How we met: Ian Board and Daniel Farson

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The Independent Culture
Ian Board (63) is a well-known Soho figure whose connections with that part of London go back to the late Forties. He has worked most of his life behind the bar of Muriel Belcher's Colony Room, a celebrated meeting place for bohemians and artists, taking over the club in 1979 when Muriel died. The writer and photographer Daniel Farson (65) found fame in the Fifties with his own television series, Farson's guide to the British. He has published 20 books, including his affectionate portrait Soho in the Fifties, and now lives in the West Country. Both men are unmarried.

IAN BOARD: Friendship isn't easy to talk about. When I hear people say, 'Oh, he's my friend', I'm always a bit bemused, because for me friendship is something so personal that I'd rarely want to discuss it lightly. I wouldn't say that I had any real friends now. The only true friends I ever had were Muriel Belcher, whose club the Colony Room I took over in 1979, and Francis Bacon, the painter. He was a regular visitor to the Colony, and so much a part of my life for 40 years. They're both dead now.

I suppose I meet a lot of people through the club, and it's inevitable that I should know many of them by name and reputation, but there are precious few who're important in any real sense. Daniel has never been a friend of mine in the ordinary use of the word - but he's always been important to me in many other ways.

I don't remember how we first met or when, but I suppose it must have been back in the early Fifties when I had come to work behind the bar of the Colony for Muriel. Daniel was a regular visitor to the club, and was fast making a name for himself as a journalist and photographer.

In those days, the Colony seemed to act as a magnet to creative people. Dan was just one of the many who, then unknown, would later go on to huge success in their chosen fields. Muriel would sit by the bar ready to deliver a welcome or a stern rebuff, depending on whose head came through the door, but Dan was one of her favourites, so she was always pleased to see him. In fact, it was Dan who delivered the address at her memorial service.

I think our own relationship is one that's based on having many mutual friends. Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, John Minton and George Melly all came to the Colony and created an indescribable atmosphere: both combative and interesting. It's been with Dan that I've met the characters from the Fifties through to the present day, who've given Soho its peculiar bohemian flavour. For those of us who came together so long ago there's a strong bond which is often violated, but never destroyed.

Though Dan and I often spend time in each other's company, we aren't always comfortable together. Ours has always been an uneasy relationship. I never know when he is going to turn up, or with whom. Often we go for weeks without any communication at all. Then he may arrive unannounced one afternoon; fling open the door, and expect to be treated like the prodigal. Sometimes I'm happy to see him and shout, 'Come and have a drink, Fatty Arbuckle.'

At other times, I don't want to see or hear Dan. I loathe him. It's just like trench warfare in here when we don't get on, and other members often get caught in the crossfire. We know exactly what we're doing and, more often than not, if someone is misguided enough to try and intervene, we may round on them. Then they really will have something to tell their grandchildren. All the viciousness is soon forgotten though, and we can forgive each other anything over a drink. We're like the ugly sisters.

I've always hated social niceties like, 'How are you?' One thing I like about Dan is that you can cut out all the crap and get on with the talking. At the same time, we're both honest enough to tell one another if we're becoming dull or tiresome, because one thing we both hate intensely is a bore. Dan is extremely loyal to the club and his friends here, and that's a trait I admire.

Our relationship has always been connected with a lot of love and sympathetic feelings for so many other people - so loyalty has been paramount. We've shared all the changes that have taken place over the years in Soho through the Club, and its evolving clientele, and somehow managed to maintain this fractious and happy bond for more than 40 years. We know each other, we tolerate each other, and that's all that's important.

DANIEL FARSON: It comes as a shock to me when I realise that I've spent more time in the Colony Room than any other place in the world, other than my own home. It is not the most elegant of clubs but in its curious way, against the odds, it has always worked as a place where I felt free and at ease. Firstly there was the genius of Muriel Belcher, a host who made the place a haven for artists and bohemians for decades, and then there was Ian's caustic wit from behind the bar.

When Muriel died, many feared that the club would close, but Ian has managed to maintain its atmosphere and, more than that, to evolve with the times. One of the things I love about the Colony is that when I come to see Ian there are now so many interesting young people to talk to as well. Exciting new artists such as Fred Ingrams and Christopher Battye, and entertainers such as Lisa Stansfield.

It would be awful if the club were full of old dinosaurs, but now there's a new generation to meet and enjoy. You've got to be a fine judge of character to know who to let in and who to keep out, and Ian has shown a great skill in maintaining the balance of members here so that you can always expect engaging and interesting conversation. On the Continent, such expertise would have been honoured. It's only in England that we overlook the dedication that goes into producing an atmosphere in which people can feel comfortable.

There's always been an air of protection about Ian and he's refused to let his inner sanctum become polluted by those he dislikes, adopting Muriel's famous 'Members only' shout when someone he doesn't like has the gall to try and get a drink here. Ian is merciless in his abuse of the 'duds' with their briefcases and effete suits. His reputation for rudeness is legendary.

For those of us who are 'in', Ian's protection is curiously paternal and charming, but for those who are 'out', his aggressive language means that, even if you have a quick response or a thick skin, the inevitable result is humiliation of the worst kind.

Many is the time I've winced as Ian has forced an unsuspecting punter back down the dingy steps with a choice verbal attack. Often friends such as Auberon Waugh, whose company I greatly enjoy, have been driven out by these tirades. It's something I deeply regret, but ultimately it's Ian's club and he's responsible for maintaining its unique atmosphere.

It's a matter of some pride that I can't remember when we first met. It must have been about 40 years, but the precise details have long ago been forgotten because they are of no importance to either of us. We have always had a warm relationship punctuated by frequent arguments and personal attacks.

It doesn't matter if I don't see Ian for a month: as soon as I enter the club I know that we'll get straight back into our old ways with the conversation swinging from genuine affection to unpredictable cruelty and back again within the space of a few minutes. But as Francis Bacon once said: 'If you can't be rude to your friends, who can you be rude to?'

I've dedicated my book, Soho in the Fifties, to Ian and the Colony because they've remained a constant and secure feature throughout my life. They are still there, just like the Himalayas. It's very rare to find a place where the members are free from all those horrible social restraints and conventions such as politeness - somewhere they can just be themselves. Even in the worst excesses of my youth, Ian and Muriel remained supportive, and to feel that there's a place where you are truly accepted and liked is a precious thing. There's a zest for life here which first captivated me years ago and has held me in its grip ever since.

Our relationship is inevitably bound up in the club itself. We've had some riotous times in sleepy backwater pubs, when Ian has been on visits to my own home in the West Country, but we have never had quite the same rapport. Part of the reason is that Ian has always remained true to himself, namely nasty, waspish and short-tempered. Without the humour of Soho and the club as a backdrop he is curiously ill at ease. It seems the two really are inseparable.

The unthinkable happened recently when the club was threatened with closure by the building's owner who wanted to convert the space into offices. Ian's fighting spirit came out as he marshalled a strong campaign and beat the developers with his characteristic venom. But those like myself, who have known Ian for many years, are aware that the cruel posturing conceals a character with genuine compassion, affection and sympathy for those about whom he cares. He is not quite the shit he looks.-

(Photograph omitted)