The Asian shopkeeper held up a shirt with rust marks. "Bloody Indians, see?"

A walk down Kilburn High Road this week reminded me of the real world out there, where not everyone pretends to watch Question Time as opposed to The Weakest Link, and where people spend more on their heating bills than on wine.

On Walm Lane, groups of eastern European men cluster, smoking cigarettes and waiting for vans to arrive. These vans take them to pitifully low-paid manual jobs, where their status as illegal immigrants is exploited for a maximum of £25 a day. Last week, their story became a TV news item, and an attractive female journalist interviewed them about their plight. She wasn't called "pussy" once, which was nice. Things were different when I pushed the baby buggy past them. Several men ambled towards me and hissed "fuck" and "sex" into my ears. The first words that flashed into my head were "Why don't you piss off back . . ." We all know how that sentence ends.

Kilburn is the centrepiece of the "everything for a pound" empire and, further on in my journey, I passed not one but two of these stores. In between them, a South American street vendor noticed me eyeing one of the radios shaped like a mini hi-fi on his stall. As I stood daydreaming of Radio 4 playing in my kitchen, he said "four quid", and I searched for some change.

The woman next to me pointed at the radio; instead of saying "four quid", he leant towards her and whispered the price in a different language. I immediately became paranoid that he was using a foreign language to offer her the bargain of a lifetime. A similar thing happens in Chinese restaurants. I always try to order from the menu written in Cantonese, imagining that it offers more food at half the price. But so far, whenever I have pointed insistently to god-knows-what on the non-English menu, the waiters have just shaken their heads and smiled.

Anyway, I blustered to the stallholder: "Did you just say a cheaper price in another language?" He looked surprised and explained that the woman always tries to haggle with him. The problem is that she doesn't speak English and he doesn't speak her language, so he has been listening carefully and now (shyly) mimics her words until she accepts his (original) price.

Walking home, I noticed a dusty window full of baby clothes in plastic bags and shirts that were unfashionable even in the Seventies. Determined to challenge at least one of my prejudices (that reasonable prices mean shoddy workmanship), I cautiously went inside the little shop. Picking up a couple of baby outfits, I tried to haggle with the old Asian shopkeeper. He was having none of it. "Look at the label," he insisted. "It's British, not made in India, love - good English quality." He was condescending to me, presuming a goodness-gracious-me prejudice on my part.

"Why does that matter? Aren't the clothes from Asia the same quality as those made here?" I countered.

He looked pleased and began grabbing items to show me. He held up a shirt with rust marks: "Bloody Indians, see? Cheap pins - cost me a packet." Another shirt was fingered: "This from Pakistan. A woman bought it and the colours on the label ran. The bloody LABEL! I had to replace the entire wash."

After another five minutes of his ranting, I was laughing, and so was he. As I paid for my fairly expensive, but British, clothes, he sighed: "It's like the bloody Hindujas. They have shaken their world, they have. If they can corrupt even the best, most honest politicians in the world, what bloody hope is there?"

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Please, sir, we girls want some more