The Irritations of Modern Life 72. mineral water

A BUNCH of blokes are decorating a house. Or are they on their break? I can't remember. It's a long time since I read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. But this scene sticks in my mind. The painters are talking about politics, and one of them is trying to explain how capitalism works.

If it were physically possible, he says, to put the atmosphere into vast tanks, then somebody would be doing it - and charging us all for the air we breathe.

Come off it, mate, the blokes say. We aren't that stupid. But we know otherwise. In fact, we have proof that people are twice as stupid as Robert Tressell imagined when he wrote that book. Consider. If somebody did manage to tank up all the air in the atmosphere, the ordinary breather in the street would have no choice but to buy it back. But if there was an alternative supply, the racket would never get off the ground, would it?

Wrong. In Britain today, sales of bottled air would rocket. I know this because I have seen otherwise discerning shoppers queuing to pay for water. This year we bought a billion litres of it - a fifth more than in 1998. And by 2005, the industry gleefully predicts that we'll have doubled our intake.

Now wait a minute, the latter-day house painters object. That's not just any water we're buying. It's mineral water.

Really? I could understand people buying mineral water. I had some mineral water in France once. It was mildly fizzy and tasted pleasantly of salty substances. Of minerals, in fact. But the stuff we Britons call mineral water is sold not on the strength of what it contains but of what it doesn't contain. The bottlers make no bones about it. They are selling just water.

Precisely, say the house painters. It contains no chlorine, no sewage, no pesticides, no field run-off, no veterinary antibiotics, no reactor cooling water, nothing.

But hang on. The water companies swear blind that tap water is filtered and fresh and tested and analysed. If you can trust the capitalist who puts water into bottles, why not believe the capitalist who pipes it to your house?

"Camelford, 1988, aluminium sulphate," splutter the painters.

"Perrier, 1990, benzene," I reply. But my heart isn't in it.

Why waste time on them when I've got this great idea? It's a way of making big money out of soon-to-be-redundant water mains. What I propose is to attach a big suction fan at one end - somewhere with nice fresh air.