THE COLONY ROOM
CLUB 1948-2008; A HISTORY OF BOHEMIAN SOHO
Palmtree Publishers. 265 pages. £35. ISBN 978-0-9574354-1-4
Reviewed by Jim Burns
I never did get to go into the Colony Room Club during my many visits to London from the late-1950s onwards, but I suppose I may at least have got a whiff of its atmosphere when I was in the French pub, as the York Minster on Dean Street was called. It was quite close and some of the Colony regulars used to also congregate in the French. I have memories of encountering people like Paul Potts, John Hurt, Jay Landesman, Bobby Hunt, and Jeffrey Bernard, who I saw being thrown out in spectacular style by Gaston Berlemont, the proprietor of the French. "We shall meet again, Gaston," Bernard cried as, lying flat on his back, he was dragged out onto the pavement. It all seemed amusing and interesting to me, but I was just an occasional visitor. I asked Jay Landesman about New York in the 1950s, reminisced with Bobby Hunt, a one-time jazz trumpeter, about bebop, and tried to exchange a few words with Paul Potts. He was far too drunk to want to bother with a stranger trying to tell him how much he'd liked his early poems.
I mention these minor experiences to remind myself of aspects of bohemian Soho, and to wonder if I would have welcomed being taken to the Colony. Would I have survived the cross-examination, and possible dismissal by Muriel Belcher as she sat at the bar and closely watched the entrance? Not every guest that a member brought was assured of admittance, and Belcher's tolerance of members could be quirky at times. I also doubt that I would have been able to keep up with the consumption of alcohol that Colony regulars were noted for. They were often afloat on a sea of alcohol and I'd have sunk long before they did.
The Colony Room Club was opened in an upstairs room on Dean Street in 1948 at a time when austerity was everywhere and the country was struggling to recover from the effects of the Second World War. Younger people may find it hard to imagine a situation where pubs closed at 3 in the afternoon and only opened again at 5.30, and then had to close at 10.30pm or 11pm, depending on their location. Clubs, admitting members only, filled the gap between 3 and 5.30 and could stay open until llpm. By switching between pub and club it was possible to drink from 11am to 11pm.
The painter Francis Bacon was an early habitué of the Colony, though he was still relatively unknown in the late-1940s and didn't have money to throw around in the manner that marked his later life and success. Other artists, such as Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach, and the ill-fated John Minton were also around and, like Bacon, were frequently broke. The club couldn't have survived on what they spent, and Muriel Belcher aimed to attract wealthy patrons, as well as the impecunious writers and painters, Noel Coward, Charles Laughton, and E.M. Forster were members, and it seems to have been understood that those with money wouldn't be averse to buying drinks for those without. Another aspect of the club that may be obvious from some of the names mentioned was that it was something of a safe haven for gays, the wider society being intolerant of any demonstration of sexual conduct beyond what was considered "normal."
I mentioned Paul Potts and, when I saw him, he was drunk, dirty, and hardly likely to be good company. But he was accepted in the Colony, at least by Muriel Belcher. Others had different opinions about him. Sophie Parkin says that he "remained an officially welcomed member until his death in 1990 aged 79, although many disliked him including the Bernard brothers, Bruce and Oliver, not just because of his incontinence." Another Soho character who found a home in the Colony and the French was Nina Hamnett, at one time a talented artist who mixed with Picasso, Modigliani, Zadkine, and Kees Van Dongen in Paris, and had her portrait painted by Roger Fry and Jacob Kramer in London. She wrote two autobiographies, Laughing Torso and Is She a Lady? which gave colourful accounts of her life. I doubt that many people will now recognise her name, but Denise Hooker's biography, Nina Hamnett: Queen of Bohemia, published in 1986, is worth reading. Like Paul Potts, Nina Hamnett declined into alcoholism and would trade stories of her time among the famous in return for drinks. Some people found her entertaining, others thought she was a bore, but she was, like Potts, accepted in the French and the Colony.
