Me And My Home: Michael Wojas

After spending 24 years working at the Colony Room as barman, agony aunt, odd job man and accountant, it's hardly surprising that Michael Wojas feels more at home here than he does in his own flat. By Sian Pattenden
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Michael has been the proprietor of the Colony Room Club in Soho, central London, since 1994. Comprising just one room, the bar was infamous in the 1950s as artist Francis Bacon's favoured watering hole. In the early '90s Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin were regulars. Now the likes of Sarah Lucas, Gavin Turk, Pete Doherty and Kate Moss all like to whet their whistle here.

Michael has been the proprietor of the Colony Room Club in Soho, central London, since 1994. Comprising just one room, the bar was infamous in the 1950s as artist Francis Bacon's favoured watering hole. In the early '90s Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin were regulars. Now the likes of Sarah Lucas, Gavin Turk, Pete Doherty and Kate Moss all like to whet their whistle here.

consider this room to be my front room; a front room with a bar in it. I came here to work as a barman in 1981, after finishing a chemistry degree at Nottingham University. My then-girlfriend's mother was an old friend of Muriel Belcher, who set up the Colony Room in 1948, and they needed some help.

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. I didn't realise at first that I'd found my home. I spend more time here than I do in my flat.

The bar was originally made of bamboo, there were plants hanging behind and the bar stools were mock leopardskin. Muriel's girlfriend Carmel was Jamaican so that's how the "colony" theme came about. The only bit of bamboo left frames the mirror over the fireplace. The walls were cream-coloured but in the mid-50s they went green and stayed green.

Five years ago I took it up one shade and lightened it, which freaked out all the older members, but I told them all the younger people really liked it. Everything's painted gloss - the nicotine would stain otherwise.

Part of the initial attraction for members was the afternoon opening and Muriel's colourful personality. The first week it opened, someone brought Francis Bacon here. Muriel didn't have art connections, she knew fuck all about art, but those two hit it off. Francis used to call her "mother" and she used to call him "daughter".

Francis was like a pied piper, everyone followed him. The old story was that Muriel offered him either drinks or money, or both, to bring his friends. It attracted a mixture of people from Lord and Lady Muck to the barrow boys from the market where Muriel bought her vegetables.

Muriel died in 1979, 14 months before I arrived, and Ian Board had taken her place. There's a bust of him in the corner and his ashes are inside, so he's still watching over us. I had led quite a sheltered upbringing, coming from a scientific background, and I was fascinated by the range of crazy extroverts here. Ian perhaps being the maddest.

I know every nook and cranny of the place, because for the first couple of years Ian would hide the takings from the till every night, when he was drunk. The next day we'd spend an hour trying to find them. You'd have to take a shelf off, dismantle the piano. He thought I was going to nick the money. It took him two years before he realised I was going to stay and he started to trust me. He drove a lot of people away - Muriel could be rude to people and get money out of them, but if Ian called someone a wanker, it made them want to hit him.

The early '80s were a tough time and it seemed like the place might become a museum. But towards the end of the decade a new generation of artists were coming in. Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin would come down when they were still at Goldsmiths. Damien was like Francis in that he was out to enjoy himself. His sheer enthusiasm and ebullience was great. He stopped drinking a few years ago. I think he figured out he wasn't going to do anything if he was pissing it up every day.

Damien's spot picture is behind the bar. I love it. At the moment it's wrapped in clingfilm and has a caption: "not worth a fucking penny". Other times I put it in bubble wrap. There's also a sketch of an ashtray which Damien drew at four in the morning on a scrap of paper - must have been during one of my "counselling" sessions. It's just been to Eastern Europe as part of his drawing exhibition.

Sarah Lucas became a member later on. I've got her self portrait, which is brilliant. It's such an accurate depiction of her, made just by sticking a few cigarettes on a bit of brown paper. A few of these pieces were part of the two Colony Room exhibitions I put together, the 50th anniversary in 1998 and another show in 2001. Collectively we've had Damien, Tracey, Sarah, Marc Quinn, Gavin Turk, Tim Noble and Sue Webster. We even had a picture from the singer Lisa Stansfield which was painted in green and had the word "wank" scrawled across it - her take on young British artists.

Tim and Sue's drawing of Charles and Di was in the second exhibition. I love it because the Daily Telegraph magazine did a six-page feature on the show and the sub editor didn't spot that Charles was holding his dick in his hand, not his sword. On Monday all the other papers had a little article about Telegraph not being on the ball, so we got more publicity.

It's a perfect space; it's very well worked out. Muriel would sit by the bar in her special seat. If you keep the mirrors clear you can see what's going on behind you without having to twist your neck round. You can talk to people at the bar and you're in contact with whoever's behind the bar. You're also right by the door just in case someone you don't want comes walking in. You don't want the music too loud, you need to hear everything. Given the amount of alcohol consumed here, it's very rare to have anything resembling a fight. I'm always ready to diffuse a situation between people even before they know they're going to have a row.

This carpet we've had for about 15 months. We had an auction a year ago, I framed up two squares of the old carpet and one of them sold for £600! I've still got some out the back, that's 30 grand's worth.

There's never been a clock in here, because if there was people would always thinking about the train they've got to catch. We close at 11. There was a temptation to extend the license until one o'clock but Muriel always said that by 11 the punters are pissed and skint and we've had the best from them. Send them on their way and let someone else cope with them.

We have music nights every month and for a while we had guest bar staff every Tuesday. Sarah Lucas started doing one night a week. She'd be the first to admit she's not a fantastic barmaid, but word got around that she was working at the Colony Room and she got her mates to come over. A whole new membership base developed from that.

It was an amazing scam. They worked for nothing and we had loads of people in. Damien and his wife Maia did it, Damien just ended up prancing around, getting his kit off. Tracey Emin and Matt Collishaw did it, Suggs from Madness and his wife, Jay Jopling and Sam Taylor Wood. Kate Moss had a go, but that was an impromptu one.

Pete Doherty comes up here. He was like a very lost little boy when he first came round, my girlfriend looked after him, got him choosing the music, got him dancing; just like a little kid.

I call myself the caretaker. It's only been Muriel, Ian and myself over 57 years and that is quite something.

I'm the proprietor, the bar manager, lavatory attendant, psychiatric counsellor, odd job man, accountant. There certainly isn't anything I haven't done.