"Think of your best orgasm," said Claudia. We did our best. "Now imagine that times 1,000"

Try as we might we simply couldn't get Claudia off cocaine. Apparently she'd seen some Channel 4 programme about its effects and been outraged by an American woman researcher who'd had the audacity to claim on the basis of interviewing a number of users that the pleasurable effect of the drug was roughly equivalent to a thousand sexual orgasms.

"I've had orgasms and I've had cocaine," she definitively announced to our table and the several dozen other Friday night drinkers in the upstairs bar of the Yorkshire Grey. "And I've also had good orgasms and good cocaine." We all nodded with what we hoped was sufficient enthusiasm to endorse her lifestyle and simultaneously push her towards a rather less confessional form of argument. "And in terms of actual pleasure the good orgasm nearly always won out over the good cocaine." I could see Geoff toying with his unopened packet of Jalapeno crisps, but Claudia had him firmly in her eye-line.

"So," she persisted, "let's say that this woman's interviewees had been using good cocaine and having poor orgasms. All right?" We indicated our readiness to buy into such a hypothesis. "Then it might be possible for them to believe that their cocaine experience had been two or three times better than an orgasm, but that's a long way from saying it was a thousand times better. How could you possibly have an experience that was a thousand times better than an orgasm? Think of your best orgasm." We did our best. "Now imagine that multiplied by a thousand. Not by ten or 20, but a thousand. You can't, can you? It makes no sense."

"I suppose," said Geoff, pushing his crisp packet aside as he opted for a less robust ploy, "that there's no real way to settle this. Your American woman does sound like some desperate attempt by Channel 4 to flesh out an otherwise threadbare programme. But then again, all pleasures are by definition incommensurable. If I tell you that my experience of watching a sunset with Marcia at Cley-Next-The-Sea two weeks ago was better than a thousand orgasms, you don't really have any alternative but to take my word for it. People have a special authority over their own emotions."

"No, they don't," said Claudia with the sort of firmness that must have delighted her psychology tutors at Sussex. "There's a consensual cultural element in all emotional expression. If I say that the experience of drinking this vodka and tonic is better than a thousand orgasms I'm on my way to becoming a social outcast. Pleasure may be relative but that doesn't mean it's arbitrary. If we took a vote around this table we'd all agree that even a modest sexual orgasm always had the edge in terms of pleasure over a vodka and tonic."

Geoff suddenly looked like a man who'd been handed a winning ticket. "You're seriously suggesting that we could now take a vote among the people round this table and find some emotional consensus on an aspect of the world that prompted determinate feelings of pleasure or displeasure?"

"Of course," said Claudia.

Geoff languidly approached his coup de grace. "Then hands up everyone around the table who believes that Claudia talking about cocaine is one of the most mind-numbing experiences they've ever encountered." Eight hands indicated agreement. "Good heavens, Claudia," said Geoff. "You're absolutely right. My profound apologies."

It was, we agreed afterwards, a neat move, even if one or two us felt that it might have been made just as forcefully without the triumphant accompaniment of an exploding bag of Jalapeno crisps.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to keep us puffing