John Walsh: Tales of the City

I'd go out and celebrate my new-found wealth, except for the fact I'm worthless
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The Independent Online

How much are you worth? I'm not asking about your self-esteem, nor how much you charge by the hour (fascinating thought the replies would be). I'm asking how much money you represent. According to the Office for National Statistics, the average worth of every man, woman and child in the country is £97,000. They worked it out by calculating the value of every damn thing in the nation - buildings, cars, trains, machines, factories, hotels, schools, tenancy rights, stocks, shares, iPods, you name it - came up with the figure of £5.8 trillion quid and divided it by the population.

I don't know about you, but I'm frankly delighted. I think I'll go out tonight to celebrate being, a little unexpectedly, just under a hundred thousand quid's worth of Englishman. The only problem will be all the other people - I mean everybody in London - doing exactly the same thing. It could get quite hairy down at the Crown & Greyhound, everyone in Dulwich crushed in together, the champagne corks popping to cries of "Ninety-seven grand! What - you too?" Humph. It's hard to feel special when everyone is suddenly a tenth of a millionaire.

But there I'd been, barely a week ago, plunged in gloom, convinced of my own worthlessness. Once again, I don't mean my amour propre, nor that my soul was plucked by existential despair. No, I was thinking of the impossibility of the modern bourgeois actually to feel that he or she is worth anything at the end of the month, when you're post-tax, post-school fees, post-Sainsbury's, post-holiday deposits, post-Selfridges sale, post-phone bills, post-insurance premiums, post-children's birthdays. You stand there as though in a dream, watching huge sums of income and just-slightly-huger sums of expenditure flying Micawberishly past and wonder if you actually own anything now, except perhaps the last scrapings of Cashel Blue cheese in the fridge.

The family inheritance was blown long ago on education, McLaren Vale red wine and fashionable shirts (now threadbare) from Paul Smith. The bank pretty well owns the house. The children appear to own all the rooms in it, and have their eye on inheriting the glassware, the musical instruments and the jewellery. The car's mortgaged. The TV and its techno offshoots are rented. The pictures on the wall are all by artists whose reputations collapsed in ruins shortly after I became interested in them. If I bought a home security device, to safeguard my valuables from burglars, the most valuable thing it would be guarding would be the device itself.

So there I was, thinking about what my life really owns, and feeling a little on edge. In terms of genuine assets, I was worth no more than the clothes I stood up in, plus some first editions, and a life insurance policy that matures in 2008. Altogether, about £4,276 and some loose change. Someone could buy me at an auction for less than the cost of a plasma TV.

I'm over it, though. The news about the £97,000 arrived just in time. Phew. I think I'll go out tomorrow and buy a new suit in Savile Row. I could easily blow £1,000 on a suit.

But that would then make me worth £96,000.

And suddenly, I'd be the poorest man in the kingdom...

What a drip

I've just had a glimpse into the mind of the public-utility bureaucrat. A friend has sent me a copy of the letter that Thames Water sent a few days ago to Mark McGowan, the performance artist at the House Gallery in Camberwell who undertook to keep a tap running for a whole year as a frightfully subtle way of "drawing attention" to water wastage in the capital.

Mr McGowan has a history of eccentric art statements. He once walked backwards for 11 miles with a 27-pound turkey on his head yelling at plump members of the public (a protest against fat-ism, I believe). The running tap is at the cutting edge of art installations go, right up there with Martin Creed's "The Lights Going On and Off", which was, Creed explained at the time, the absolute minimum activity that could happen inside a gallery (and therefore be entitled to being considered "art.")

Mr McGowan has gone even further - his running tap is located in a back kitchen, and is therefore not a gallery exhibit at all. But he's achieved the feat of becoming a known and written-about Famous Artist by using only a tap, some water, a red rag waved at the Thames Water company, and a few phone calls to the newspapers. Without the press articles and the rows they engendered, no one would know his name or have seen the fruits of his imagination. Truly, McGowan is a master of mixed media.

But I was telling you about the letter that a friend in the water business managed to leak (ha-ha). It was sent by Jerry Cooper, Thames Water's network operations manager, a man with a no-nonsense approach to H 2O. "Under Section 75 of the Water Industry Act 1991, I am writing to give you notice that you must arrange for the tap to be turned off before the expiry of a seven-day period. Once turned off, the tap must not be used in such a way that water is wasted and no other tap, water, fitting of similar apparatus must be used in a similar manner so as to cause waste, misuse or undue consumption."

Mr Cooper goes on to threaten to disconnect the hapless artist's water supply if he doesn't play ball; and taking him to a Magistrates' Court.

Did you ever hear the like? The water is paid for by a meter at the gallery, whose owners say they're happy to cough up the £20,000 bill for Mr McGowan's soggy jeu d'esprit.

So what has it got to do with Thames Water? Is this the first recorded instance of a service provider trying to stop a customer from consuming too much of its product? Will we soon have British Gas coming round and complaining about my keeping the pilot-light in the boiler on all night?