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Seventy Years in a Colourful TradeAndrew O’Hagan
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Vol. 42 No. 14 · 16 July 2020

Seventy Years in a Colourful Trade

Andrew O’Hagan

3896 words
Tales from the Colony Room: Soho’s Lost Bohemia 
by Darren Coffield.
Unbound, 364 pp., £25, April, 978 1 78352 816 5
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Ifirstwalked along Brewer Street when I was 13. I was looking for a shop that sold film posters. It’s a long story, a four-hanky number, and it started in Glasgow the previous summer when I bumped into a busload of visiting Californians. I’d got talking to a woman who told me her friend had once been Marilyn Monroe’s nurse – I’m not making this up – and we swapped addresses. I later wrote to her, asking if she could get me into the movies. Within a few weeks I got a letter from Lola Moore, for forty years the biggest kids’ agent in Hollywood. She represented Tommy Rettig, who was in River of No Return, Jon Provost, who played Timmy in Lassie, Karolyn Grimes, who played Jimmy Stewart’s daughter in It’s a Wonderful Life, and Eugene Mazzola, who was in The Ten Commandments. I assured Miss Moore I could do just as well as any of those creeps in any picture she could get me into. She told me I should gain experience in the West End and then call her. Thus my fascination with London. I went with my mum and then came back by myself when I was 15 to see a musical at the Adelphi called Marilyn. I returned at 18 and ate a bowl of grass in a Vietnamese restaurant in Frith Street. Then I moved down for good in 1990 and spent the next decade in the nearby streets.

Soho never was what it was. That’s its essence: it was always ‘lost’. Its merits are chiefly nostalgic and its denizens were always ghosts. It only existed as a ragged story and an old tune, one each singer could make his own. Nothing in Soho ever quite happened, and the place was always passing into song. Up a grubby set of stairs, ShangriLa was believed to exist, a perfect afternoon of vodkas in a happy land above the banality of everyday custom and talk. The Colony Room, 41a Dean Street, was actually a dump full of interesting maniacs tearing lumps out of one another. But the facts don’t cover it. The need for it to be something it never was is the interesting story. Those of us who loved Soho were susceptible to its fair-weather glory: characters you wouldn’t meet in a lifetime of sober-sided Sundays, and nights that lasted for ever. I think I tried everything, and everyone, but what I loved most was the drinks and the smokes and the endless talk, and the fact that on every corner there was a room where people auditioned for parts that didn’t exist.

I was a founder member of Soho House, and so part of the gang that drove ‘old Soho’ away. But as usual it’s not that simple. At first, before the move into beach condos, Soho House was quite like its predecessors. On the fourth floor of the original club at 40 Greek Street there was a button on the wall that one could press, late into the night, for another tray of whisky. Patrons bashed an old piano, and eccentrics came in every night, such as the wonderful Fay Presto, the queen of close-up magic. Fay was the magician at Langan’s Brasserie and she used to pitch up around midnight with a roll of the eyes and a loaf in her handbag. (She liked beans on toast.) A transgender woman, Fay had a fight on her hands to be who she was, surviving the double-takers. One night, I introduced her to Colm Tóibín, and she did her ‘bottle through the table’ trick, which he put straight into the novel he was writing (The Story of the Night). At the Groucho Club, there would be too much Sancerre with various Britpop loons, a bit of napping under the snooker table, and a lot of drinking with artists who were busy inventing their reputations. One night, I sat at the bar with Douglas Gordon while he drew me pictures of devils (I have them somewhere). Sarah Lucas and I walked the streets in search of more drink after Damien Hirst told Will Self to ‘crack a fucking smile’. I think I sang with Milli Vanilli. Life coaches will tell you that nothing interesting happens after three o’clock in the morning. They’re wrong. I nearly died in an experimental-plane accident with John Denver. People would talk and forget everything they said. Several writers blabbed away entire books in the corner of Blacks. Out of the blue, in the Union, somebody asked her bullying husband for a divorce. Hurrah! Up in the Academy, Auberon Waugh, happy in the corner and cushioned by an IRA informer or two, bought a round of drinks and told me he’d just run a review of my first book. He said it wasn’t at all bad. ‘What, the review or the book?’ I asked. ‘The review,’ he said. ‘I don’t give a bugger about the book.’

Muriel Belcher and Francis Bacon at Wheeler's in Soho in 1975, photographed by Peter Stark.

