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The Colony of Outsiders – Professional Bohemians in Soho

By Sophie Parkin.

I have written about the Colony Room club before in 3:AM, but then I was Soho correspondent, and it almost killed me. Four years ago when the club was closing, breaking many of our Soho hearts in total incomprehension. Of all the places, in all the world, why did it have to be our Colony to close?

I spent almost 30 years, on and off, going through that sleazy dirty doorway on Dean Street. Sidling up broken greasy stairs, being careful if wearing heels or if another body came falling down towards you; it often happened. To enter through the green door into a wonderland of caustic badinage, the “Hello Cunty!” was always said with more warmth than any greeting elsewhere. For The Colony Room club was a club like no other. Made from one room with an adjacent cloakroom, its floor was covered in a sticky carpet, the walls painted a baize green, the banquette seating was covered in a nasty green Crimpolene; nothing to recommend it sartorially. And yet within this small space some of the most amazing people in the world of the arts had passed through drinking smoking swearing but mostly connecting to each other from Leonard Bernstein, Francis Bacon, Brendan Behan and William Burroughs, and that’s just the B’s.

Of course the rumours had always been there about Princess Margaret drunk with Snowden, about Colin MacInnes and Julian MacLaren-Ross skulking in the shadows, George Melly and Annie Ross bursting into song and Dylan Thomas standing on a table to spray vomit across the floor, and always Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach, John Deakin, with Dan Farson scribbling it all down.

It wasn’t until I decided to write the 60-year history that I realised the true beauty of the place. For we only ever know what we see on our personal watch. Digging through the archive I started to glimpse other people’s perceptions, but once I started to interview some of the older members that was when I uncovered the pirates treasure. Writing the book over two years enabled me to understand the connections. Piecing it all together wasn’t just a labour of bloody love as painful as giving birth at times, it made me feel like Sherlock Holmes. It was as I’d always suspected the way life worked and stuff happened, far less than six degrees of separation more like one or two. Usually one because what most of the more important Artists of the day were also mixing with the journalists, spies, ballet dancers, gangsters, composers, designers, poets, architects, actors, writers and call girls in the Colony Room. The names that unravelled from the membership books were a comprehensive guide to culture in post-war Britain all the way into the millennium. But it was the people who weren’t signed in that others told me were always there, the familiar faces if not famous then, certainly now. For who would have recognised Daniel Craig serving behind the bar in 1998 as the future icon James Bond? And though Ian Fleming wasn’t a member he certainly went there with Lady Caroline Blackwood, Mrs Lucian Freud then and her admirer the critic and author of The Rock Pool, Cyril Connolly and his wife, the wonderful yet forgotten writer of, Tears Before Bedtime, the sexy cat like Barbara Skelton. And then there was also the Goldfinger connection. It was bohemia in all its openness of sex, drugs, drink and jazz.

It was Muriel Belcher who bought them all there into her private cocktail party where you could be yourself at a time of prosecuting homophobia, it gathered all the key components of Wolfenden and the Montagu case together at the bar. Her legendary charisma, warmth, wit and foul mouth, “If you joined all the cocks she’s had together, it would build a handrail across the Alps” and when Driberg tried to stop a compromising picture of himself and the Krays appearing in a book she commented, “Tom never complained when Ronnie Kray’s cock was in his mouth.” She had been active in the West End night club scene longer than she was willing to reveal later on. She had been involved in two other clubs prior to taking over the Colony. But she was in the business of building her own legend, not always from the upmost truth, perhaps it was easier to be known as ‘Muriel Belcher the Portuguese Jewish lesbian’ than denying it, perhaps it added to her glamour along with the lie that her parents had owned The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham. We can all dream.

The stories of Bohemian Soho, have tragedy as well as endless stories of high comedy, Brethney the man who came in for a break time drink from work at a local pub to find Kate Moss serving him his beer, at the time in 2000 the most famous model in the world. Paul Potts, known as the People’s Poet by TS Eliot who didn’t have a pot to piss in and would defecate freely whilst standing at the bar, but nobody hardly noticed so enraptured by his charismatic language. Jeffrey Bernard who persuaded the members of the club to get into an open double decker bus through the first floor window, and then to hand over their money as he became bookie on the charabanc to Ascot for the day; never to be seen for the return paying out journey. The bunny girls delivered to Muriel’s Christmas party for disabled children by member Victor Lowndes to give the kiddies a good time. The line of Muriel’s to Peter O’Toole, “If you’d been any prettier they’d have had to call it Florence of Arabia.’

It was a tight-knit family for the famous and the infamous, where the man who sold newspapers outside the US embassy Mick Tobin was painted by both Freud and Bacon, and had a romance with Maria Callas. It was a place for outsiders whether from the law, politics or what was considered ‘normal’ behaviour. That doesn’t mean Jimmy Savile was a member, but Christine Keeler and Stephen Ward were. Before absconding, so were both Burgess and Maclean.

There is just one piece of film of Muriel in existence (not played by Tilda Swinton in Love is the Devil by John Maybury, another member) it shows the club mid-sixties in central London and there is a huge diversity of black, white, female, male, straight and gay, hippie and regular and this was unusual. An artist Winston Branch, originally from the West Indies recently told me it was a great place to find older rich woman who liked to treat young men to a good time. He also told me there were at least a couple of Bacon’s given to Muriel hanging on the wall. Whatever happened to those? Certainly he was allowed to run up bar bills in excess of £1,000 an enormous sum that would buy a small mansion then.

Maybe all clubs have their day, but it seemed so unfair that a place we considered home from home, wherever we came from whatever we were doing, whoever we were, was allowed to close. Of course it should have a plaque over the door, of course it should have been kept for the nation, of course it should still be open. Why did it close in 2008? Ah, for that you will have to read the book.

The Colony Room Club 1948-2008 – A History of Bohemian Soho by Sophie Parkin published by Palmtree Publishers. Standard Edition £35 available from www.thecolonyroom.com and all good bookstores like John Sandoe in Chelsea, from December 10th 2012. There is also a Limited Edition accompanied by a special commissioned signed print from six artist members of the Colony each representing a decade. A lucky dip operates between Sarah Lucas, Patrick Hughes, Molly Parkin, George Melly by Michael Woods, Chris Battye and Abigail Lane. Normally £250, for 3:AM readers when mentioned £225. All six, the Collector’s Edition normally £1,950, for 3:AM-ers £1,750.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 7th, 2012.