Thursday, 31 March 2016

The Colony Room

"a small urinal full of fractious old geezers bitching about each other"

41, Dean Street, Soho, London.

Up those stinking stairs to where the room, painted a dire shade of green, luminous, fetid, yet somehow welcoming, waited.  At the bar, surrounded by a fug of smoke, sat a witch woman, a Jewish Sappho, smoking a cigarette like some malevolent dominatrix.  Her name was Muriel Belcher, a woman with a blocked lavatory vocabulary. She was the proprietor.

"There you are, my daughter, no not you, you cunt, I'm talking to Francis." 

Born in Edgbaston 1908. Died in 1979 She was a remarkable woman if a little foul mouthed.

'Cunt' was her favourite word which she hurled about as an abuse to those she thought worthy of such. However, 'Cunty' was a term of endearment afforded those she truly liked but 'Mary' was used only for 'special' friends. Her first client was Francis Bacon who entered her establishment in 1948. To get to the room, which was painted that vile green, Bacon had to climb the noxious stairs which smelt foul. Having done so he became a hard and fast member. He wasn't the only one but he was foremost in giving his custom to this establishment.

"And don't show that cock-sucking face of yours again 
here or I'll give you  fourpenny one."

Francis Bacon was a leading light of twentieth-century art. Second only to Picasso, in my opinion, and a whole lot darker. Born in 1909. Died 1992. His twisted images conveyed his own insecurities, his sexual deviances, whilst giving insight into our world, a world trembling forever on the edge of perpetual war, of collective fears and phobias and in the knowledge that life is all too brief. His genius is beyond dispute.

"Life is so meaningless we might as well try to make ourselves extraordinary."

Bacon was the kindest yet cruelest of men. Incredibly generous, gregarious but with such a wicked, viperous tongue that could excoriate another in an instant as though by a flick-of-the-switch. There were many who suffered at his vitriolic jibes. But Bacon wasn't all about sniping comments.  His personality, complex as it was, also had a benevolent side. Much of what he articulated was considered, thoughtful and memorable. 

"There is no comparison between that which is lost 
by not succeeding and that which is lost by not trying."

The Colony Rooms was as unique as its clientele. Its members, as one suspects, were either homosexual or of an artistic, creative bent. Peter O'Toole was one as was Jazzman, George Melly. The atmosphere, whisky drenched, nicotine heavy was made electric by the variety of those who sat and drank there. They were the creme de la creme of London's talented elite. They were special for no other reason than they were all gifted, all of a highly individualistic nature.  It was glorious. It was the depths of depravity whose final demise had more to do with the change of British law, which allowed for twenty-four-hour drinking than it did to the place becoming a thing of another era. In other words, who needs a club for alcoholics when alcohol is so readily available? 

Melly Described Muriel Belcher as  being "a benevolent witch, who managed to draw in all London's talent up those filthy stairs." It was a drinking haven for those who sought to indulge in the pursuit of excess from the hours of 3PM to 11PM without breaking any laws. Muriel had a license. What was remarkable was that the Colony Room was a place where misfits, outsiders, those whose tastes didn't concur with established views, could gather out of harms way whilst truly being themselves.

Nowadays, the term 'outsider' is liberally misused to include all manner of people. Back then, from 1948 through until 1979, being an outsider meant what it said. The people who climbed those noisome stairs, who congregated around the bar or sat at the scattered tables were true outsiders. Many of them outside the law. Homosexuality was still punishable by imprisonment. Not all members were Gay, though. A great many just enjoyed the freedom offered within the club, its ambience and its characters.

Michael Andrews is not a name that provokes cause for celebration. Few, nowadays, have heard of him. He was a member of the club and a gifted artist. Sadly not in the league of Bacon or Freud but still talented. Born 1928. Died 1995. Younger than Bacon and less able, perhaps, to withstand the rigors of such a lifestyle, he was nonetheless very gifted.

Another artist was Lucian Freud.

Of course, Lucian Freud was the polar opposite of Michael Andrews. Like Bacon, his one -time friend, he found success and fame. His art has been featured on my blog before and I hold him in the same regard, with the deepest respect, that I do Bacon. He was one hell of an artist. They were friends. They both attended the club. Their tastes were similar. They were soul mates, or so it seemed but like Lennon and McCartney they fell out. Apparently, Bacon disliked the way in which Freud appeared to have been a social climber. This, of course, is speculation.

Freud was the grandson of Sigmund Freud, the renown Austrian neurologist and psychoanalyst.  He was born in 1922 and died 2011. 

There was something of his grandfather in Lucian's art. The way in which he seemed to peer beneath the skin of his subjects, to analyse their characters with his forensic gaze that was so striking. His art appears almost sculptured. It is so heavily layered, impastoed, that the very thickness of the paint gives the work its fleshy, organic feel. 

His sex drive was legendary. Some say he fathered forty children. He certainly had fourteen. From this, you would have thought he married many times. He was wed twice but had a great many lovers. He remains one of the UK's most successful painters.

Another great artist, one still alive as of this post, is Frank Auerbach. Like Freud, he was born in Germany. Like Freud, a naturalised British citizen.

He too was one of the regulars at the Colony Rooms. Born in April 1931 in Berlin, Auerbach came to this country aged seven to avoid Nazi persecution of Jews. 

His art has a grainy quality to it. It looks less sketchy and more as though it has been ingrained, ground-in to the canvas. This is achieved by applying paint and then, before the paint has had time to dry, scratching it off. The images appear scarred, aged. They look somehow historical or rather they have a history attached to them.They are very intense. Their darkness invites the viewer to closely inspect their almost impenetrable vision.

