Lady C wore curlers to the Savoy. On the council estate, she'd have been sectioned

If the class war is over, as No 10 so keenly asserts (the bigger the middle class, the larger the landslide), then when was the last shot fired? Just a few years ago, I was living on a council estate in east London where class distinction was as vivid and as rigorously observed as in the famous Two Ronnies and John Cleese "I-know-my-place" sketch.

Carrying out basic day-to-day transactions was incredibly difficult for me. I tried to join the local gym. The elderly receptionist greeted me with a cold "Ye-ess?". She listened as I blustered, in my overly nice middle-class way, that I was new to the area, and I was just wondering, errr . . . about the amenities at the club and . . . I finally trailed off and there was silence.

My boyfriend eventually translated: "Listen, love, she just wants to know 'ow much to join yer club?"

They both laughed.

"I thought she was gonna tell me 'er life story then," the receptionist chuckled, wiping her eyes. I had failed to communicate a very simple request.

After six weeks on the estate my attempts at polite conversation were still met by glassy stares. My fate was sealed during the children's "play day". The kids were happily punching and swearing at each other on the bouncy castle under the watchful eye of X, the local drug dealer, who was dressed as Mr Blobby (I kid you not). The mums sat on car blankets drinking beer and smoking grass. After a while, the toughest young mum came to my back door, where I was hovering. She offered me a lukewarm Carlsberg Special Brew. "No thanks," I smiled. "I've got some wine inside." From then on I was officially a snob.

The aristocracy, too, stubbornly refuse to amalgamate themselves with the Mondeo-driving classes, to which I apparently belong.

When I was dating the son of Lord and Lady C, my picture of the upper classes was based entirely on episodes of Brideshead Revisited. But, as I discovered, the landed gentry wear Barbour jackets and wellies, not Savile Row suits. Apart from that, they were just as I'd imagined them. The house in Suffolk was a crumbling pile and I was uncomfortable from the moment I arrived. I went to wash before dinner, but the ancient taps in the bathroom refused to spray anything but icy yellow water into my frozen palms.

Getting to my dingy room in the west wing meant passing dozens of local breeds of animal, all mounted on the walls in various stages of agonising death. Over the housekeeper's roast dinner, the family confided that, although times were hard, they were "getting by". Talk was of the local poacher's antics and the proposed cleaning of great-grandfather's portrait. Due to the lack of hot water and decent heating, it was clear that personal hygiene was less of a priority in these circles. Frankly, nice as they were, the entire family smelt of ancient body odour, goose fat and dust.

It's Lady C that I remember best, though. She had a London home near Battersea Park where I stayed occasionally. At about 2am one night, her son and I heard the bins being knocked over. Then the back door rattled. I leapt up in alarm. My boyfriend looked shaky and pale, but I needed to find out what was going on. We both went downstairs, where I cautiously turned on the kitchen light and, there, in a bright-pink nightdress, wellingtons and rubber gloves was Lady C clutching a dozen dirty yogurt pots.

"Blast you, darling," she said. "I told you not to throw out the pink ones - they're Mummy's favourites." Then, with a cheery "Night night, dears", she trotted merrily back to bed.

"Mummy" was also known to attend lunches at the Savoy in her curlers. "She's eccentric," was the only explanation deemed necessary.

In the East End, too, there was an old dear who used to wander around in her nightclothes on the council estate. Although she never went as far as wearing curlers to the Savoy, the council had her sectioned.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich rule politics again