Most Daily Telegraph readers are of course far too young to remember the summer of 1976, but for some of us it was a critical moment in our adolescence.
It was so hot that a certain au pair girl decided that her bikini was a stifling encumbrance, and one lunchtime she turned up with nothing on at all, a dress code that was instantly copied with stunned approval by everyone else.
Soon our valley in Somerset was fabled as a kind of nymph-strewn Arcadia. People started to cadge invitations to see our au pair, and across the nation we British were briefly seized by the same deeply embarrassing tropical madness. There were streakers at Piccadilly and streakers at Lord’s, and no wonder.
Every day of that July and August the sun beat down on our supposedly temperate land with all the boiling implacability he normally directs at the equatorial savannah.
The village green became a dustbowl. The lambs bleated for moisture, their tongues rattling in their parched pink mouths. Sales of Right Guard and Tizer made scarcely credible strides. Cars went unwashed; swimming pools were drained to fill the fire engines.
Weird algae bloomed in the seas, and strange warm-water beasts, such as Portuguese men-of-war and man-eating sharks, were said to be circling our shores.
And, naturally enough, there was a hosepipe ban. I think back to that summer because I have just been out to buy a sandwich in the middle of a very different July. Steam is rising from my shoulders, not just because I am irritated, but because I am wet.
The soles of my shoes are so drenched that even now, as I sit here wriggling my toes, I can feel the moisture soaking through to the socks.
And still falls the rain, slanting out of the grey summer sky, just as it did yesterday, just as it will surely do tomorrow and next week, soaking our fetes, cancelling the cricket, and generally fulfilling its historic function of forming the British character.
I look out of the window and through the purling drops I can see gutters running with water; I can see the clouds almost black with rain to come. We have water, water everywhere.
We literally have water coming out of our ears, if we have been to buy a sandwich; and that is why it is so amazing that we are once again facing a hosepipe ban.
I mean, I ask you: could you reasonably hope that your au pair girl would strip down to her bikini in this weather, let alone go starkers? So what is going on?
It is true that we have had a dry winter, and that the reservoirs are low. But it somehow beggars belief, when cataracts of the stuff are falling out of the sky, that Ken Livingstone should be so panicked by London’s water shortage that he has broken off from welcoming hate-spouting imams to warn us all to take showers rather than baths and not to flush the bog without a very good reason.
We all knew that Labour believe in sticking their noses into the minutiae of everyday existence, but this is demented; can Ken possibly be right? It seems that he is, and to quote from a brilliant piece by Rod Liddle in this week’s Spectator, the cause is not so much a shortage of water per se as an increase in consumption.
I have no space here to do justice to the sweep of Liddle’s argument, but the gist of it is that we are using ever more water for “leisure” purposes of one kind or another, and in the South-East we are about to place colossal and unprecedented new demands on our aquifers by building the 800,000 Prescottian homes.
Our water bills are already soaring, and by the time Prescott has finished it will probably be cheaper to have a shower in vodka.
Huge investments will be needed in desalination plants and new reservoirs, and the ratepayer will be funding them. What can we do?
We British have long been objects of global hilarity for living in a perpetual scotch mist, and yet we have a government that is not only incapable of running a bath, but which won’t even let its poor people run a bath themselves.
There are two immediate steps we must take in this impending water crisis, and the first, of course, is to continue to oppose the mad Prescott plan to concrete over the South-East.
There is no reason why houses should be carpet-bombed over some of the loveliest places in England, purely to satisfy some hare-brained Treasury calculations about likely demand. Let us oppose the quangocrats, and insist that the decisions be taken locally, and in accordance with local wishes.
We all know why we are said to need more houses: immigration, divorce, etc. But do we really want ever more houses, with ever fewer people in them? And should those people be spending all that time in the Jacuzzi? Let us use this hosepipe ban to remember that summer of 1976, and how we coped.
The taps were dry, yes. But there was still one vast and living source of fresh water. In the words of Bruce Springsteen, we went down to the river, and into the river we dived, along with the au pair girl, who was by now as brown as a berry.
Ever since, I have loved swimming in rivers, and only the other day, after a long afternoon in Henley, I found myself in a beautiful riparian meadow. Since it was almost deserted I took off my clothes and swam for ages, tasting the sweet water of the Thames on my lips and watching the bugs skitter over the surface. I cannot believe how few children do the same.
The Government may have made a horlicks of our water supplies, and it may well be that they will shortly ban our baths. In which case, let’s tell Prescott to jump in a lake, and go and jump in a river.