A while ago, wandering around the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, I came across a little vignette of modern British mores that, a month later, I'm still trying to process. A mardy little teenager was delivering an extended harangue in which she itemised her poor mother's failings from the point at which she'd first considered conception. As her mother stood silently, a tide of spittled invective breaking over her, the daughter used her final weapon; "And if you don't get me a bottle of water, right now, I ... am ... going ... to ... FAINT!"
There was a hush throughout the gallery. Filial impiety is all very routine in our public spaces, but the improper hydration of a child in your care? Surely a case for the authorities. What I may have been the only witness nerdy enough to notice was the background to this little domestic drama. The scene was being played out in front of a replica of the James Caird, the lifeboat in which Ernest Shackleton and five companions made the awful 15 day trip from Elephant Island to South Georgia in 1916.
As I sat in the cafe later, necking a hard-won jug of free tapwater, I realised how odd our relationship with water has become. Sure we've persuaded restaurants to stop charging us for it but no fewer people seem to be wandering around like overgrown babies, clutching plastic sucky-bottles. We've deprived restaurants of a small profit line during a financial crisis, we've added another burden to the waiter's life and have made precisely no impact on the bloated profits of the multinationals selling us our own water in plastic bottles.
I'd love to blame advertising. It would be great to say that the multinationals themselves, the Nestles, the Coca-Colas, the PepsiCos and the Danones had created this idiotic behaviour but, truth is, I've never seen an ad specifically advocating carrying the stuff around. Have we, of our own volition, come up with the idea that if we stand for more than eight minutes without consuming some form of beverage, we'll shrivel to something in a Ray Harryhausen movie?
Remember when the first thing you'd do on arriving home after a day out was put the kettle on? 'Oooh. Me feet are killing me. Let's have a nice cuppa'. Today, after a couple of hours in the high street, downing soda after energy water after smoothie after triple-mocha-whippochino and entirely unable to locate a public lavatory, you're most likely to walk through the front door, rush to the bathroom and piss like a racehorse.
Anyone with the brains to read (outside the ad agencies that come up with this sort of rubbish) must by now be aware that the argument that water 'detoxes' is entirely spurious, that the 'two litres a day' myth is just that and that buying water shipped from places like Fiji - even if it can be 'greened' through some 'offsetting' sophistry - is as immoral as it is absurd. Yet somehow, we've programmed ourselves deeply. Stand, sometime, in the queue at the airport; the last few feet before the metal detector, where the travelling classes are having their bottles torn from their hands by stone-faced airport stormtroopers. Witness the genuine pain on their faces.
It makes me want to throttle them all individually. It's bottled bloody water. You can survive without it until you get on the plane. You saw the security signs, you know that poor sod is only trying to stop someone blowing your holiday to smithereens over Staines, yet you act like you're being brutally deprived of a human right. You tut about waste as it's thrown into the blue bin as if it wasn't your own, vacuous credulity that made you give £1.50 to a multinational for it half an hour ago.
A decade ago the only people who carried a water supply hooked to their belt were either planning a sweaty week under canvas or heading out to be shot at. Now every desk jockey on expenses, every Boden-clad holidaymaker wants to get onto a two hour flight with enough water to support a Forward Operating Base in Helmand for a fortnight.
We have got to get over this.
More prominent food writers than I led the charge for the provision of tap water in restaurants and they appear, on the whole, to have succeeded. The campaign immediately grabbed the attention of restaurant goers across the country (though let's be entirely honest here. It was because the British are tight, not because we're green. I still find that the person who squeals the loudest about tapwater at the table is the one most likely to whip out a calculator to split the bill and then stiff the waitress on the tip).