I previously posted my submitted text of this reviews but, thanks again to Maren Meinhardt, I am herein re-posting the actual published text.
Rupert Wright TAKE ME TO THE SOURCE In search of water 276pp. Harvill Secker. £12.99.
978 1 84655 071 3
Robert D. Morris THE BLUE DEATH Disease, disaster, and the water we drink 310pp. Oneworld Publications. £16.99 (US $14.95).
978 1 85168 575 2
Thales of Miletus (c636-c546 bc), perhaps the earliest identifiable philosopher and scientist, held that “everything is water”. That this was the first philosophical and first scientific statement is no accident; water is central to human existence.
In the West, however, the words of Jake Gittes in Chinatown are apt – “I turned on the faucet, it came out hot and cold, I didn’t think there was a thing to it”. Rupert Wright, who has previously written books about life in the Languedoc region, begins his discursive, digressive, suitably elusive book with the sudden cessation of the water supply in his French home. When he bought the place, that it came with its own water supply was another romantic touch. Only when it stopped did he realize that there was indeed “a thing to it”.
Wright has written an entertaining tour of the world of water. From the gigantic excavation of a third water supply tunnel for New York, happening almost invisibly beneath Midtown Manhattan, to a sommelier instructing bored Parisians in the appreciation of spring and mineral water, to the hungerstriking Bishop of Barra trying to stop the damming of the São Francisco river in Brazil, humanity’s relationship with water is by turns inspiring, absurd and tragic.
Water policy is steadfastly unglamorous. All over the world, Wright notices, oil ministers are Harvard-educated, Rolex-wearing, Armani-clad; water ministers wear cheap suits and use their mobile phones to tell the time. Wright is no reflex contrarian, but his scepticism about some of the received wisdom about water and water policy is bracing.
One bien-pensant assumption he seems wearied by is that the wars of the coming century will be fought over water – a notion he imagines Flaubert consigning to a contemporary Dictionnaire des idées reçues. Only one war, he writes, has ever definitively been fought over water – “more have been fought over salt”. Water has been a tool of war rather than a cause of war, and the need for water drives cooperation as much as competition (Europe’s oldest law court, the Tribunal de las Aguas de la Vega de Valencia in Spain, consists of eight magistrates who have convened every Thursday at midday since the tenth century to ensure the fair distribution of water from the river Turia).
Wright is more interested in how writers and artists have described and depicted water.Poetry flows throughout Take Me to the Source. He is particularly enraptured by the single flowing sentence that is Bloom’s reflection on water in Ulysses. That dry systematizer Stephen Dedalus dislikes bathing and suspects “aquacities of thought and language”; hydrophilic Bloom boils the kettle and embarks on an epic sentence of reverie and connection about water. Three other texts especially inspire Wright – John Cheever’s The Swimmer (1964), Roger Deakin’s Waterlog: A swimmer’s journey through Britain and Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur: The swimmer as hero (1993). Take Me to the Source displays something of the ruminative charm of Deakin and the digressive erudition of Sprawson.
There is no mention of Ulysses in Dr Robert D. Morris’s The Blue Death (Morris, incidentally, uses his professional title on the book’s cover). While Wright does not gloss over the lethality of water-borne infections and the mass misery and death that can be caused by consuming water, Morris, a public health physician and water researcher, focuses exclusively on water-borne threats. Water, as a substance itself, is not centre stage – indeed, is hardly mentioned. An aside that “safe water is not an end, but a process, an ongoing struggle in which improvement is always possible and often necessary. Purity, it turns out, is fleeting” is the closest Morris gets to the philosophical reflections of Wright.
Morris begins with the tale of the British physician John Snow and the Broad Street pump. Snow is to epidemiologists what Indiana Jones is to archaeologists, and Morris lays on the suspense a little thick: “Snow felt he was finally closing in on the proof that might muffle his critics. The ground itself would need to shake to divert his attention from the task at hand. He would soon discover that an epidemiological earthquake like no other had its epicenter on the north side of the Thames”. We move on to the battles over cholera of Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur (“like seasoned gunfighters, they would meet in the streets of Alexandria with test tubes blazing until only one man was standing”).
The tone shifts suddenly halfway through The Blue Death. Morris is no longer describing the heroic age of epidemiology and public health, but is centre stage. An analysis he performs linking long-term consumption of chlorinated water with cancer earns him the suspicion of the water treatment industry and, he suggests, the Environmental Protection Agency. Again we are reminded that water is “unsexy”. Outbreaks of cryptosporidium in Milwaukee in 1993, and E. coli in Canada in 2000 illustrate the weaknesses of water processing systems that have changed little in a hundred years. Morris is not neutral in these matters, and closes the book with an eight-point plan for ensuring safe water (step seven, by the way, involves the universal use of point-of-use filtration for drinking water).
Wright writes ruminatively, philosophically, sub specie aeternitatis, while Morris is the researcher in the arena of current controversy and impatient with the slow pace of change. Wright is amusedly tolerant of bottled water and its attendant absurdities; Morris is angered by a fad whereby more water is used to produce the bottle than goes inside. Both aim to reveal the truth about the ubiquitous and invisible substance that we are learning not to take quite so much for granted – water is everywhere, water is eternal, water is indestructible.
It is also scarce, fleeting and fragile..