Class conscious - Andrew Martin sees significance in a bottle of mineral water

Carrying a small bottle of mineral water shows that you won't beat anybody up

A frequent accompaniment of the mobile phone, in the hands of middle-class people, is a small bottle of mineral water. I have often noticed people carrying small bottles of mineral water in and out of courtrooms. And when Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones, that fascinatingly reckless descendant of cockney bargees, finally stopped drinking alcohol - a feat brought about by a combination of tremendous willpower and a doctor saying something along the lines of "you will die tomorrow if you don't" - he started performing on stage with small bottles of mineral water lined up on the amplifiers behind him.

The small bottle of mineral water symbolises innocence. It offers the assurance: "You're quite safe with me." It is also one of the means by which one person communicates to another the message: "I am middle class. I am not going to beat you up."

Imagine yourself sitting at a table on a train. It is late in the evening, the carriage is almost empty. Somebody boards, and moves along the aisle towards the table across from yours. The first thing you see of them is the small bottle of mineral water they place on that table. What do you do? You relax.

The small bottle of mineral water is universally approved of. The stuff it contains will not stain the carpet; it is non-addictive; it will not produce disturbing behaviour patterns in the carrier (unless one considers the carrying of small bottles of mineral water to be disturbing per se); and, like a Milky Way, you can consume it between meals. Accordingly, the small bottle of mineral water is welcome anywhere. Small bottle of mineral water? That will do nicely, sir. You are now allowed to take small bottles of mineral water into classrooms, examination rooms and even into libraries, where all food and drink is theoretically banned. They have certainly become fashionable accessories at the London Library, where people will read a chapter, and then slump back glugging their water, like boxers in between rounds. After all, it's well known that mineral water stimulates the brain.

Small bottles of mineral water, when empty, hardly count as litter. To cart a bin liner full of them to the municipal dump would be a positive pleasure, and anyone would readily sit down at a cafe table cluttered with them. Note that I do say "small". Unlike the small ones, large mineral-water bottles tend to be made of glass, and I'm sure that there must be an example somewhere in Crown Prosecution Service files of somebody being "glassed" with a broken bottle of Highland Spring - perhaps in some TV production brainstorming session that got out of hand.

No, stick to the small ones if you want to get on in modern middle-class society, because consuming a small bottle of mineral water is almost as innocent as doing absolutely nothing at all: an act as pure and transparent as the stuff in the bottles.

. . . Except that I see something calculated and aggressively sanctimonious in the practice. The person drinking from the small bottle of mineral water is inviting you to picture in its place, say, a small bottle of whisky. Just think what a social disaster I would be, the mineral-water drinker is urging you to consider, if this little bottle contained something of a higher proof. But it doesn't! So I am in control, and I'm going to get what I want, probably at your expense.

The drinking of mineral water from small bottles would only be truly innocent if anybody actually wanted or needed to do it, as opposed to thinking it looked right. It is absolutely not necessary constantly to drink mineral water from small plastic bottles, evinced by the fact that hardly anybody at all did it until about five years ago. And as for the question of whether it's enjoyable, who, fading fast on their deathbed, has ever croaked out a request for "one last small bottle of mineral water"?

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