11 NOVEMBER 2000, Page 48

City wine bars

Sawdust and olde bagges

Lloyd Evans

IT'S a tough one. I'm lying in my garret in Hackney pondering a knotty question. For ten years I've worked and thrived in the East End's concrete jungle, but how should I mark this important personal anniversary? A cocktail party for my friends, perhaps? Too ostentatious, I think. A street-party for local kiddies? A mite patronising. Surprise cash-gifts distributed to local pensioners? Possibly — but I can't help feeling that windfalls are wasted on the old. Then the phone trills and a voice supplies me with the perfect solution. Could I be persuaded, it asks, to tour the Square Mile and sample the vintages of its many wine bars? Mmm. That's more like it. Destiny to the rescue. Lucky me.

The next day finds me speeding down Dalston Lane aboard my single-seater, open-top bicycle, gratefully supping rare draughts of sweet-smelling, milky-blue exhaust fumes. God, how I love the inner city. The wind in my hair. The smog in my lungs. I relish the bracing harshness of the life it offers. And here I am, on my way to the City itself. The very name is a defiant rallying cry to all who delight in the high- rise and the man-made, the tarmacked- over and the chock-a-block. None of this fake rural pussyfooting with Chelsea Vil- lage and Hampstead Garden Suburb. The City is the City. Take it or leave it.

My first port of call is a basement ale- house off Lombard Street. I make my way past a couple of solid chaps standing in an inch of genuine mediaeval sawdust, drink- ing and chatting in hushed tones. A grey- haired barmaid fidgets irritably as I glance around before placing my order. The decor is olde-worlde. The barmaid, I decide, is an olde bagge.

I pay for a glass of Château Thibault and she hands me a leaflet announcing an introductory tasting for would-be connois- seurs. I'm rather offended by this. Is Château Thibault such a poor choice that anyone buying it is immediately offered professional help? I sit alone on an upturned cider keg nursing my resentment. Cheek of the woman. Not that I'm an expert or anything. My knowledge of wine is like my knowledge of chess. I know the moves but I don't care about the game. But now I'm roused. My blood is up and I'm determined to spend the afternoon becom- ing a fully qualified plonkologist. I slurp back my Château Whatsisface, tread a cau- tious path through the Grade II-listed saw- dust (how did it survive the Great Fire?) and head for Corney & Barrow, the City's pre-eminent purveyor of rare vintages. Jewry Street. Another low basement. Another roof of vaulted brick. But this isn't The Antiques Road Show. No, we're aboard the Starship Enterprise. Hushed lighting. Chrome fittings. I sidle barwards and scan the laminated menu. Now this is the kind of joint for an ignoramus like me. Here they explain exactly what to think about each wine. What to smell. What to taste. How to understand its motivation. How to grasp the inner grape. Every bottle comes with an elaborate psychological breakdown.

I choose between 'intensely complex with layers of smoky vanilla oak' and 'generous and extrovert with approachable honey- fruit characters'. In the end I opt for 'toast- ed and flinty with grilled lemons, coconuts and exotic fruit on the length'. It sounds like a crackpot cure for the Black Death but it looks all right in the glass. Well, it looks like Ribena, actually. And tastes . . . well, a lot like Château Thibault. I'm learning slowly.

I take a seat and watch as the place swells with a jittery lunchtime crowd. Mostly men. Tense, eager faces. A smattering of power- skirted power-chicks, power-sipping, power- flirting. No nannies, babies, toys or pets here. The only animals are brought in on a steaming platter. This is life completely unshackled from the normal processes of nature. Just the way I like it.

In Leadenhall Market, I descend into another Hobbity basement. I hand over £4.95 for a 'fruit-filled bonanza of Aus- tralian sunshine' and realise I'm getting a blistering headache. Outside, I pop into Boots for some aspirin. 'Uncomplicated flavour, hints of magnesium, brisk chalky finish.' What a relief.

The brief day has waned. In a tangle of side-streets behind the Bank of England I notice a beautiful, lost-looking creature, a bit like a dog, licking the blood of a squashed pigeon. I study it closely. A white, feminine face, tender black eyes, slender haunches of soft ginger fur and a wonderful weighted sweep of a tail. It looks as if it's been blow-dried by Rod Stewart's hairdress- er. But what is it? As a committed townie, the only animals I've ever seen in the flesh are cats, birds, dogs, rats and a black-and- white cow at the Hackney City Farm. I search my zoological memory-drive. Could it be a bear? Wrong colour. A duck-billed platypus? Wrong face. A unicorn? No! They were invented by Walt Disney. Then I realise. It must be a fox. But why here? The hunting season perhaps? Of course. It's an asylum-seeker. A genuine refugee from political persecution.

Entirely forgetting my wine-quest, I'm overcome by a sudden urge to help this fret- ful alien. I must give it food and reassurance and possibly counselling. I consider popping back to Corney & Barrow for some spicy tacos. But do foxes eat Mexican? No, of


course they don't. Think, man. Think! What do foxes do? They worry sheep. Or, better still, lambs. That's it. They eat Lebanese. Twenty minutes later I'm back with a shish kebab purchased in Commercial Road (Extra salad, easy on the chili') but there's no sign of my back-combed protégé. For- lornly I deposit the parcel in a stairwell. I head home, my urban detachment in shreds.

At Fenchurch Street, a well-tailored girl accosts me drunkenly and outlines her predicament. Friends departed. Bag stolen. Could I possibly? Yes. Just possibly, I tell her, proffering 50 pence for the rescue tele- phone call. Two minutes later she's walking away with my address in her pocket and £11.40 for a train to Southend. That was last week. This is this week. From Southend, a deafening silence.

Ah, God. Unlucky me. I'm not cut out for this inner-city lark. My tolerance crum- bles after three glasses of wine. My heart is melted by a winsome dingo. I'm expertly mugged by a slapper from the sticks. It's time I moved somewhere tranquil and bucolic. I've always liked the sound of Saf- fron Walden. 'A lemony idyll with beeswax hints and a long, honey-toned finish.' Yes, and pubs too, I hope, lots of pubs. And not a wine bar in sight.