Those clubs were fun, and everybody was 26 (apart from Auberon Waugh, who managed to get through his whole life without being 26, though he might once have been 16, and was undoubtedly, and lastingly, six). The lovely Mandana Ruane ran the Academy and propped up more depressed artists in twenty years than Yaddo did in a hundred. And Bernie Katz, son of the South London gangster Brian ‘Little Legs’ Clifford, ran the Groucho as a pit stop for the perpetually wounded. (Bernie admitted that when he went into the bedroom where his father had been shot to death by two masked men, he didn’t hesitate: ‘I sashayed over to his wardrobe, and navigated my way across the sea of footwear to his black Pierre Cardin alligator-skin shoes I’d secretly always had my eye on.’) Like so many Soho lives, Bernie’s ended badly, by his own hand, but he was a prize. He would sort anybody out with a drink or out of a spot, and it’s impossible to remember his many kindnesses, mainly because they often involved tequila. The people who ran these places, the best hosts at any rate, taught me a few things, mainly about how to maintain good form in the pursuance of a good time: always be willing to pay for people, return all favours, spot a bore or a bad friend quickly and drop them, look after the elderly, remember you are nothing, and keep the cheapskates at bay.

When I was young, I had a thing for the after-places, which didn’t have patrons, or, heaven forfend, members, but habitués. There were a few Chinese restaurants in Gerrard Street which had shebeens in the back. You had to drink and not fight – these were the only rules – and you could take cocaine off the tables. Cocaine pretends to be a party drug but it’s actually a social destroyer. I was never very into it. What you want is a single malt or a glass of something cruel from Mexico, and the place to get that late at night, before the clean-up and the corporatisation of everything, was in a Duluxed back room. Many of them looked like minicab firms from the front. Across from Soho House, for example, the Jamaican guys ran a minicab firm that was a front for a dingy party at the rear, a speakeasy with overpriced drinks and mad people, open all hours. There was another one in Archer Street and one in Wardour Street and one further along in Beak Street. These were rooms with tacky carpets and ruined people for whom the morning was a long way down. I guess I could have gone home, but something in me wanted to stay, and so I did. When it’s over, when your youth is gone, you wonder what those times were all about, but there’s no point asking. They were about Soho and a whole lot of nonsense you’ll never hear again.

There were warnings, of course, and dangers. We all knew what might lie on the other side of such appetites, and most of them led ‘upstairs’ to the Colony Room. In my early twenties, I started off many evenings in the Coach & Horses, where a living warning came in the form of Jeffrey Bernard, missing half a leg but still pluming and gasping in the Spectator about his bad character. Never did a man receive drinks with such a sense of entitlement: he hated himself, of course, which was a burden on everybody, despite the cartoons and all that guff, the play starring Peter O’Toole. Bernard was a nasty, jealous misogynist who found a perfect safe house at the Colony: so many of its regulars were nasty that your average woman-hater struggled to stand out. (He was also a ponce who stole people’s returns from the betting shop, which was much more resented. ‘I’m not a shit, I’m a cunt,’ he said in his own defence.) The Colony was nothing much, on the face of it, a dirty little palace of nihilism, and yet, at the high noon of existentialism and the Bomb, it had served as a fountain of mirth. ‘You’ve got a chance in a place like this,’ says a sixty-year-old woman called Rose at the opening of Harold Pinter’s first play, The Room. ‘It was the alcoholics’ paradise,’ Barry Humphries writes in his introduction to Darren Coffield’s entertaining book.

You merely ran up a slate. Later, much later, came the reckoning, but you never knew how they arrived at the astronomical total, and alkies like to pay more anyhow. It’s our reward and our punishment. When they called the men ‘fuck-face’ and the women ‘cunty’, we still came back for more. We thought we were all on ‘life’s threshold’, but we were actually at ‘the terminus’.

I was too young to see it in its savage heyday, but by the late 1990s the Colony Room was one of the most self-conscious places in London: the Young British Artists had moved in. The newness of the new artists disappeared faster than the fizz in their vodka tonics, but not before they’d succeeded in creating a Disneyfied English bohemia on foetid ground, a club fuelled by various drugs and an unconscious logic of publicity and sales. Tracey Emin, Coffield’s book alleges, would only agree to be a member if they improved the wine, let her use her mobile phone and stopped objecting if she drank water when she felt like it. Sensible enough, but why go? Soon, it had ‘cunty’ emblazoned on the walls and there was a blue plaque to Gavin Turk, who ‘worked here’. They had music nights and public binges and all the attitudinising associated with Cool Britannia and its nostalgic, Blairite vision of popular culture. Where the previous hosts had been drunkenly offensive, Michael Wojas was defensive – a much worse thing in a barman. He was off his face and paranoid, which eventually led to the club closing down. To be fair, the smoking ban and a change in the drinking laws prepared the way, but the Colony was enamoured of past afternoons, when illicit really meant something. In Wojas’s day, the idea of a radical act was to enter the whole club for the Turner Prize.

