The Colony Room, Soho

I have mixed feelings about the threatened closure of the Colony Room Club in Soho, which comes in the same week that a major exhibition of its most famous member — Francis Bacon — opens at Tate Britain.

As a naïve 18-year-old, I was inducted by my late friend Ben Trainin — one of the barmen — into the Colony’s atmosphere of Forties acerbity. My liberal and suburban sensibilities were at once appalled and enthralled by the Colony. It seemed a grubby little room to have been the cockpit of a social revolution — and yet this was undoubtedly the case.

Even then, in the late Seventies, you could still hear vestiges of Polari — the theatrical and latterly gay argot — spoken by its habitués. The prevailing ambience was one of extreme and camp decadence, verging on amorality.

The personal pronoun employed for everyone, regardless of sex, was “she”, and the preferred word was “cunt” in nounal, adjectival and even adverbial forms.

The likes of Dan Farson, John Deakin and Tom Baker were regulars, but the real lustre was given to the Colony’s gloomy interior by the presence of Bacon. I was roundly insulted by its then proprietor, Ian Board. However, I got to drink champagne with Bacon, and to go with him to “celebrate” the opening of Janus, the S&M porn shop on Old Compton Street that is still trading to this day.

I heard ideas and opinions expressed in the Colony that quickened the pulse of my own iconoclasm: there were no prisoners taken at the Colony — for a start, there was no room to keep them.

With the benefit of hindsight, the truth is that the Colony Room was in decline long before I started drinking there. It existed, under its original owner, the self-styled “Queen of Soho”, Muriel Belcher, as an avant garde of the sexual liberation and social promiscuity that was to come. Here, all orientations, ages and classes mixed. Almost the only criterion for membership was that you weren’t boring.

So intense was the impression made on me by the Colony that 30 years later I’ve written a novella set in the club, Foie Humain, which is part of my new book, Liver. The overall title gives the lie, for while some may say the Colony represents the old Soho that is being killed off by smoking bans and other sanitising measures, the truth is that there was another criterion for membership: the hardcore members were first and foremost raging alcoholics.

Ian Board died of cirrhosis; I suspect Muriel Belcher did too. What has done for the Colony as much as anything else is 24-hour drinking. To begin with it was an afternoon club, where a select group could indulge in the naughtiness of drinking after-hours. Now anyone can get a drink from an offie and stand in Old Compton Street swigging it.

It may not be pretty, it may be a bit boring, but for old Colony Room stagers they must accept that it’s a victory — of sorts.

09.09.08