and Horses,” says Yeomans cheerfully. He is almost permanently cheerful. Under a blue baseball cap, his weather-beaten, 33-year-old features are regularly animated by an expression not unlike the smiling yellow face above the “Keep Coventry Clean” slogan stuck on the back of his barrow.

The barrow itself is made up of three bins on wheels. One contains bags that he has filled already. They’ll be deposited at strategic points to be picked up and driven to the depot. Another bin is what might be called work in progress. A glance inside reveals a predictable mix of leaves, chip bags, dented lager cans and a not so predictable cluster of celery sticks. “I found them outside the Co-op,” he says by way of explanation. The bin nearest to him harbours bags yet to be filled and something called “the sharps box”.

Another unsavoury deposit, symptomatic of the society we live in, is the used needle. Luckily, they’re few and far between in this part of town. “If I find one, I have to pick it up with that,” he says, pointing to his metre-long “litter picker”, a device with metallic tweezers at one end and hand controls at the other that must be difficult to manipulate while wearing protective gloves. The picker is one of several implements attached to the barrow, including at least two brushes, a shovel and a hoe to detach the weeds from those cracks and crevices.

Yeomans’ patch is Earlsdon, a lively and prosperous suburb that was once the hub of Coventry’s watch-making industry. Its handsome Edwardian and Victorian villas, many with large studio lofts, make it a desirable area for academics and students from the city’s two universities. Students tend to occupy the more humble terraces and, as a breed, they are none too popular with the street cleaner. “When they move out, some of them leave half their stuff behind,” he grumbles. “I’ve found fridges, tellies and microwaves just abandoned outside. One day I came across a kitchen door, half on the pavement and half on the road.”

His uncharacteristic lapse into curmudgeonly – if understandable – complaint soon lifts and he’s beaming happily as he pushes his barrow down Earlsdon’s bustling high street, waving to right and left. Everybody seems to know him, from police officers and traffic wardens to shopkeepers and mothers dropping their children off at school. Only visiting strangers occasionally treat him with disrespect.

“One of them rolled down his car window and threw something at me, shouting ‘Here, scum; eat that,'” he recalls. “It turned out to be a half-eaten jacket potato. He shot off before I could get his number.”

Must have been quite upsetting, I suggest. Yeomans shrugs. “I just picked it up and moved on,” he says. “What does upset me is dogs being allowed to foul the pavement. Last week I had a call from a local school to ask if I’d clean up before the kids came out. Don’t know what kind of dog it was, but it must have been a big ‘un.”

He shudders for a moment and I find myself losing interest in my bacon sandwich. By now we’re in a cafe, having parked the “barrow” outside for a brief break from the icy pavements. Not too brief as it turns out. Yeomans is usually allowed 10 minutes around this time, 9am, having started work two hours ago. But his boss has given him permission to talk to the Guardian at rather more length today. His descriptions of life at street level make a marked contrast with the soaring rhetoric of President Obama, who is orating from a television by the steamy window.

Apart from dogs the size of donkeys with asinine, thoughtless owners, there are two other banes of his working life. One is discarded chewing gum that glues itself to the pavement and sets harder than spilt tar on a winter’s day. If he can’t chisel it off, he has to call in the council’s graffiti wagon to blast it away with high-pressure hoses. “In town they have steamers to break it up,” he sighs wistfully.

The other bane of his life is curry. Yeomans can be forgiven for lacking much passion for what has become our national dish; he tends to come across it secondhand in cold, regurgitated form. “At least on a freezing day like this it comes up in one. That’s what we call a pavement pizza,” he adds as I return the remains of my sandwich to the plate, where it remains uneaten.

He grins happily at my queasiness and goes on to say: “For all that, I really like this job. It keeps you fit and healthy.” Healthy? It seems an unlikely word to use when you’re uncomfortably close to the contents of dogs’ bowels and human stomachs. What he means is that he likes being out in the open air. Always has done, ever since school days.

He left with no qualifications, apart from Duke of Edinburgh Awards in bronze, silver and gold. “I was the youngest in Coventry to get the gold,” he proudly proclaims. Now he puts his expertise as a rambler, rock climber, canoeist and camper at the service of his local youth club on the other side of town. Three nights a week he spends as a volunteer worker. He lives with his mum in a rather less salubrious suburb than Earlsdon, having split with his long-term girlfriend at Christmas. It’s a good four miles away, but he sometimes walks to work – a hop, step and a jump for one who has hiked 50 miles across rough country.

Outside the cafe, Yeomans sets to work with the broad brush, sweeping up all the way along the double yellow lines as far as an illegally parked car. Into the bin go a partially chewed apple and a crisp packet, along with any number of leaves. In the autumn, leaf clearing round here is akin to painting the Forth bridge. No sooner have you finished than it’s time to start again.

But couldn’t he just leave them until late November, I suggest? “They’d be piled up to here,” he retorts, indicating a level the height of a hedge. “If I didn’t do what I do, this place would look a right mess.” As if to prove his point, we turn round and discover a bread roll trodden into the pavement. It wasn’t there a minute ago. “And it’s not as though there aren’t any bins,” mutters Yeomans, setting to again.

As we set off back towards the high street, he’s again acknowledging greetings from all sides. He knows his value to this community and many of them know it too. The street cleaner can walk with his head held high, even when bent over a barrow with his feet in the gutter.

Curriculum vitae

Pay Just over £13,000 a year.

Hours “7am to 3pm with a 10-minute break in the morning and half an hour for lunch.”

Work-life balance “Good. I don’t mind getting up early and I can be home in plenty of time to do my youth club work in the evening.”

Best thing “Feeling a useful part of the community.”

Worst thing “Clearing up after irresponsible dog owners, fly tipping students and binge drinkers who try to force a curry on to a belly full of lager.”

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