"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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.