Class conscious

Recently, revisiting an off-licence in a part of south London where I used to live, I noticed that the metal grilles guarding the cashier and his pyramids of extra-strong lager had been removed. I mentioned this to a friend of mine who still lives near that shop, and he nodded his head at me for a while. "Gentrification," he smugly pronounced.

OK, but it remains the grottiest booze-selling place I know. The smartest is Berry Brothers in St James's Street, which is so antiquated and picturesquely buckled that it reminds me of the "wooden world" of the Nelsonian navy. Indeed, I sometimes feel slightly seasick as I walk across its undulating 18th- century floorboards. The staff all look like merchant bankers, in that they're pinstriped and hefty with a kind of glow about them. If you go in there and ask for a cheap bottle of claret, as I sometimes do, they'll inquire: "Is it to drink now, sir?"- and the first time I was asked that question I only checked myself at the very last moment from answering: "Well, no . . . it's for when I get home."

I had confused it with the familiar eat in/take away query, you see, when what was really meant was: "Are you going to lay this bottle down . . . in the cellar of your Georgian mansion?"

Most of my booze, however, comes from Oddbins, the future ownership of which is currently in doubt. I do not expect to feel socially and intellectually intimidated in mainstream retail outlets, but I always experience a frisson of masochistic pleasure when it does happen, and it happens all the time when I go to Oddbins. I quote from one of the labels on a bottle of red, handwritten by staff in my local branch: "Aromas of intense pepper spice allied to a palate of fine, firm tannins and underlying herbaceous characters."

After reading that, I got talking to one of the incredibly charming assistants in the shop, who writes those kinds of things all the time, abetted by the education in wine provided to all employees by the company. "I've been to university, but I'm not middle class," he insisted.

But I told him I would be the judge of that.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Trapped in the human zoo