I’m delighted to be able to sign up to this newspaper’s campaign to make London restaurants offer their clientele tap water as a matter of course. It’s long been difficult for the cynics among us not to imagine that somewhere, deep in the bowels of the establishment, there isn’t a bus boy resolutely refilling fancy bottles from a rusty faucet, especially if those bottles have reusable lids and are blazoned with the restaurant’s own logo.
But even setting thoughts of such brazen dishonesty to one side, there’s still a wholly unjustifiable profit to be gained by a waiter asking: “Still or sparkling?”, especially when you know full well that in a blind tasting not even the most superior of sommeliers can tell the difference between these and the tap stuff. Still, the campaign isn’t really about our self-interested pockets, it’s about the waste of resources and the grotesque impact on the environment of our mania for paying for branded H2O.
While I don’t disagree, I think even those who are sceptical about our ability to stop the planet boiling by drinking Thames Water should still join the campaign. There’s something both silly and ugly about the mineral water habit. It hearkens back to a time when travellers to exotic France drank Vichy for fear of some Gallic curse on their stomachs, and in so doing gives us the message that we’re tourists in our own land.
I blame Mrs Thatcher. Once a universal resource like tap water was carved up and sold off to the private sector by the litre, the idea that absolutely anything had and should have its price gained a terrible grip, even on the hydrophobic English. Mineral water is the real drink of the 1980s not Kristal vodka, or Bollinger champagne. And throughout the Nineties, and into the new millennium, New Labour continued to spout the message that thirst is good no matter what the consequences.
I think the low-water mark came for me in 2004, when Coca-Cola’s new mineral water was launched in a flood of hype: “Dasani Mineral Water: A New Wave is Coming”.
Needless to say, a suitable comeuppance was wreaked on the company: their Sidcup plant was found to be contaminated and the water had to be speedily withdrawn.
I must confess that as a non-alcohol drinker I will feel a twinge about signing up wholeheartedly to the Standard campaign, but while the potential of San Pellegrino as a substitute bubbly is debatable, there’s no argument about the fatuity of “still”.
Any doubts I ever had were resolved years ago: 1994 to be precise.
In San Francisco, I found myself sitting in the Prescott Hotel, gazing by chance at a mirror which had a bottle of still mineral water standing in front of it. It was the first time I realised what Evian spelled backwards …
On Friday evening, on Clapham Common, our dog was the unwitting perpetrator of a bizarre assault. A gentleman who’d been struck by White Lightning staggered up to the pup, bent over, slurring: “Ishn’t he cute,” and toppled on to his face. As my cockney mates would say, there was claret everywhere. I calmed my kids and called an ambulance.
Waiting with the now fiercely apologetic victim, we were accosted by a younger drunk, who asserted: “He tripped, didn’t he.”
“No,” my drunk maintained, “I was trying to pat the dog.”
“C’mon,” the young drunk persisted, “we’ll say you tripped on the paving stones, then you can sue the council.”
“That’s ridiculous!” I expostulated, whereupon the sot nouveau rounded on me: “You startin’, mate?” I don’t know, sometimes London kills you, even if you don’t try to pat dogs.
There’s an old Peter Sellers sketch, Balham: Gateway to the South, in which the comedian parodies a travelogue, treating the sarf London ‘burb as one of the most exciting places on earth. Ever keen to know my native city better, on Saturday I took the small boys on a walk from Tooting Broadway to Balham.
After the lively market along Mitcham Road, and the long sweep of Rectory Lane with its mountainous speed bumps, Tooting Common seemed like a verdant expanse. It took us until dusk to reach the outskirts of Balham.
Far from it being a desultory spot, the High Road was heaving, there was an independent cinema, the Exhibit, a good second-hand bookshop, ethnic eateries and upmarket restaurants.
Descending into the grimy gullet of the Tube heading back up to Stockwell, it occurred to me that these days, Balham is the Gateway to the North.
I have no idea whether the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, is guilty of fiddling his expenses, but given the number of MPs currently under investigation for this or that financial irregularity, the chamber must now resound not with principled debate but only pots and kettles shouting “Black!” while Mr Martin himself bellows “Order!” What I do know is that if the Speaker is, as we are told, such an intensely proud man, who feels he’s the victim of a snobbish witchhunt due to his ‘umble origins, why on earth does he want to spend part of his working life sporting a white lace cravat, threequarter-length coat embellished in gold and sitting on a throne?