It's a sad fact that bohemias always have a long list of casualties caused by drink and drugs. Does the bohemian life-style destroy talent? Or are the people concerned merely minor figures who would likely have failed anyway? It could be argued that, without bohemia, they might not create anything at all, and that it allows them to produce a few books or paintings. They may decline into even sadder drunks if they stay close to home and their creativity is stunted by conformity.
A book about somewhere like the Colony inevitably becomes a list of names and a collection of anecdotes. I'm not criticising when I say this, because Sophie Parkin hasn't set out to offer an analysis of bohemia. Her book is a bohemian's survey of its subject, and she rightly focuses on the writers and artists who frequented the Colony, though as mentioned earlier, they weren't the only ones to visit it. The notorious spies, Burgess and Maclean, could be found there before they decided it was time to head for Russia. Tom Driberg, a well-known (for various reasons) MP, was a member, as was Christine Keeler who was involved in the Profumo scandal. Sophie Parkin also says that Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones (Lord Snowdon when he married Margaret) were sometimes in the Colony. I'd guess that the fact that no-one made a fuss about who you were encouraged people to be there. It couldn't happen today with the celebrity culture we have and hordes of journalists and photographers desperate to grab a story to titillate the public.
But, the emphasis is on the creative types who could be found propping up the bar or slumping over it. The chronicler of Soho life in the 1940s, Julian Maclaren-Ross, was around, and an older Colony regular, the writer Anne Valery, is quoted reminiscing about an aborted weekend away with him which became the basis for one of his short stories, "The Oxford Manner." Whatever else it did, the bohemian life often provided material for stories and novels. An American writer, Julius Horwitz, who was in London during the war, dealt with Soho bohemia in his novel, Can I Get There by Candlelight, in which Nina Hamnett, in fictional guise, plays a part. And poets like George Barker and David Wright often wrote poems, sometimes as obituaries, about Soho types. Barker produced a book called In Memory of David Archer (there is a photo of him in the Colony in Parkin's book), and also wrote an elegy for Robert MacBryde, the Scottish painter who, with his partner, Robert Colquhoun, drank in the Colony and Soho pubs. David Wright's "Verses at a Bohemian Funeral" commemorated Nina Hamnett's passing, and there are poems for David Archer and Paul Potts in his book, Poems and Versions.
There are some excellent photographs of Colony stalwarts, and Muriel Belcher, in A Maverick Eye: The Street Photography of John Deakin. He was a skilled photographer and the book displays his wide range as he shot scenes in Paris, Rome, and London. He worked for Vogue, though his employment came to an end when his drinking got in the way of his work. It also got in the way of his relationships with other people, and the Woolworth heiress, Barbara Hutton, described him as "the second nastiest little man that I have ever met." Francis Bacon, noted as a hard drinker himself, found Deakin difficult to deal with, and other Colony members had little good to say about him. Daniel Farson knew him and thought that he feared success more than failure, but added that Deakin was "treacherous to his friends." Farson wrote a lively book, Soho in the Fifties, in which there's a chapter about Deakin and his escapades. To go back to the book of Deakin's photos, it has a picture of the man himself, chatting on a Soho street, taken by Harry Diamond, another photographer of the period. Diamond sometimes went to the Colony ("when he could afford it," according to Parkin) and knew painters like Bacon and Lucien Freud. He was the model for the man in Freud's 1951 painting, "Interior in Paddington."
David Wright said, "I sometimes wonder if there will ever be again anything like those casual, unofficial, almost nightly random meetings of young mostly unlike-minded writers and painters and musicians that took place in certain cafes and pubs around Soho." Sophie Parkin wanders out of the Colony to prowl the streets of Soho and visit, not just the French but also other pubs in the area. She even takes a trip to the Chelsea Arts Club, though that was often too far for hardened Sohoites to bother visiting. I'm reminded of the story about a noted jazz musician of the 1950s whose main beat was Soho. One day he met a friend who was heading towards Tottenham Court Road tube station. He asked the friend where he was going and on being told Shepherd's Bush on the Central Line, he said he'd go with him. But when the train reached Marble Arch he changed his mind and headed back to Soho, saying that he always got nervous when he went into the country. Reading about the regulars around the Colony and the French, I can't help thinking that they'd have sympathised with him.
