Tap-water: the real gulf between rich and poor

`I have not noticed any of the men that I know growing breasts from a surfeit of oestrogen'

PUPILS AT St Gilbert's Primary School in Glasgow, we are told, drink mineral water during lessons as an aid to concentration. Not tap- water, you notice, but mineral water. Bottles of the transparent stuff. We live in a consumer society, and even learning must now be accompanied by spending.

I wonder who pays? The school, or the parents? The parents, I bet. While they earn, the children spend. No doubt the school shop has a concession from the manufacturers. I hope the chosen brand is Highland Spring, though I notice that even that brand is hardly local, being distributed from Twickenham. Still, it has a natural sound.

Even school exercise books these days carry advertisements, as last week's BBC2 documentary Getting Older Younger chillingly detailed. The concept of the child's "pester power" becomes an exploitable reality from the age of four. The marketing director of Saatchi & Saatchi calmly explained it all; he, too, felt helpless in the spiral of work and spend, spend and work, that sends our children to school at the age of three and leaves them to be socialised by peers and teachers rather than their families, with bottled water to help them concentrate.

These days the shoulders of the nation bow under the weight of water bought and carried. Only the truly poor are expected to drink tap-water any more, or those too weak or tired or principled to lug the bottled stuff home. Even in Scotland, with its reputation for not wasting a penny if a penny need not be wasted, with its lochs and braes and high rainfall, where you imagine that natural water tastes better than it does down south, tap-water is apparently just too flat and ordinary and nasty for the children to swig.

It's true that the idea of drinking tap-water does become a little distasteful. Can we really be expected to swallow the same stuff that washes the clothes and flushes the toilet? In north London recently, little worms came out of the taps as well as water - though the water company said they were seeing to the problem (the wrong sort of rain) and the worms were "safe". My bath water is often quite brown, but this is apparently only an aesthetic problem. No need to add Milton to the water in which babies' bottles soak, because tap-water is rich enough in chlorine as it is.

The French, to our outrage, may feed their cows on sewage, but that at least gets filtered through the cow, whereas we in our small crowded country tend to get the liquid waste straight. Apparently London water has already passed once or twice through the people of Reading, filtered through the web of filtration tanks you see from the train out of Paddington before Slough.

This too is "safe", though rather rich in oestrogen because so many of the young couples of Reading are on the pill. It is possible that this last is an urban myth. I have not noticed any of the men I know growing breasts or developing squeaky voices from a surfeit of oestrogen - which can happen to men who work in frozen-chicken factories - though the national sperm count is certainly down. Whom could we trust to tell us the truth, anyway? It may even be disinformation spread by bottled water companies. I do know that yachts sail merrily up and down on our water reservoirs, because I have seen them with my own eyes, and I have wondered about the human sewage and food scrapings that no doubt go over the side, but no one thinks anything of this. Perhaps our life expectancy goes up and up - it is now early eighties for women and late seventies for men - because so many of us now drink bottled water?

At St Gilberts in Glasgow they also propose that the pupils should give one another soothing massages to "combat stress and bullying". Glasgow, city of the infamous Gorbals, is not what it used to be. Once the city of hard men and whiskey, it is now the city of European Culture, art galleries, harbour developments, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, bottled water and famously empathic children.

But I wonder what it is like to be massaged by the school bully? A sharp pinch as he (or she) sidles up, to apply the "plain, unscented oil on the forearms" the children are to use? (A branded baby oil, I dare say, also on sale in the school shop.) It may be a very good idea indeed and I hope it works, and that it is not to do with a promotion by Saatchis.

Parents, pupils and education authorities have to agree before the scheme commences. Reactionary wet blankets may say that perhaps if there were more space in the curriculum for games and music, and more teachers on playground duty - and, indeed, more mothers at home, because of less pester power, there might be less stress and less bullying. But it is too late for that. Children and adults, we are all consumers now, caught up in a work-spend cycle we had better make the most of. There is no way out of it.

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