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Gavin Haynes Sleepless Nights

How Water Betrayed Britain

We thought we could trust it but it stabbed us in the back.

Collage by Marta Parszeniew

Water. For years, this transparent, odourless, seemingly-innocuous liquid has been oozing from our taps. Day in, day out, it has lived alongside us. Broadly, we’ve welcomed it. We’ve put it on our plants. We’ve used it to percolate coffee. We’ve said, "Thank you very much," as it spirits away our bodily waste products. We’ve even let our children play with it.

Yet this month, we have learned that water has a darker side. It is not what we took it to be.


Far from a blessing, we have begun to understand that water is in fact the greatest menace to our island civilisation since William The Conqueror. It has invaded our homes. It has come up our driveways, failed to stop at the walls of sandbags that the men from The Duke Of Lancaster’s Regiment set up, surged past the "Welcome" matt, and then, well it just sat there, taunting us, lapping gently at that Habitat sofa that you thought was such a bargain before you saw a duplicate in IKEA for half the price. And that ratty little commuter box you bought in Henley-on-Thames, well it’s just ruined now, isn’t it? Yup, the overpriced house you didn’t want to go back to as you cowered at your desk in Holborn, well, you can’t go back to it now because all the plug sockets are full of this "water" shit, and apparently that means you’re going to have to wait for the electricity to dry out or some or other bullshit that’s basically going to put you into negative equity for the next five hundred years.

And you know why? Water. That’s why. Stupid, dickhead water that relieved your thirst that one time, sure, when they were all out of Innocent smoothies. But is it really worth taking £100k off the book value of your property just to have functioning kidneys? No. Of course it’s not. Ever since Archimedes invented a screw for drawing it up from wells, water has plagued mankind. In the Netherlands, they regularly build "dykes" – Apartheid-like walls designed specifically to keep water out. In Venice, they’ve been continuously fucked in the balls by water for over 500 years. Sad to say, it has taken us Brits the usual Extremely Long Time to catch up to what our more progressively-minded European neighbours have known for ages: that water is a very bad egg.


Thankfully, after all their um-ing and aw-ing, British politicians are finally talking about water in terms normally reserved for Roma travellers. They realise that it’s them or the water. Which is why David Cameron came out on telly in Downing Street’s rarely-used wood-panelled Big Boy Shit briefing room, and told everyone that he would spend all the money in the budget, every last penny if he needed to, on getting this water back to where it belongs. “Money,” he declared, “Is no object.”

In that moment, a palpable exhalation of relief swept through the government. Finally, the PM was seen to be taking decisive action on water. Finally, he wasn’t just looking at it balefully in his Hunter wellies. Finally, he was going to fight back against it. The folks at the news networks sheathed their daggers. The press storm that seemed about to kick up a gear was suddenly stilled. God only knows the tetchy backroom PR surgeries the PM has had to go through as the drip-drip-drip of the floods story ratcheted up the pressure.

“The public don’t see you as in-control of the British weather. You do need to look more firm when you’re scowling at the rain. Could you show a little more solidarity, perhaps by running yourself under the cold tap before you do a broadcast?”

As the news week wore on, we saw an increase in the natural tension between the twin narratives that always need to be spun at times like these – of Great British pluck and Great British moaning. On the one hand, reporters needed more people to complain if they were going to turn disaster porn into something about politics. But on the other, you need your cheery images of salt of the earth types putting on a brave face through hardships. It is up to the media heads to direct the ebb and flow of these two: politicians = hapless and out of touch. Ordinary folk = cheery deliverers of thermoses of tea to elderly neighbours.


Easy enough, but when people get their wires crossed about which narrative they are meant to be part of, that’s when trouble starts. Take the record-breakingly middle-class guy on Sky News the other day, being asked whether he felt he was being let down by the government. Clearly, he hadn’t read the hymn sheet. “Well, not really,” he considered. “I mean, this is a flood plain. It normally comes up pretty high every year and you work around it, you get on with it.” Yes, the questioning went on.. but.. the government’s response… “Well I mean, there’s not much you can do about natural disasters except know the risks.” The questioner stumbled, then lost interest. And with that, it was back to the studio.

On Tuesday, as Philip Hammond was being handbagged by a rescuer sent direct from the "Do You Know What It’s Like To Clean Up Your Own Mother’s Piss?" school of public appearance ambush, it became clear that the establishment was going to have to move to code red on this one. Even Ed Miliband – who doesn’t actually have any power, and so couldn’t really do much about the floods except promise not to piss in the Thames – found himself in an impromptu tete-a-tete with that terrifying political beast, Local Woman.

Ed couldn’t very well tell her the truth – that, as with so much else, the real role of government in cases like this is basically to stand around with its dick hanging out of its trousers, for the very simple reason that acts of God are God-sized, whereas Her Majesty’s Government only ever controls a few billion pounds, most of which it has foolishly earmarked for inessential things like schools, Wales and motorways.


In China, the symbol for crisis is also the one for opportunity. In Britain, the symbol for crisis is a politician in waders. It is the noblesse doing their oblige. People at the top coming down to view the scene of the crime. This has always been slightly odd. After all, when the Ipswich Ripper was becoming the fastest serial killer in British history, you didn’t see Tony Blair donning his medical scrubs and wading out into Suffolk autopsy rooms in a pair of big white blood-proof wellies, did you? Yet one of the best photo opps Mrs Thatcher ever did was when she was allowed to go out and stand like a hood ornament on top of a Challenger tank. Here, everyone realised, as though six years of eviscerating trade unionists hadn’t made it plain, was a woman of action.

Whoever the PM is, they shouldn’t invest so much in flood defences. They not only cost squillions, no one even notices them in those years when there aren’t any floods. (Have any of us thanked the Macmillan government lately for the 200,000 homes their defences saved from the present crisis? Or indeed Thatcher, for the millions of quids the Thames Barrier has earned back?) No. In future, whenever something unpredictable and bad happens, rather than "convening COBRA", which sounds exciting but has no visual presence, all Prime Ministers should have on-hand a 60-foot-long khaki and crimson amphibious banana boat that they can roll up at the danger zone in, preferably pulling up on a beachhead out of the actual sea. Naturally, it must shoot fire from the end of a steel snout that has been painted in jags of white to look like it contains actual teeth.

Any time something that was going to lead to a rising clamour for political action happened, the leader of the day could jump into his vehicle, and ride to the affected area, and maybe set fire to a few things with the fire-chucker, just so the snappers could get something to put on the insider-leader page the next day. “Quick,” he’d say, to the head of the civil service, as they raced through the bunkers beneath Whitehall. "To the Career-Saver."

Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes

Previously – NekNominate Is Not Darwin's Fault