The Colony Room Club in Soho, open for 60 years from 1948, was a louche drinking den and hangout of an extraordinary range of artists, poets, radicals and free thinkers - from Noel Coward, E M Forster and Tallulah Bankhead to Francis Bacon, George Melly and Young British Artists, Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. Writer Sophie Parkin explores the colourful history of this bit of lost London bohemia.
The Colony Room Club was started by Muriel Belcher in 1948. It was typical of Soho in so many ways: mix of races, sexes, sexuality, appearance and languages. Soho from the 1700s had been a home to intellectuals, sex, theatricals and continentals, indeed the primary language spoken there during that period was French. The Colony was musical, favouring jazz from the beginning, but unlike the rest of Britain post-World War Two, it was non-judgemental, other than to castigate idiots, bores and closed minds. Those daring to voice their prejudices got shown the door and often booted down the stairs. No wonder artists, poets, radicals and free thinkers like Francis Bacon, William Burroughs, Dylan Thomas, Tom Driberg, George Barker, Elizabeth Smart, John Deakin, George Melly, W S Graham and Frank Auerbach loved it. Or more importantly they loved Muriel Belcher, the hostess and owner of the small green room up some smelly stairs in Dean Street, Soho.
Post-war London was in disarray, after the damage of bombs had made so many homeless, it was when squatting started, and women used to working were expected to return to domestic life so that returning soldiers could take back their jobs and wage packets. Men who, before the war, had never left their villages were exposed to so much that was new during the confict, both pleasurable in sexual experiences and horrific violent ones, that they found it hard to return to their ‘normal’ lives. People tended to end up in the pubs around Soho which had lax licensing hours, a ragtag of social misfits often with no money, homes or families but a belief in poetry, art, conversation and music for itself and a bustling market where they could buy cheap and continental foods. Where misfits were the norm, from the West Indian clubs with a place to meet other races and dance to wild calypso music, to the Maltese prostitution rings that would be taken over by Paul Raymond's seedy greedy property empire. In this small, dangerous square mile there were over 500 private members clubs that dodged the regulations that pubs had to adhere to. The opening times of pubs were 11am-3pm, 6-11pm (6-10pm on Sundays and bank holidays). The Colony's argument was that artists and their members worked unusual hours and couldn't be expected to live the hours of someone with a normal job: Francis Bacon was certainly an example: up at 5-6am, work till 12, go to Soho, a drink at the French, lunch at Wheelers, drinks at The Colony till 11pm, gambling till 2am, bed and start all over again the following day. Therefore anyone who was a member, or with one, could get a drink in those forlorn times when lunch had finished and pubs and restaurants stopped serving at 3pm and before they started again.
In the beginning the Colony Room was renowned as an afternoon drinking club for spirits, bottled beer, champagne, sex and clever conversation. It became known for its open-minded acceptance of all races, kindness to the destitute poets like Oliver Bernard, Louis MacNeice and David Gascoyne, and black humour towards the older, rich and titled, expected to pick up the tabs of the poor younger artists, like Noel Coward, E M Forster and Charles Laughton. It was a place to gather if you were homosexual, whether or not you could speak Polari (a secret gay slang spoken within underground gay circles), wore a sailor's uniform or were an MP like Tom Driberg and liked men in uniforms. Journalists loved it for gossip but many thought the whole set up of The Colony was disgusting, it outraged many a moral sense – women swearing! And homosexuality remained illegal until 1967 – in the creation of the Wolfenden Report that led to its legalisation, the main witnesses were all Colony members. The things that went on there! From pouncing upon a pretty boy or girl to their use of language, their lewdness and drunkenness, for some like Sir Peregrine Worsthorne who loathed it – 'Jokes always at my expense ... Of course I didn't want to appear a stuffy arse but going there was just a habit, all the way through the 50s'.
But others loved, indeed were addicted to Soho and the roundabout of life in the streets and the bars. Tambimuttu, editor of Poetry London, invented the term Sohoitis to warn the writer Julian McClaren Ross not to spend too much time there, otherwise inevitably no work would ever get done. Frank Norman, writer of 'Fings Ain't Wat they Used to Be', admittedly became a Soho addict beyond cure or redemption. Apart from its moral laxness, it had an emotional openness. Nobody had to rely upon formal introductions as in the outside world, you could just start talking as if you were at a fashionable cocktail party, to the person next to you. You could meet extraordinary people. Indeed you never knew who you would meet from Brendan Behan to Lucien Freud to Augustus John to Tallulah Bankhead. Writers like Elizabeth Smart met their soon to be publisher, Jay Landesman, Molly Parkin met Anthony Blond of Blond and Briggs. Frank Norman met Lionel Bart and Joan Littlewood who would make musicals out of his books. And everyone met artist, author and muse Nina Hamnett, for the price of a gin.
There must have been thousands who passed through the Colony and for whom nothing happened, through its 60 years (1948–2008). The world of Soho has changed dramatically, from Caribbean markets and rag trade to film editing suites and fashion and advertising executives and all the clubs closing. Jeffrey Bernard used to moan and complain about media executives in denim suits taking over the streets where he had worked before becoming a writer, as a labourer on the bomb sites in Dean street – 'Soho isn't what it used to be, but then it never was.' Soho was always famously empty at weekends, you could escape within it. I wonder if Bernard and the rest of the Colony gang could have foreseen the bland corporate tourist-filled streets that Soho on a Saturday has now become? It seems a million years ago.
Sophie Parkin The Colony Room Club 1948–2008 – A History of Bohemian Soho – Palmtree Publishing ISBN -978-0-9574354-1-4