Now what? - Lauren Booth hates being told she's all rright

"You're all right, Lauren": all my life I sought that accolade. Now I know better

It took a long time. But in my third year at school I had finally shed enough brain cells and vowels to receive the ultimate accolade from one of the top-ranking bullies in our year. My crimes against Mandy and her gang included: a) being weird (I read the Bible and Shakespeare at lunchtime, instead of running down the end of the field to look at the flasher's penis; and b) being a snob (she had yelled down the corridor at me some months before: "You think you're so much better than everyone Boothy", to which I had rashly replied: "Not exactly. You think I'm better than you and you're absolutely right").

Now, though, on a hot summer's afternoon I was "in". I had worked hard all spring at dropping my aitches and other fairly random consonants and never read anything except teen mags in public. This special afternoon, Mandy sat next to me, copying my history notes and said the magic words: "You're all right you are, Boothy." My heart soared.

It meant I was no longer a loner, weird, an outsider, a swotty/snob/freak. Those five words meant that I was almost as good as she was, which meant nearly mediocre enough to be "ordinary".

It's a phrase I still hear. It haunts me, and up until this weekend I'm ashamed to admit that I still received it with a humble, excited gratitude. Not any more.

It's a certain sort of person, normally male, with a regional accent, who still insists on gasping "you're all right" and damning me with their faintest of praise when we meet.

At a friend's birthday dinner on Saturday, "Billie" spent the entire meal staring at me from the other end of the table. Later, he strutted over, all skinhead crop and attitude, before plonking himself down on the sofa next to me. He had been in the army ten years and now "worked in films". He was, he warned, "pretty outspoken so don't let me shock you and don't get offended". I groaned inwardly, realising that everyone who has ever said this to me has been, without fail, the dumbest, most predictable, boorish ignoramus I've ever met.

The lads' talk turned to the World Cup. I was sandwiched between them, ignored and leant across for ten minutes. Finally, I put my hand up and with Alan Hansen precision proceeded to fill in the blanks in their knowledge on Fifa refereeing decisions and disallowed goals due to the offside rule. There was a stunned silence, and then Billie burst out: "What a woman eh? Eh? Looks like butter wouldn't melt and talks all posh, but then comes out with all this stuff about football. Cor, fantastic, amazing. I fink I'm in love." And inevitably: "You're all right you are, Lauren."

My friend opposite, a news broadcaster, winked my way and smiled, as if to say: "Well done, you've been accepted by someone different from us."

I had the overwhelming urge to knock their patronising, sexist, shallow heads together. Instead, I fell silent and watched my pal opposite turn into a mockney, as this rough non-diamond ranted about "women and some blacks thinking they're better than us 'cos they get more attention from the media. It's not fair . . . " or some such bollocks. The age of deference to the working-class thug must surely be drawing to an end. Ignoring class and rejoicing in a meritocracy are one thing, but deferring out of politeness to stupidity and ignorance simply because you're middle-class is a one-way ticket to self-loathing.

The next time an opinionated oaf tries to drag me down to his level by telling me I'm "all right considering", I'll return the compliment and say: "And so are you, considering you have the intellectual agility of Paul Gascoigne and all the sparkling wit of Bernard Manning."

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2002 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the affair?