Michael Wojas: Proprietor, barman, counsellor...

The man who ran the notorious Colony Room Club has died, aged 53. Jerome Taylor looks back at the Soho establishment that for decades attracted London's literary and artistic elite
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The Independent Online

Michael Wojas was characteristically sanguine when he was asked five years ago to describe what it had been like running one of London's most notorious private clubs. "I'm the proprietor, the bar manager, lavatory attendant, psychiatric counsellor, odd-job man and accountant," he beamed in a self-penned article for The Independent. "There certainly isn't anything I haven't done."

Wojas, who died on Sunday from cancer at the age of 53, was musing over the 21 years he had spent as a barman, and later proprietor, of the Colony Room Club, a debauched drinking establishment frequented by artists, dandies, thinkers, wits, pimps and whores which came to symbolise both the heart – and the eventual demise – of London's Soho.

Until its closure in 2008, when Wojas suddenly announced to the surprise of his patrons that he had sold the club's lease, the one-room members only bar had served some of the capital's thirstiest, rowdiest and most outspoken wits.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s it became Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud's favourite drinking hole, a place where the two artistic titans could row, lunge, battle and then embrace in the comfort of an establishment that adored eccentricity and eschewed the mundane.

A literate fly on the club's nicotine-stained walls could have published the sort of no-holds-barred memoir of London's literary elite that would have had scandal-lovers and publishers alike foaming at the mouth in anticipation.

One only had to glance upon those frighteningly green walls to get an understanding of the type of clientele that came to call 41 Dean Street their home. Behind the bar stood an enormous mural painted by Michael Andrews depicting a typical night in the rooms. At the centre was the bar's founder Muriel Belcher, surrounded by scions of Soho such as great wit Jeffrey Bernard, Henrietta Moraes – a Bacon muse – and flamboyant aristocrat Lady Rose McClaren.

A Birmingham-born Jew and proud lesbian, Belcher discovered that the best way to keep her clientele interesting was to hire Bacon, through the medium of a healthy tab, to invite his friends. He acted as a sort of Pied Piper of unusual drinking companions attracting, as Wojas later remarked, "a mixture of people from Lord and Lady Muck to the barrow boys from the market where Muriel bought her vegetables".

Belcher opened her club in 1948 and was rarely seen without a cigarette and glass in hand. She was famed for referring to all her clients in the female form. At a time when pubs were forced to close in the afternoon, the Colony Room offered its parched guests a place to drink until the sun went down, and then some more.

Journalist and writer Geoffrey Wheatcroft spent many afternoons at the club in the Seventies. "Its heyday was probably just before I arrived but even in the 1970s it was an extraordinary place," he said. On one particularly debauched evening Bacon ripped his shirt open. "That wasn't anger or lust," he recalled. "Simply ... he couldn't quite stand upright and was trying to break his fall."

At first glance, Polish-born Wojas might have seemed an unlikely character to take over such a gregarious venue. Quiet, slim and almost luminescently pale, he studied chemistry at Nottingham University arriving in London two years after Belcher's death in 1979. Ownership of the club had passed to Ian Board, an even louder – and brasher – version of Belcher who was renowned for getting drunk, hiding the night's takings and then forgetting where he had put them the following day. Wojas would spend the first few hours of the morning looking for buried treasure. "I thought I'd work for a couple of months before I figured out exactly what I want to do – that was 24 years ago," he once recalled in 2005. "I didn't realise at first that I'd found my home."

The club nearly disappeared into the annals of Soho history during the 1980s, as yuppie culture stamped its mark on the capital. But the following decade a new breed of artistic clientele – forever dubbed the Young British Artists – led the Colony Rooms through a prolonged and heady renaissance.

"It was a mad and eccentric place," recalled Tracey Emin, who spent much of the 1990s quaffing the club's notoriously poor wine alongside fellow Young British Artists Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas. "There were so many extraordinary funny occasions and nights there, but they all blend into one big night at the Colony Room."

Sebastian Horsley, one of London's most delightfully dysfunctional and outspoken wits, was known to spend weeks at a time propping up the bar at the Colony Room. "I first visited it when I was 20 because I'd read that that was where Francis Bacon used to hang out," he said. "I ran up the narrow stairs and was promptly told to 'fuck off' by Ian Board. I knew all about rudeness masquerading as honesty." A decade later he returned and was allowed in by Wojas. "The Club reminded me of an alcoholic tardis," he recalled. "It was minute on the outside but huge on the inside and you went there for love, which they served by the glassful."

But love was in short supply during the gruesome decline of the Colony Room, which, in many ways, came to symbolise the purification of Soho, once London's seedy, beating heart. By the mid-2000s the club and Wojas were in deep financial trouble. Artists of all different hues pitched in to save their favourite drinking den by donating their work. But the mood soon turned sour with accusations that the club's proprietor had begun treating the paintings as gifts, sold off for his own personal gain, rather than for the greater good of the favourite venue.

Wojas sold the lease for the Colony back to the building's landlord and took a backstage role in the Soho scene. The camaraderie that once bound the club together was shattered as Wojas's detractors and defenders went to war, even in the courts. Horsley, who was initially a firm friend of Wojas but later fell out publicly with him over a campaign to save the club, said the Colony's closure represented the wider demise of Soho tradition.

"Soho has gone down hill immeasurably," he said. "Ten years ago, on a good night here, you could get your throat cut. The air used to be clean and the sex used to be dirty. Now it is the other way round. Now it's full of boutiques, 'weave-your-own-yoghurt' establishments, wall-to-wall coffee shops and gay hairdressers. There is even a health club. A health club in Soho, for Satan's sake! Can you imagine? That's like having a brothel in a church."

But others say Wojas did the best he could to sail against prevailing winds and remember the club before rancour took over. "He was a very special man who, following the death of Ian Board, turned the club on its head and revolutionised a little piece of Soho as we knew it then," recalls singer Lisa Stansfield, who knew Wojas for more than 20 years. "When no one else would listen, he embraced the young British and brought live music to the Club."

Above all, Stansfield remembers the way the Colony's last owner would call out last orders at the end of the night with the words "rush-up, dash-up, spend-up and fuck off."

"He was a punk at heart," she said. "He will probably be appalled if he finds that heaven actually exists."

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