Philip Hensher: Be wary of advice on how to brush your teeth

Anything so absurd should have alerted us to the fact that the country was not being run properly
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Reading the obituaries of Sir Edward Heath, we were transported back to a foreign country. The period of his premiership was one of almost unimaginable industrial strife: anyone my age or older will remember the power cuts which came without warning, sending your dad off, cursing, in search of the candles; imagine that happening now, when domestic electricity consumption must be so much higher. Then, it was easy to remember everything that had been switched on when the power cut out, and go round turning it all off; now, it would take a lot longer in most households.

Many commentators now remarked that it was peculiar that none of this seemed strange at the time, and we accepted what was really a serious breakdown in national order. Then, people remembered the war, and were prepared to accept this chaos as just another burden. In fact, from the point of view of 2005, it has been suggested that the breakdown in electricity supplies, the constant labour disputes, the three-day week and petrol rationing ought to have alerted the public that something serious had failed, and that a completely new approach was needed.

The detail which has been held up for our astonished attention was the advice of the Energy Secretary of the day that we all ought to clean our teeth in the dark. I doubt anyone ever followed this advice, even his own family; the risk of rinsing and spitting and missing the basin would have been dangerously high. Anything so self-evidently inconvenient and absurd as this advice, it is evident in retrospect, should have alerted everyone to the fact that the country was not being run properly. Thank goodness things have changed.

At least, so one might suppose. But in reality, nothing much has changed. Still, corporations and governments are apt to try to divert attention from their gross incompetence by asking us to inconvenience our own lives. We don't have the right to be extravagantly wasteful, naturally; on the other hand, we have the right to use resources in a reasonable way.

Take the water industry. After a lengthy period of low rainfall, the levels of water are dangerously inadequate for our needs. The result is that we are facing a crisis, and some advice has been issued by water companies and others about how to save water. Some of it is sensible: did you know how wasteful garden sprinklers are, don't use the washing machine for single items, and so on.

But some of the advice being offered goes well beyond responsible water management, and into the realm of covering corporate irresponsibility. For instance, all the water companies recommend that customers don't brush their teeth under a running tap. (Funny how it always comes down to brushing teeth). Has anyone actually tried brushing their teeth any other way? It's completely impossible, whatever anyone says, to clean your teeth with a mug of water.

Don't do anything, in fact, under a running tap. But frankly, I don't see how you can do the washing up without at least rinsing everything under a running tap; nor is it all that easy to clean vegetables in any other way. And when Ken Livingstone advised Londoners not to flush the lavatory if they'd just had a pee, a certain Spirit of 1973 started to arise.

I'm sorry, but not flushing after you've had a pee is just disgusting; I'm certainly not going to leave the loo like that in hot weather to greet the next user, and if I came across an unemptied loo in someone else's house, my first thought would not be "What an environmentally sound and admirable fellow". Anyway, like most people, however irrationally, I would probably flush it before using it, thereby undoing all the good work.

Frankly, I think being allowed to flush the lavatory after you've used it is a level of use which the water companies should be able to supply, and nobody should seriously be proposing that as unreasonable. We might have more patience with the water companies if they were less extravagantly wasteful themselves.

Reported leakage by water companies now stands at 3,609 megalitres a day. That figure has fallen, according to Ofwat, by 41 megalitres a day in the past year - a mere bucket load out of the gigantic Niagara of water pouring out of the neglected pipes, you might think.

But that 41 megalitres saved is enough to meet the daily needs of 100,000 households. Thames Water, in this past year, has reduced leakage only for the first time in four years, and missed its very modest target by 10 megalitres a day - it succeeded in reducing leakage by 30 megalitres a day. United Utilities, in the North West, actually reported increased leakage.

Now, I don't underestimate the difficulties and problems facing a company which, like Thames Water, has inherited a Victorian system and decades of public under-management. But the levels of leakage are grotesque, and we should be in no doubt that it is not entirely our individual irresponsibility which has led to the shortage of water.

Just as in 1973, we should be alerted by ridiculous and unreasonable demands for change in our personal behaviour to problems with the supplier. We weren't going to clean our teeth in the dark in 1973 even if we could have been persuaded it was our patriotic duty. Now that we're talking about private, money-making companies, no one on earth is going to feel any kind of obligation to leave their urine to fester, just because they can't fix the holes in their pipes.

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