My friend announces he's getting married. "What's she like?" I ask. "She'll be a very good first wife," he says

I am still getting over the shock of opening the Guardian and reading about myself trying to buy Ecstasy. It probably should not have come as such a surprise, given that I spent last year writing about it. But it is one thing to write a book, I discover, and quite another to see the same words staring out from a page of newsprint. Authors are often worried about extracts of their books being serialised in the press, and become neurotic about context. Now I understand why. Ecstasy shopping as a travel writer's device translates into a rather startling exercise when plonked in the papers, and I am a bit taken aback to see what it looks like in G2. If I'd miscalculated my own reaction, though, I certainly couldn't have predicted everyone else's. Young urban Guardian readers keep sending me menacing pamphlets about Alzheimer's. Middle-aged male journalists have been making discreet inquiries about where they might buy an E.


Journalists are paid to be censorious about what people get up to at the weekend, and on the whole they do the job very well. They did a first-rate job with Prince Harry, but occasionally they do break the rules. During an outbreak of heroin deaths in Glasgow some years ago, the city's police called a press conference. The deaths were caused by an unusually high-grade supply of the drug on sale, and officers had laid out a selection of samples on a desk at the front of the room. Hacks duly assembled, and inspected the wares with the correct expressions of disapproval. Arriving late, a mild-mannered court reporter, temporarily off his beat, took one look at the table and smiled to the senior constables. "Oh, thanks very much, boys. At the city chambers it's normally just tea and biscuits."


A job takes me to what police refer to as "the south Tottenham red light district". This is a misleadingly glamorous description of what is a tatty stretch of Stamford Hill, north London, barely lit at all at night, let alone by any red neon. I am supposed to be here to talk to prostitutes about a new legal loophole that enables the courts to send them to prison for five years instead of issuing a small fine. The prostitutes are at first confused; they assume I am here to ask about the "girl what got the Aids", who is the talk of the street. I am simply confused about how any of them make a living. Although disdainful of the "Aids girl", they cheerfully disclose their own afflictions - "I've got the TB", "I've got the hepatitis", "I've got a baaaaad drug habit". I am taken by their candour, but it is unnecessary; anyone can see that these women are seriously ill. They belong in hospital, or a Dickens novel. But every half an hour or so, another man pulls up in a car and pays £20 to have sex.


The exchange leaves me reeling at the mystery of male sexual behaviour. The man I am with is just as bewildered. "How can that possibly be better than a wank?" The mystery deepens when one of the women explains that customers will pay £80 or more to have her pee on them.

I can only marvel at the sexual frustration that brings customers here, but when I mention this to a friend, he says not at all. Every Wednesday he works as a doorman for a prostitute who operates from home near Stamford Hill. On a busy night, he tells me, the cramped waiting room can have half a dozen men in it. It's not unusual, he says, to find them all fast asleep, snoring while they wait their turn.


An old friend from Manchester comes to stay for the weekend, and announces that he is finally getting married. We are delighted by the news, and eager to hear all about her. What is she like? "Oh," he says, very seriously. "She's lovely. I think she'll make a really good first wife."


I am asked to go on The Moral Maze! This feels hilarious, and unimaginably terrifying, more or less in equal measure. To my amazement, when I get there I find that the panel do not wear wigs or robes. There is no dock. It's just an old radio studio, like any other. This is not how I had pictured it. Shortly before the programme begins, Michael Buerk gives a quick read-through of his introductory words, so we can hear his general line. Halfway through, he pauses, looks up, and says: "I'm really proud of that sentence." Michael Buerk! In my head, Michael Buerk is much too grand even to have such thoughts, let alone admit to them. After that, nothing is scary. It is only afterwards that I wonder if he says the same thing to his guests every week, to make them drop their guard.


Channel 5, on the other hand, lives up to expectations beautifully. A crew meet me in a hotel to conduct an interview. What I know about filming would fit on to a beer mat, but even so, I'm pretty sure the set-up they propose won't work. But I don't like to say anything, so on we go. An hour later, the cameraman calls, distraught. Can we do it all again? There was a problem with the light. "I'm really sorry," he stammers, "but I've only had two hours' training in how to use a camera."

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Time to bite back?