A Dry London?

I've got to admit that I'm baffled.

I split my week between working here in London, and raising cattle and sheep on my farm in the countryside. And this year, the spring has arrived late because we've had too much rain. The ground is soaking wet, far too wet for my cows and sheep to go out into the fields. So I've had to keep my animals in barns for a month longer than usual, fed on my rapidly depleting store of hay.

In London, on the other hand, the garden out there is going to end up like a desert in a week or so, because the utility companies are shrieking that they haven't got enough water and they've just imposed a hose pipe ban.

Yes, that's right, in England, the land of the umbrella, a hose pipe ban. But they've messed up the rules. You can't wash your car or water the garden, but you can fill your swimming pool or your hot tub.

This only serves to emphasize the increasing distance between the country and the office-bound, web-run city, where experience of life is based on what you saw on TV last night. Many blame the water companies.

Back in the old days, they were instruments of the state, run by civil servants for the benefit of the people. Yes, they were a bit over-staffed and over-bearing, but at least I could clean my car whenever I wanted to.

Then came Mrs. Thatcher, and they were privatized - sold off overnight, and transformed into monopolistic profit centers in the name of freedom. Prices ballooned ... as did the waistlines of the shareholders.

And what do we get for all this money? Hosepipe bans in the spring, because they won't mend their leaky distribution systems.

Our local blacksmith, Bill Sykes, out there in rural England, is more concerned about his animals' welfare than his own. His cattle are well fed and his barn positively gleams. His house is well, like something out of the Grapes of Wrath and he's got an outside lavatory that his grandfather built in 1937, the year of the Coronation. Put it this way, you'd think twice before accepting a cup of coffee from him because the cup was probably last washed for the first moon landing.

And he sniffed noisily when I told him about the hosepipe ban in London. As he reached for his coat and prepared to step out into the pouring rain, he turned and grinned. 'Well', he said, 'if it gets really bad, those London folk can always have a wash in the River Thames. As a matter of fact, I did it with a friend once, on VE-Day, back in 1945. I even remember her name.' But that, as they say, is another story for another time.

by Simon Bates