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Sohoitis IV: Happy Birthday The Colony Room

Happy Birthday: The Colony Room Club is 60.

The Insider’s Guide to the most exclusive club in the world.

By Sophie Parkin.

The Colony Room is sixty years old this year. What? Is there somebody who has managed to live on this planet who doesn’t know what the Colony Room Club is? And no, if you read the piece about it in Time Out, you still don’t know it. What’s The Colony? It is the pulse of Soho, the thermometer of London. Why of course it’s the Finest of Wines, the most exclusive club in the Grandest of Cities, though its label may be a little tatty, ‘it’s history is beyond salubrious,’ as the artist Andrew Campbell insists, who introduced his fellow Rochdale citizen, not Gracie Fields, but Lisa Stansfield, to Ian Board who ran the club of such noterieity in the eighties, and she’s rarely left it since, and why should she?

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Some might disagree with the rare beauty of the scummy entrance in Dean Street, but then they’d go to the Soho House, and quite frankly, they are the type of person you wouldn’t want or expect to meet there. I would be surprised to meet Paris Hilton there, but not surprised to bump into Amy Winehouse, I could imagine Britney Spears in her current state, like Princess Margaret or Sarah Lucas, collapsed drunkenly on the floor.

Michael Wojas now proprietor, once barman, always Svengali, head chef and bottle washer, pokes his head out from the ‘ummagumma room’, to tell you to, ‘Piss Off, you boring Cunt’. Quite right too. Nobody is allowed the egotistical self obsession of boring others by twittering on about themselves, not even Andrew Campbell.

There are rules, unspoken of course, when you enter the Colony, disrobe your prejudice and join the party. Of course you will remain unique enough to be allowed in, to mix and mingle with the celebrities and miscreants, writers, artists, East-end boys and West-end girls, pop stars, drunks, actors, art dealers, poets, performers and plumbers; occasionally even the odd, and I mean really odd, lawyer, and prosecuting council might stand you a drink. But don’t be fooled by the roll call, this isn’t the Groucho Club, (now known as ‘Soho’s Wetherspoon’s’ by some). They’ll be a Lady this, or a Lord that, but not a sniff of an IT girl or footballer — whatever they are. Now, before you arrive, make sure you have your wit sharpened, your humour is squelching out of your boots, that you mislaid your snobbisms outside on the street, and remembered your laugh, oh and your wallet. Laughing is the real ticket though, with a slap of lipstick and lashings of mascara; do try to make an effort dear and keep up. You will be expected to join in, whether you know them or not. No, you cannot stay in your private little coterie and expect to be admired, not even Francis Bacon got that.

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Being rich or famous is not enough to be a member of this august establishment, and the waiting list is as long, and as short as it is for a Birkin bag; and that certainly wouldn’t help. Just remember you cannot enter and lie back on your laurels, you’re walking in the footsteps of sacred monsters and mythical beasts — Brendan Behan, Lucien Freud, Dylan Thomas, William Blake (shurelysomemishtake Mr Daniel Farson? Ed), Elizabeth Smart, John Deacon, Joe Strummer, William Burroughs, Jeffrey Bernard, George Melly, Colquhoun & MacBride, Colin MacInnes, Julian MaLaren-Ross, Patrick Hamilton, Nina Hamnett, Jean Muir, Lord Snowdon, Craigie Aitchinson, Terry Frost, Jeff Nuttal. The still living dignitaries include Damien Hirst, Big Twiggie, Sebastian Horsley, Brunton, Suggs and Chas, Clare & Lawrence the Plumber, John Moore, Wilma, Frances the transsexual, The Magic Numbers, Kate Moss and Stella McCartney, Amanda Harris, Pete Doherty, Vanessa Fenton, Alabama 3, Polly Morgan, Sean Bean, Simon Hopkinson, James Birch, Salena Godden, Barry Humphries, Sienna Miller & Rhys Ifans, John Maybury, Michael Smith, Fergus Henderson, Jude Law — dearie me, any more for the roll call? Oh and of course, my Mother Molly Parkin, who actually remembers all the earlier residents at the time when it was founded by Muriel Belcher, bucolic, alcoholic, lesbian heroine, owner with Ian Board her barman, of the largest heart and the foulest mouth. Did she ever imagine that it would become this treasured jewel piercing the nation’s heart? That, sixty years would allow this little green box to grow such a wide variety of fungus from its walls, to all over its seats? For that is the Colony, art fills the walls, some priceless, others price less and frankly un-saleable, but there is simply nowhere like it in the World. The Colony, or The Colonic, as it’s often been called, is a warm place to hide, where people will know your name if they like you, and turn there back and kick your arse down the stairs, if they don’t. It has the finest Barman, Dick Bradsell, the most hilarious company, and the good times roll out from under its carpets as beautifully as Kenny Clayton fingers the piano singing, ‘In our English Cunt-ry Garden’; and half the keys don’t bloody work.

However modern and trendy the cliental get, you cannot forget the history of this extraordinaire establishment, where dreams have turned into the usual piss and biscuits at the bottom of the baby buggy by morning, but they have also become priceless art, music, books, films, poems, museum currency and saleroom extravaganza. More importantly it is the refuge and enticement for finishing that piece of work, though it has been known to stop you from doing your tax returns.

Now that the Arts Council has withdrawn its funding from theatres all over Britain, from The Bush to the Orange Tree, Queer Up North to Birmingham Opera, The Colony is one theatre that truly deserves funding. It is the theatre of life and ideas, the magic and music that makes life bearable for many a ‘sensitive artist’ that cannot seem to co-exist in the outside ordinary world, amongst normal people, that can’t possibly understand them. I am quite willing to invite Mr Gordon Brown (You are cordially invited etc etc…) to Labour MP Tom Driberg’s favourite bar when out with his rent boys of a night, along with Ronnie and Reggie Kray. I will stand Mr Brown a glass of whatever he wants if he could divert both the British Council and the Arts Councils grant to something really deserving — a Proper 60th Birthday Bash, something to truly make the ghosts of Dean Street, past and present, proud. For this little green room with its attached single toilet and cloakroom, has launched, introduced and buried some of the greatest art this past century has known, let alone what the future might produce.

The Colony Room might be small, but it’s like a beautiful tended and well-watered allotment, full of the vain and glorious. ‘Hip hip hooray, Happy Birthday dear Co-lony, Happy Birth…’

‘Dick please, another one of your extraordinarily fine Bloody Marys, I’m feeling a little frail after last nights… Oh you know what I mean, the party went on dancing on the tables and this morning when I woke, ‘somewhere between The Ritz and the gilded gutter’, I thought best just get back on the Bloody Mary. Can you imagine getting on a horse in this state?’

‘So has Larry been in today?’ interrupts Malcolm Tierney, but we all agree, Old Larry’s been dead for years…

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sophie Parkin has written seven published books. Three grown-up novels (you can’t say adult otherwise people think they might be pornography): All Grown Up, Take Me Home and Dear Goddess. For teenagers there is French for Kissing, Best of Friends, and Mad, Rich and Famous. She has also contributed to four other books, from short stories, true stories, long stories, to poetry. Mothers by Daughters, Sons and Mothers both published by Virago, Girls Just Want To Have Fun: the Cosmopolitan book of short stories, and POT 05 – Anthology of Poetry ed. Michael Horovitz. Her new book, Bazaar Nights and Camel Bites (Piccadilly Press), a teenage novel set in Tangiers and London, is out now.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 24th, 2008.