D J Taylor: Privatisation is the source of rose rage

Hosepipe bans would be easier to accept if the water companies didn't make such vast profits. Plus, how to be a don

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Some of the most bracing moments in our national life come when a constituency hitherto known for innocuous sobriety suddenly decides that its interests have been trifled with. The once docile pensioner losing his rag in the Post Office queue; the elderly lady putting her foot down over the solitary parking space – unless you happen to be on the receiving end, these irruptions of temperament need to be cherished, and to be taken note of, for their shock waves have a habit of being felt in quarters far beyond the epicentre.

One such moment arrived last week when various water companies in the south and east of England, anxious to conserve dwindling stocks, declared their intention of bringing in hosepipe bans on 5 April. Newspaper letters pages exploded in fury, and the man who presents BBC Look East's evening round-up had a tremendous time reading out the emails from Anglian Water's enraged customers. As an Anglian Water customer myself, I sympathised with these intimations of disquiet, not because I have roses that will suffer, but because water supply is another of those post-privatisation scandals crying out for government to take some consumer-oriented action.

To particularise, Anglian Water charges me over £700 a year. The amount has nothing to do with the volume of water that flows through our mains, but is based on the rateable value of the house. The company has a monopoly, so I cannot transfer my account to a keener competitor. Looking at the Anglian Water website I discovered that in the last tax year it made an operating profit of £447m, which seems rather a lot. £14m was apparently spent in plugging leaks (a prime cause of lowered reservoir levels, according to industry observers) which works out at just over 1 per cent of annual turnover.

Given that we have been having summer droughts in East Anglia since 1976, you would have thought that in the intervals of cosseting its shareholders, Anglian Water might have taken steps to import some of the excess liquid available in the north and west of the country or – admittedly in a saline state – on its eastern flank. But no, all we get is multimillion- pounds profits, monopolies and hose-pipe bans.

***

Reading the press notices of Gilbert and George's new exhibition, London Pictures, I was reminded of the occasion, long years ago, when I took two American expats to one of their shows. They were a determinedly Anglophile couple, used to local foibles and charmed by native eccentricity, and though nothing was said as we wandered through a gallery crammed with photographs of the boys dancing amid heaps of excrement I got the feeling that they suspected the whole thing to be a highly sophisticated English joke.

This time around George could be found in the London Evening Standard offering some aesthetic justification: "If a person goes to a museum and there's a landscape with a foreground, a middle ground and some nice trees, they might not even stop to look at it. But if there's a policeman on the horizon and a tramp maybe masturbating in the corner, it's a totally different picture because it has a moral dimension. That is what we are interested in."

Of course, this too may be a joke. If, alternatively, it is genuinely meant it seems an extraordinarily limited view of art, based on the assumption that, on the one hand, only certain kinds of art have a moral dimension, and, on the other, that whatever an artist produces has to be instantly arresting. By chance I spent Tuesday morning in a gallery on the Nottingham University campus inspecting some of Edward Burra's 1960s and '70s landscapes. These have a foreground, a middle ground and occasionally run to a tree or two, but they are quite as "moral" in their way as any of Gilbert and George's Morecambe & Wise impersonations. It was G H Lewes, writing a century and a half ago, who pointed out that art which strains consciously for effect can never be truly effective.

***

Another artist indulging in a little light theorising last week was my ancient punk hero Paul Weller. Interviewed at length in Mojo, Mr Weller, now a venerable 53, talked feelingly of the suspicion in which some of his more avant-garde compositions are held by diehard fans, and speculated that the roots of this prejudice lay in class. If you were working-class, he declared, "with an accent like mine, you can't possibly be an artist, or think of something weird". The opening night of Weller's three recent concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, at which he debuted various "arty mini-suites" with titles such as Trees, is thought to have been met with a certain amount of consternation.

Applied to the English literature of the immediately post-war period, there is something to be said for this assumption. One piece of supporting evidence lies in the treatment meted out to Alan Sillitoe, whose early stories, set in the Nottinghamshire backstreets, were assumed by home-grown critics to be a kind of dramatised sociology, cinéma-vérité done as fiction. His French translators, alternatively, marked him down as an English existentialist and the long-lost cousin of Albert Camus.

Curiously, Weller's diagnosis seems least applicable to his own art form. The same issue of Mojo carries a piece about the early work of Simple Minds, whose first few albums were as abstruse and challenging as any music recorded from 1978-82. Serious young men with beards lately superannuated from an English public school? No, Jim Kerr and friends were spikey-haired Glaswegians from the Toryglen estate.

***

Great amusement was expressed over the news that a sixth-form college in Hackney, east London, keen to acclimatise its pupils to the Oxbridge experience, had produced a mocked-up version of a don's study, in the hope that potential interviewees would not be intimidated by the real thing. The amusement tended to take two forms, journalists who had been educated at Oxford or Cambridge complaining that certain vital features – the collapsing, under-stuffed armchairs, the sherry decanters – were missing, and current undergraduates protesting that their tutors' rooms didn't look like this.

My verdict, based on the press pictures, was that the room was spatially flawed. Where, for example, was the 6in drop between doorstep and carpet which meant that timid tutorial fodder always fell into the great man's presence? But the best refinement would be a seated automaton programmed to utter questions like "Who was Lord Bute?" and "You found three questions you could answer, I trust?" at 30-second intervals. The best definition of "donsmanship", as Stephen Potter winningly remarked, is "the art of criticising without actually listening".

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