Class conscious

During the nineties, I attempted three times to take Tea At The Ritz, but was always checked by the man whose job it is to weed out the proles.

He ejected me once for not wearing a tie, once by telling me that "tea is fully booked, Sir", which I did not believe.

On the third occasion - mindful of my earlier failures - I was suddenly too nervous to state my intention of taking tea, so I blurted that I was looking for the loo, at which he pointed to the pub over the road.

Last week, though, I decided to do the thing properly. I wore my best suit and tie, and made a booking. As I walked towards the pinkly lambent Palm Court, where tea is taken, the pianist nodded at me, and went into "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square".

To a casual observer it must have looked as though I was a regular at the Ritz, and that this was my song. I was further put at my ease by the lack of toffs around me. Instead, there were plenty of Japanese, some Americans in seersucker jackets, and some perfectly ordinary English people. ("I was, like, totally nackered . . . " the young woman next to me was saying - rather depressingly - as I sat down.)

When the waiter arrived with my tea and cakes, he smiled warmly. As he walked away, I looked down at my shirtfront and saw that, by a happy chance, the label on my tie was facing outwards. "Total Silk", it said, which is a total lie incidentally, since it cost three quid off a market stall.

A curious feature of Tea At The Ritz is that one person eating alone gets about the same amount of stuff (a dozen crustless sandwiches, several scones, and six cream cakes) as two or even three people. I made do with just one cream cake and the waiter, apparently impressed by my restraint, said: "We had an American lady here once, sir - she ate nine." I even managed to field the bill - £27 - with no more than a slight tremor as I reached for my wallet, and I left feeling that I had risen well to the occasion. But the truth is that Tea At The Ritz requires no great sophistication or breeding, just a very resilient credit card.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The tyranny of the brands