"Sort it," the man said to my boyfriend, jabbing his finger at me. I was not sorted

From Soho to Bow and beyond, there are angry men in bars and pubs bemoaning the death of the woman who "knows how to take a joke". This fantasy female can be fondled for the price of a drink, never takes offence and still leaves a bloke with change from a fiver.

Not fitting into this mould has led me into unpleasant "scenes" across class divides. The first time I was threatened for being "feisty" was in E11. "John" (who later served time for threatening a barmaid with a gun) had downed a concoction of tablets and lager, and suddenly decided that I was to blame for women's lib and its assault on his way of life. The very sight of Becky (an American PA of substantial girth and wealth) and me ("Miss La-di-da Gunner Graham") wound him up. He ranted on about how women who drank double measures were greedy and cheap. By the time he had slurred to a stop, I was standing, vodka in hand, about to hurl the contents into his face. Our partners arrived, eyeing the scene cautiously: large maniac with scars confronts two feisty women = nasty.

John turned to my boyfriend and, jabbing a fore- finger in my direction, snarled meaningfully: "Sort it!" Now, "Sort it" is east London shorthand for giving the missus a backhand when she is perceived as being disrespectful - a phrase to be used only in the most serious of situations, a call to arms, a rallying cry of machismo. I was not "sorted", but we left pretty sharpish.

In Australia, the response from drunken males was similar. After spending weeks living in the outback, I had become a sort of Crocodile Dundee meets Tarzan's Jane. I even wore a knife strapped to my thigh (handy for preparing food, fire and so on). At a bar on the outskirts of Darwin, half a dozen rowdy Aussie rock fans, insistent on "getting pommies bladdered", bought me a beer. As I put a cigarette to my lips, one of them turned to my partner and said: "I wouldn't let my woman smoke. Why don'tcha stop 'er?" The brute leant towards me and growled: "Don't light that near me or I'll slap it out for you." Without pausing, I lit my cigarette; his hand swept out, brushing my mouth and sending the fag flying. Standing to my full six feet, I picked up the cigarette, lit it and pointed to the knife. "Touch me again, mate, and it'll be the last thing you do," I growled, feeling like Dirty Harry. The bar erupted with cheers.

But machismo could happen near you. Last week at the Groucho Club, I made the mistake of accepting a bottle of champagne for our all-blonde table. The IT "lad" Mark and his mates were celebrating four- figure Christmas bonuses. I thanked him for his generosity and went to sit with my female friends, but the dread words "We'll come and join you" drifted over. Mark had made the assumption that, by accepting a free drink, I had entered into an unspoken contract that bound us all together until "breakfast do us part".

His charm offensive began with "I think you're far sexier than your friends". His pal pointed out my friend Sam and roared: "I like this!" They pulled chairs across the room and tried to sit on our laps "for a laugh". As Sam, a City girl herself, got up to leave, Mark placed his hand firmly on her backside and grinned around the table. With ultimate calm, she turned to him and said: "Are you rubbing a mark off the back of my skirt? If so - brush it off. Or fuck off."

The City slickers had the last laugh, though. I received a bill from the Groucho for £58.67 and I couldn't figure out why. But it seems I had been buying them drinks for most of the evening. Ha bloody ha.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Mandelson