Auerbach paints portraits or cityscapes. The latter is of London, specifically, Camden Town where the artist lives. 

Tallulah Bankhead. Actress. Born 1902. Died 1968.

Rumoured to be a libertine. Acclaimed for her immaculate performances on stage. Her voice was the sound of granulated treacle running across a bourbon chaser.

Her sexual tastes have never been confirmed. She is thought to have been bisexual as she had, so rumour has it, affairs with both men and women. There has been confirmation of this from one or two reliable sources. She described herself as ambisextrous. 

"I've had many momentary love affairs. A lot of these impromptu romances have been climaxed in a fashion not generally condoned. I go into them impulsively. I scorn any notion of their permanence. I forget the fever associated with them when a new interest presents itself."

She had an addictive personality. She was an alcoholic and a drug addict. She was addicted to pleasure, to sex.

"Dahling, the main reason I accepted the part was to fuck that divine Gary Cooper!"

"I'm serious about love. I'm damned serious about it now ... I haven't had an affair for six months. Six months! Too long ... If there's anything the matter with me now, it's not Hollywood or Hollywood's state of mind ... The matter with me is, I WANT A MAN! ... Six months is a long, long while. I WANT A MAN!"

Tallulah Bankhead is highly regarded to this day as being one of the greatest stage actresses of the  twentieth century. Whether it be on Broadway or London's West End praise is poured upon her name. One critic even went so far as to say  that she was  "perhaps the greatest actress this country (The United States of America) has ever produced."

Much of what gave The Colony Room's their notoriety would today not be given a second glance. Times, and the perceived notions of what made good moral conduct have changed. Times may have changed but still the organised mindset of the church hasn't. Oh, they have modified their outlook somewhat but by too little to really make a blind bit of difference.

"The Catholic Church teaches that such acts are always violations of divine and natural law. Homosexual desires, however, are not in themselves sinful. People are subject to a wide variety of sinful desires over which they have little direct control, but these do not become sinful until a person acts upon them, either by acting out the desire or by encouraging the desire and deliberately engaging in fantasies about acting it out. People tempted by homosexual desires, like people tempted by improper heterosexual desires, are not sinning until they act upon those desires in some manner."
Whatever would they have made of Thomas Edward Neil Driberg, Baron Bradwell? The gentleman, an Anglican churchman, a term which infers he was of the Anglo-Catholic faith or High Church rather than the Evangelical, Low Church.

He was homosexual; a Labour politician; a journalist; friends with Aleister Crowley; an associate of the Krays and very possibly a paedophile. He was also thought to be a double agent working for both the MI5 whilst passing information to the KGB. Oh, yeah, he was also a member of the Colony Room.
Was he a nice man? I have no idea. It would seem not but let me write what few facts I have about the man whilst others judge his misdemeanours.

The number of members who enjoyed the Colony Room's are far too many to mention here. All I have done, all I could have done, is to present a passing few as if they had 'popped in' for a swift half or three. Let others judge their strange peccadilloes. They certainly had their fair share of those. By and large, the vast many, were merely homosexual therefore only hurt others seeking S&M. Before we leave though we simply must reveal another of their number, a man who I believe is the greatest of the twentieth-century poets. No Englishman he nor Irish or Scot but Welsh. He drank like the proverbial fish and wrote poetry as though it were the surf of the sea - rolling then growing containing within its ebb and flow a powerful, almost feral force.
Dylan Marlais Thomas  was born  1914  and died 1953.
Aside from his passionate plea to 'rage, rage against the dying of the light' he also wrote a casket full of verse unlike that of any others.
Some would have that Thomas was too 'wordy,' too playful with his word play and to such an extent that the emotional content was sacrificed to the role of his words as they tumbled and flew from his pen. I think this is utter drivel. He was a truly great poet. One of the best.
The Colony Room lasted for a period of sixty years. From 1948 until 2008. In that time, it had a variety of members. For me, though, it was the first thirty that set the pace, gave form to the veritable entity the rooms in Soho became. I mean no offense to those who came after that period, talented and great as they may have been they were not the pioneers of what remains to this day a delightful, depraved, den of iniquity.

And somehow, fanciful of me perhaps bearing in mind their flaws and failings, his poem "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" seems somehow appropriate.
And death shall have no dominion.

Dead man naked they shall be one

With the man in the wind and the west moon; 

When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,

They shall have stars at elbow and foot; 

Though they go mad they shall be sane,

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again; 
Though lovers be lost love shall not; 
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.

Under the windings of the sea

They lying long shall not die windily; 

Twisting on racks when sinews give way,

Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break; 

Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through; 
Split all ends up they shan't crack; 
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.

No more may gulls cry at their ears

Or waves break loud on the seashores; 

Where blew a flower may a flower no more

Lift its head to the blows of the rain; 

Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies; 
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.#2
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.


LeeKwo said...

Great read Russell...much I had no idea of but you have revealed in fine prose the history of the Bar and those who drank there/Well done/Lee Kwo

Russell Duffy said...

Thanks Lee. Much appreciated.

Cara H said...

A fascinating and complex group of people. These days we have Kim Kardashian and a host of other self-absorbed selfie-takers. I'm embarrassed at what this generation leaves future generations.

Russell Duffy said...

Being so called different is a bit like being black. We should embrace our differences. They make us what we are.

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A Utility Fish Shed Blog

A Utility Fish Shed Blog