Not everyone felt comfortable in the Colony. The poet and editor Michael Horovitz said: "I never liked the aspect of Soho and bohemia that delights in malicious humour and humiliation, picking on people inevitably from my background - and the kind of racism and cruelty I detected, perhaps exaggeratedly .... The fixtures in the Colony delighted me when they were either cordial or enthusiastic about art and their art work and rather appalled me when, later in the evening, they got pissed and the knives came out." Another poet, Brian Patten, remarked, "The romance of the place passed me by. Felt it was a bit like standing in a small urinal full of fractious old geezers bitching about each other." George Melly thought that "Soho was the only area in London where the rules didn't apply.... tolerance its password, where bad behaviour was cherished." But you might have felt differently if you were on the receiving end of that bad behaviour. I recall a conversation with a well-known poet after we'd done a reading together in Soho. He had arrived in London in the early-1950s and told me that the Soho oddballs were better read about than experienced in the flesh.
Muriel Belcher died in 1979 and her barman, Ian Board, took over the Colony and continued the tradition of roundly abusing members and non-members who for some reason or other annoyed him. Francis Bacon still came into the club, though not as often as before. He was now famous and wealthy and some people found it daunting to be in his company. Things were changing. In Sophie Parkin's words: "The 80s might have changed the culture of Soho, but it saw a steep rise in the documentation of the cultural landscape of the area and the Colony - and gave a sense of how important and legion were all the artists with Sohoitis.'" The term 'Sohoitis' is usually attributed to Tambimuttu who, in a conversation with Julian Maclaren-Ross, warned him against spending too much time in Soho: "If you get Sohoitis, you will stay there day and night and get no work done ever." It's possible to make an argument for saying that Tambimuttu's advice was lost on Maclaren-Ross, and that he did fritter away his time and talent in the bars and clubs of Soho. But when I look at the bookshelves above where I'm writing this review I can see several of his books, so he did get some work done.
I have a suspicion that when things begin to be documented and books are written about them then it might signal the end of something. Bohemias do get taken up and publicised (they provide good copy for journalists) and their original intentions start to dissipate. The Colony continued to attract people through the 80s and 90s, but as Parkin states about the latter years: "With the end of the decade, also came the end of the era. Not only had Francis Bacon, Isabel Rawsthorne and Ian Board died but Daniel Farson and Jeffrey Bernard went within months of each other in 1997, by 1999 Henrietta Moraes and Gaston Berlemont would also be gone. The old guard was dying off."
The Young British Artists, Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin among them, discovered the Colony, along with various pop singers and musicians: "Life changed in the club just as it did outside .... Popular mythology saw the end of the 90s as wild days, fuelled by phenomena like Brit brilliance and YBA bravado - everything seemed possible, everybody became famous and everybody came into the Colony." Some observers thought that this new influx "alienated the old crowd." And, reading about the newcomers, I can't say that they interest me as much as the earlier artists and writers who could be seen in the Colony, the French, and other Soho watering holes. I was reminded of some comments that the American poet, Edward Field, made when talking about Greenwich Village bohemia: "It was Andy Warhol who declared the end of bohemianism with his camp emphasis on celebrity. Suddenly, becoming successful and famous became the goal of creative artists and the bohemian ideal was finished." The Colony carried on until 2008, but its final years seem to have been close to a shambles.
As I said at the start of this review, I never visited the Colony and I perhaps wouldn't have felt comfortable there if I had. I've always preferred pubs to clubs. Still, it might have been an interesting experience. I enjoyed reading Sophie Parkin's colourful account of the club and the people who met there and knocked around Soho generally. Her large book is attractively produced and lavishly illustrated, and it has a useful bibliography for those who want to know more.