There were certain especially instructive figures, among them Julian Maclaren-Ross, denizen of Fitzrovia, not least because his travails forever appeared to eclipse his talent. Although he was a very good writer indeed, the question of how he looked and how he failed lives more forcefully in the mind than his wonderful essays do. A novelist who produces work of steady quality for sixty years and then dies will not be famous for long. What we want is the drama of glorious promise spent and wasted, genius blabbed away in pubs or pissed into the gutter, and the streets of Soho and Fitzrovia for decades provided the stage set. When we think of Maclaren-Ross we see him standing at the bar of the Wheatsheaf in Rathbone Place, dressed, as his biographer Paul Willetts writes, ‘in either a camel-hair coat or an astrakhan-collared alternative, together with a pale suit and a brightly patterned tie, augmented by a cane, cigarette-holder, snuff box and dark glasses’, a slave to hard booze and amphetamines. Maclaren-Ross understood the character he had become, and felt the humiliation. He was good at sailing along with talented artists until their vessels were scuttled by fame, or barnacled with fame-seekers. The painter John Minton had been boyish and agreeable. Maclaren-Ross remembered him in Soho, about the time Muriel Belcher opened her place. He saw him dancing down Dean Street to the Colony, ‘his long loose-jointed figure in a sort of petty officer’s pea jacket skipping ahead on the cold bare winter pavement … He seemed in a state of euphoria rather than drunk, though he’d been drinking more heavily than I’d known him do before.’ The next time they met, Minton was mad, violent and pugnacious; he’d become a Soho person, though not one of those who could survive the shock of meeting his own ghost every night. He died at 39.

The classic Soho person liked to stick around. She had a sense of being sufficient to the place and the place being sufficient to her. She was handy with pronouns: she was mainly a he, and mainly an invention, but she existed, broadly speaking, between 1930 and 2000 – crossing over with Mayfair in the early days, and, latterly, with Shoreditch. Let’s call it seventy years in a colourful trade. She was known by her habits, by a lexicon of slapperdom: a. she cried a lot, b. she liked gambling, c. she had sex with people who asked nicely, d. she cashed cheques at the bar, e. she loved nicknames, f. if she had it, she would always pay for those who couldn’t, g. she loved to name-drop, h. she abused her talent, and everybody else’s, i. she never saw her daddy again, or saw him every night in someone else, j. she called everybody ‘dear’, k. she drank doubles, l. she loved notoriety, not publicity, m. she loved a duchess, especially the duchess in herself, n. she liked other people’s kids, o. she distrusted daylight, p. she didn’t mind a bit of leopard skin, q. she had a well-trodden face, r. she loved the word ‘cunt’, s. she wasted her time and everything else was ‘whoring’, t. her hair was dyed, u. she smoked but she didn’t always inhale, v. she could spot a life-crusher at a hundred yards, w. she regularly mistook invective for wit, x. she loathed her body, y. she craved love, and z. she always took a taxi, unless she hadn’t a penny, even for the Tube, whereupon she walked, as the painter Robert Colquhoun did on the evening of one of his openings, from the Colony Room to the Whitechapel Gallery, three miles in the pouring rain.

Francis Bacon​ was 39 when he tipped up at the club in 1948. He was introduced to it by Brian Howard, the poet and journalist who is Miles Malpractice in Vile Bodies and ‘two-thirds’ of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited (the other third, Evelyn Waugh said, was Harold Acton). Howard is now best known for a single hateful phrase (‘anybody over the age of thirty seen in a bus has been a failure in life’), which is a pity, because the new drinking club run by his friend Muriel ought to have given him a much deeper sense of what failure meant. Bacon was not yet known, but he’d really come home in that room of absinthe tints, dying plants and tarnished mirrors. Muriel was a beaky proprietor out of Dickens, waiting to serve people or turn them out. She wasn’t interested in art, unless you mean the art of delinquency, but she kept the conversation going, and made a lingua franca of the Soho alphabet. Her club wasn’t for everybody, but it melted ranks. With her scraped-back hair and her flow of ‘liberating smut’, her job was ‘the constant exercise of social flair’, as Colin MacInnes called it.

Within a year or so of the club’s opening, Bacon brought in the crème de la crème of English debauchery. The room swayed. Against the bar, and against most things, you might have found Nina Hamnett next to Louis MacNeice, the maharajah of Cooch Behar next to Joan Littlewood, Christine Keeler taking advice from Lord Goodman or conversing with Leonard Blackett (the Military Cross-winning hero of the Somme – ‘she was a brave little soldier’). E.M. Forster talked to Donald Maclean, who is believed to have spent his last night in England at Muriel’s with Guy Burgess. Some people were only half-naturals for membership, like Princess Margaret, who hated to miss out on a binge. According to Ian Board, after she left, Muriel quipped: ‘If they joined together all the cocks she’d had, they’d make a handrail across the Alps.’ Most of the habitués were loners, fighting for life, or fighting against it. ‘It wasn’t done,’ Elizabeth Smart said, ‘to go on too much about members’ suicides – not gloomily, anyhow. It spoiled the moment.’

