Class conscious - Andrew Martin finds barmen don't call him "sir"

Ticket collectors and assistants in posh shops call me "sir", but not pub barmen

There I was, standing in a butcher's shop behind the actor Jonathan Pryce, waiting to be served. "Thank you, sir," the butcher was saying. "Hope you enjoy it, sir . . . Nice to see you again, sir." He uttered about a dozen "sirs" during the transaction, and when it came to my turn, I was resigned to the word becoming completely absent. But it was not. "Leg of lamb, sir?" began the butcher. "Certainly, sir." And so he continued.

I told a friend about this, and he said: "That butcher calls everybody 'sir'. He'd probably call a tramp 'sir'." Important point, that: if somebody calls you "sir", it is not a good idea to hang around to verify the fact that he does indeed give everybody that designation.

It happens very haphazardly these days. You can expect to be called "sir" in traditionalist shops such as John Lewis or in posh, expensive shops; but it has little meaning in that context, and is a straight quid pro quo for the high prices being charged. You are, in effect, paying to be called "sir", and the assistants often say the word in a special dead tone that makes the fact very clear.

I am very often called "sir" by ticket collectors on trains, a strangely happy breed, possibly because of the mobile nature of their job - they walk as they work, putting distance between themselves and any awkward customers - but I don't think I've ever been called "sir" by a barman in a pub. There is a sordid pact between the drinker and the barman: the latter is indulging the weakness of the former, so the serving of drinks is carried on briskly, with eyes slightly averted on both sides. If anything, I sometimes think that the drinker should be calling the barman "sir". Also, women are much less likely to call me "sir" than men, feminism having joined egalitarianism as another reason to shun the word.

Every so often, you'll get a "sir" out of left field: about one in ten of the people who answer my directory inquiries will call me "sir". And I might mention to those living in Crouch End that one of the men in the charity shop a couple of doors along from Budgens is very free with his "sirs". Pay him a visit if you're in need of a tonic.

One of the many things that makes me fantasise about slaying the people who ring me up to sell me things is that they don't call me "sir". I particularly hate the Essex girl who leaves me automatic telephone messages that I cannot terminate by replacing the receiver, and who always begins: "Hi . . . I've been trying to reach you . . ." To the sin of blocking my phone line, this vexatious bird adds that of ingratiating informality with a stranger. On the other hand, there's an Asian salesman who rings me up, possibly from India, because he sounds very distant not only physically but culturally. "Is that Mr Martin?" he begins. Then: "Do you own a mobile phone, sir?" He is presumably trying to sell me something to do with mobile phones. I don't know exactly what, because I always put the phone down on him at an early stage, although I am more tolerant than I would be were he not in the habit of calling me "sir" with almost every sentence. That said, I pre-empted him almost immediately the last time he called by announcing: "I'm afraid that Mr Martin died this morning." As I replaced the receiver, I could hear the man saying: "I am very, very sorry to hear that, sir . . ."

I myself have hardly called anybody "sir" since schooldays, although I seem to remember being advised to greet Prince Edward with "Hello, sir" when I once interviewed him. And I heard myself calling a taxi driver "sir" last month during an argument over a fare. I was attempting to employ the word in the ferociously ironical "you-are-a-bounder-and-a-cad-sir" sense. Needless to say, it came out all wrong.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The other tsunami