It's cash that counts now, not which royal one of your ancestors shagged

I have just bought a painting. It's a quiet, calm piece, depicting a sunset (what else?). It cost £240. I realised I had become an art collector when I woke up on Friday afternoon with a) a hangover, b) a credit card bill, and c) a red plastic bag bearing the legend "Christie's". Much as I'd like to blame the current climate for this drunken extravagance, sadly the purchase owes more to an inferiority complex than to any subliminal fear that shopping time may be running out. This psychological flaw has cost me thousands of pounds over the years and is normally triggered by my making some kind of public "mistake".

The "mistake" in this case happened at the very swanky Mall Galleries, when I tried to get in without paying. I produced a ticket and handed it, in good faith, to the colonel sitting at reception.

"This is an invite," said the white-haired one, "not a ticket."

Flustered, I searched in my bag for a ticket. Then I caught a glimpse of Daniel, my hairdresser, in the distance. I waved to him, but he couldn't see me. "My friend, over there," I stammered, "he's the one who sent me the ticket. He's in the, er, the, er, thing." A blank, cold look. "He's in the . . . the show." I flapped my arms at the paintings around us.

The old man looked at me with an utter lack of comprehension. "If it's a show you want, my dear, then perhaps Shaftesbury Avenue is where you need to be. This, however, is an exhibition, an art ex-hi-bi-tion."

He was talking as if I had a learning disability. I felt the old resentment rising in me. Who did he think he was? Just because I didn't know the right words to use, that didn't mean I was an idiot. How dare he belittle me in front of posh people?

I almost started grinding my teeth in frustration, but then something worse happened. The chequebook in my pocket throbbed with nouveau riche power. I smiled slowly and dropped the £12 entrance fee casually on to the desk. With an excited dread, I pictured myself clutching the biggest piece of bloody art I could find and shoving it under his nose. "See, see," I'd laugh triumphantly, "I do belong here, you fool. Cash is what matters now, not which royal your great-grandmother shagged."

Daniel's work was being "exhibited" in the final room. His Seventies-style androgynous woman was crammed between a portrait of an elephant's bum and his tribute painting of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. The room was a haven for the dispossessed of the art world. The Swedish bar girls were giggling at Daniel's side when I eventually arrived. He was wearing black from head to toe and a manic expression that indicated he was in one of his "dangerous moods".

"You're ze only fun one 'ere," whispered the waitresses into Daniel's ear, which was peeking out beneath his flat cap. As the Swedish girls flirted, a trendy chap in sneakers and jeans gave cool looks to any gallery-goers foolish enough to go near. In another corner, a PR girl was getting sloshed and hiding from her clients, while "Hilda", an elderly lady with a booming laugh, held court from the only chair. Hilda's daughter had dragged her all the way from Leeds to attend the show. I showed her the painting I'd bought.

"Thank God fer that," she said, looking at the dark shore and twinkling moon with relief. "I thought it were gonna be one o' them stripey bits o' nonsense."

By now, word had got round that the end room was out of bounds for real art lovers. Our little subversive party carried on, uninterrupted by potential buyers. Poor Daniel didn't sell a thing.

"Fuck 'em" he said philosophically.

When Hilda stood to go, rearranging her decolletage in an excellent (and accidental) impersonation of Les Dawson, I asked if she'd had a good time.

"Weeeeeeelll," she said cheerfully, "I enjoyed 'avin' a look round, definitely. But then again, I enjoy lookin' round Marks and Spencer's just as much."

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A plan for the world