Droll jokes were the signature style, and Muriel must have been pretty good, because everybody, not least the barmen, spoke exactly like her. ‘I don’t know why they call her Spender,’ Muriel said of the poet in his scampering years, before he became Sir Stephen. ‘She never puts her hand in her pocket.’ Members felt that drinking anywhere else wasn’t really drinking. Coffield’s book is a terrific ode to screeching – as well as a generous social history – and it lobs a multicoloured grenade into the frigidity of the present moment. We are living through a period when sexual fluidity can be used to reduce freedom rather than to enlarge it, and the story of the Colony provides a good lesson in the art of letting people be. Muriel ‘dissolves the sexes’, Bacon said at the time, ‘so that they come together in a relaxed way to live out their hour’s fantasy’. That is as good a presiding philosophy as any speakeasy requires. Bacon, for his part, fell in love with Peter Lacy, ‘a former fighter pilot turned club pianist. He was also a sadomasochist with a comprehensive collection of rhino whips.’

Each to their own. Or each to their own story. James Birch tells of Vicky de Lambray, ‘a transgender prostitute, who claimed to have given every member of the royal family a blowjob’. George Melly or David Sylvester, good listeners and both regulars, might have tuned in a bit more carefully and given us the details. Muriel had many tousled Boswells, but her friends were generally too stocious – even by Boswell’s standards – to write the kinds of memoir that gather pollen from the flowers of evil. It is simply not in the nature of the true Soho drone to remember the half of it. The people who managed better in this respect tended to keep to the pubs, and keep notes, and keep hold of their jobs. Ian Hamilton was particularly good at telling Soho stories that either were or weren’t true. His berth was on Greek Street, further up, at the Pillars of Hercules. ‘No thank you, I don’t like to drink in the afternoon,’ a young interviewer said while Ian stood at the bar waving a tenner. Ian turned. ‘None of us likes it,’ he replied. Long before he wrote Robert Lowell’s biography, Ian met him in the Gay Hussar. Lowell offered Ian a hearty lunch, with wine. Good wine. Ian was delighted: the New Review was always strapped and no poet in the history of the world had ever come to London and bought an editor lunch. At the end, Lowell got out his chequebook with a flourish and worked his pen. He stood up, waved goodbye to Ian, and dropped the cheque on the table. To ‘Walt Disney’, it said. ‘One Million Pounds Only.’

‘Muriel didn’t mind people being at each other’s throats, so long as they didn’t spill their drinks on the carpet,’ Big Eddi, a regular, said. The worst thing you could be was ‘boring’. Veteran bores are never more boring than when going on about people being boring, but it is nevertheless a valid category. Nightlife is a cabaret, or it should be, stuff happens and then it’s gone, so a person with nothing to say or nothing to quote had better give good audience. That’s what these barflies would say. For them there’s nothing worse than a person who treats every night like every other night, though that’s what the Colony Room members did, after a fashion. There’s no point telling the Soho slapper that one man’s meat is another man’s poison: they insist on the poison without any overwhelming fear of the costs. David Bowie and Henri Cartier-Bresson, not contra-cabaret overall, were separately and summarily dismissed from the Colony for requesting tea.

In former times, before we took the pledge, Soho had 24-hour allure. On my way home one night, I left a famous screenwriter behind the Astoria while a sex worker instructed him in the use of a crack pipe. Another time, towards the end of my sojourn, the young son of a duchess asked me, rather plaintively, if I could direct him to the ‘kind of place’ in Beak Street where they sold Viagra. There were Private Eye lunches above the Coach & Horses that turned into growling matches. There were nights in Madam Jojo’s or Gerry’s or the Spanish Bar that turned into stories, and strands of entertainment that lasted for years, when foreign writers came to London and got rinsed for their trouble. It was civilised too. Edward Said once had supper at Alastair Little with the editor of the LRB and me. He offered a dissertation on why Americans can’t write novels, drank his share of the wine, and then wrote on the tablecloth the worst titles of papers delivered at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association. I think, though I can’t be sure, that the top entry was ‘The Masturbating Finger in Jane Austen’.

Outside the window, on Frith Street, Soho was coming to an end. But no elegy for Soho is up to snuff unless it confesses that it was always last orders. The loss is forever part of the gain. Where are they now, the Mandrake Club, the Kismet, the Gargoyle (with interiors by Matisse) and the Colony? Darren Coffield catches the breeze and the sudden changes on the breeze. ‘The club was tiny,’ he writes, ‘the size of a small living room, decorated in a melancholic green, with a bar at one end and single unisex toilet at the other. Like so many before me, I felt completely at home, washed up on the shore of a luscious green bohemian paradise.’ Some people have to travel far and walk down many corridors to find the right room.

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