After a fabulous lecture by Prof Dany Nobus on Francis Bacon (the notoriously dissolute artistic genius) and the futility of Lacanian psychoanalysis (the notoriously dissolute clinical practice), we all tripped over superciliously to Charlotte Street for a drink and some post Freudian slagging. Wandering into what looked like a very nice “wine bar” called Vagabond we decided this was more conducive than the Fitzroy Tavern that only serves one type of not very nice wine and is surrounded by unbearable hospital-sage carpeting and walls. And yes, the phrase wine bar conjures up early noughties’ images of what “sophisticated laydeez” in white nylon blazers believed set them apart from the slags down the Dog and Duck, (they are back in fashion if anyone missed them; nylon blazers and slags in fact). In truth, a “wine bar” just became the euphemistic name of various sticky tabled pick up joints under railway bridges in grobbly parts of London that served olives rather than pork scratchings. And before anyone complains at the use of the word “slag” I use it with affection, as did my mother before me and would be happy, nay proud, to call myself one (you can’t though).
But this place really was a wine bar in the technical sense of the term. The walls were stacked with an impressive array of wines organized by country of provenance and giving the unsuspecting Fitzrovian clientele the impression of an embarrassment of riches to delight one’s palate. So, after being unfortunately ushered down into the basement of the bar (it was a nice day and we wanted to see the daylight) we are told we just needed to come upstairs again to the till to “simply” order our drinks. Oh, but there was nothing simple about this. In order to get your drinks, first you had to charge a “Vagabond card” with money (like an Oyster card, the barman explained to me; they even put on a £5 deposit just like a real Oyster card to give you that authentic London Transport “I want to kill everybody” experience) then you have to guess how much you are likely to spend on wine and round it up to the nearest tenner so as not to look cheap. After which you are free to go and, well, serve yourself. So, in essence, you pay them for the privilege of carrying the glasses, choosing the wine, pouring the wine, (on average about 8 quid per inch) and taking it to your table yourself. Oh, and there was also an “extra squirt” option if you only had a few quid left but couldn’t afford a whole serving…undersides of railway bridges do actually spring to mind.
In exasperation as the waiter explained to me that I couldn’t just “have three glasses of wine” (that’s so passé) as I had requested in jejune fashion, I ordered a gin and tonic thinking this would have to be less complicated. I discovered that their “Bar” consisted of a couple of bottles next to the till, a jug of ice and a cup of old lemon-rind. The waiter/host/barman/cashier/sommelier struggled to measure out two shots of gin and pour a small bottle of tonic into the crappiest looking tumblers you can imagine, whilst narrowly missing pouring the whole jug of ice over his laptop. Maybe he was nervous because I was telling him how shit the whole concept of his stinking bar was (in the nicest possible terms of course) but he is lucky it was me and not my auntie who was down stairs discussing her deceased friend Francis Bacon and wearing a bright green Colony Room t-shirt emblazoned with “Cunty”. “No nonsense” does not begin to describe a woman whose old leather bag is adorned with Hackney borough’s green recycling tape purloined from rubbish tips as bold accessory/political statement. She may have had a small nuclear melt down had she been asked to self-serve from the All-You-Can’t-Drink wine buffet.
Looking around the place the bar is clearly not short of customers, and everyone seemed to be very happy to part with their cash for the humiliating experience of vending warm Sancerre into their glasses like bubbly streams of piss. There were obviously a few dates going on and a lot of hair tossing underway, but I was perturbed over how the dynamics went for the vending card scenario when one is trying to impress a potential conquest. Standing there, like a dejected and unfashionable tourist at the Chinese buffet, trying to hold on to my dignity as I perused the cabinets and settled on an Austrian Veltliner, it occurred to me that this is the ultimate in late capitalism. Gone are the days where we would pay to be served, now we pay to serve ourselves and we are supposed to fucking like it. But what happens if you are on a date and accidentally press the wrong button and end up with a £14 finger of Meursault when all you could afford was a £7 gulp of Riesling! Oh, the humiliation!
After faffing around for 15 minutes every time I went upstairs for more drinks, waiting to top up my alcoholyster card multiple times in a queue of other budding yet frustrated drinkers, I expressed my dissatisfaction in no uncertain terms to the host; “this place is a shhaaambles!” to which he replied, “well madam some people seem to like this system”. And yes, it appears some people will like anything if you charge them enough money for it and make it deeply unsatisfying. Perhaps the clue was in the name of this apotheosis of exploitation and ideological daylight robbery. “Vagabond”, which the dictionary defines as “a person with no fixed home or abode”, sounds all very romantic but in reality, when 1 in 200 people in the UK are homeless and suffering the real effects of capitalism not just the petty ones like this, this is nothing to be glamorized. And, the shame of it is, we all relentlessly turn a blind eye to this reality with our endless search for self-indulgence and luxury every day. But it seems I am no exception, having got a taste for this masochistic and offensive form of plus de jouir, next weekend I am trying out Vagabond’s sister venue, where you pay someone to drink wine for you, embarrass you in front of your friends, perhaps give you food poisoning if you are feeling adventurous, and leave you bankrupt and homeless. It’s called Tramp.