John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Spleen, bile, attitude and foul language were always the stock in trade at the Colony Room Club'
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The Independent Online

Soho's smallest, smokiest and sourest drinking den, the Colony Room Club, is facing closure. Just as it celebrates 60 years of bad-tempered existence, its owner has revealed that it can't afford the rent any longer. The smoking ban hasn't helped, and neither has a wrangle over the licence. You can learn about the club's crisis by checking its website, where you'll be greeted with the words, "What the fuck is going on?"

But then, spleen, bile, attitude and foul language were always as much the club's stock-in-trade as gin and art. I visited once in the late 1970s, brought along after lunch by my first editor, George Bull. As we rang the entry bell and toiled up the stairs to the tiny, green-painted, painting-strewn, phone-booth-sized bar-room, George shared his droll memories of Muriel Belcher, the club's terrifying, money-grabbing, lesbian founder, who played hostess to Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, and addressed politicians and artists alike as: "Hello, cunty." George could never explain why one might want to spend more than a few seconds in her company.

Muriel had died by the time I visited, but her successor behind the bar was another Soho "character," Ian Board. He glared at me – a wet-behind-the-ears 25-year-old in a three-piece heather suit – and grated "Who the fuck is this?" in welcome, his opaque sunglasses perched on an enormous mulberry nose. As George became engrossed with Daniel Farson, the art critic, I tried chatting up a young woman by the piano. She was fabulously sloshed, and punctuated our conversation by thumping the piano, demanding, "Can't somebody play this thing?" I told her about my fascinating interview with a business guru. I explained about my imminent fact-finding trip to Sri Lanka. To all my tales she replied, slurrily, "So, basically, it's a big PR stunt then?"

Since I had the boss with me I was insured against professional disapproval, so I admit a few gins and tonics found their way into my hand (everyone there drank spirits or champagne – no beer, precious little wine). By 4pm, I was wondering: has nobody any work to do? Do these people drink in here every afternoon? And, crucially: how can I get out of here? For the conversations weren't sparkling excursions of arty repartee, they were cross and bitter, the laughter was mirthless and sour, and the club members seemed locked in a game of mutual piss-taking about their talent or grasp of aesthetics, that was bound to end in tears, fists or flying pigment.

I later discovered a perfect image for the place, from a TV review by Julian Barnes. Clocking the Colony throng behaving with typical hostility in a TV documentary, Barnes mused about Bacon's "screaming pope" paintings. Can it be, he asked, that Bacon was inspired, not by a religious vision of Hell, but by the sight of his cronies calling for double brandies at four in the afternoon?

Perhaps I'd have warmed to the place more if I'd met its most famous member, Francis Bacon. A hundred stories about the Colony revolve around Bacon and his friends. One day in the late 1960s, he arrived with a little bald Frenchman, who took a seat in the corner of the club while Bacon greeted the regulars with his customary exuberance. "Would you care for a drink?" he asked. "I'll have a cup of tea," the man replied, at which the club erupted in laughter. (Tea in the Colony Room?). "Francis, who is the old git in the corner?" asked Belcher. "This is Henri Cartier-Bresson," said Bacon. "He takes a good snap."

Bacon painted Ms Belcher several times, and one of his portraits of her was bought by a titled gentleman, whose male secretary rang the club. He was, he said, looking for some "background" about the painting's subject: who Muriel was, what she'd done with her life. Muriel said she would co-operate in return for two first-class tickets (for herself and her girlfriend, Carmela) to New York via the Caribbean. "Sorry," said the secretary, "I don't think that's going to be possible." There was an awkward pause. "Where's the picture now?" asked Muriel. "In the dining-room," said the man. "Well, tell his lordship from me," said Muriel, "every time he eats his dinner and looks at the painting, I hope he fucking chokes."

No bigger fan of the Colony Room exists than Michael Clark, the portraitist turned conceptual artist, who was taken up by Bacon in the 1980s, and drew some brilliant pencil portraits of Bacon and Belcher. He remembers being rung up, after his work appeared in the Independent Magazine, and asked by an anonymous woman if he did commissions. She wouldn't say whom she represented. They arranged to meet at the Colony. She came up the stairs and said, "I'm a big fan of yours, as are David and Iman, who I think are just arriving." Outside in Dean Street, the Bowies were indeed stepping from a taxi...

An amazing place, the Colony Room, for mingling art and squalor, fame and degradation, talent and decadence. And I discovered that it's the height of folly to try to be condescending towards it. Once, when I was writing about the club for a London paper, Clark and I took Board out for lunch at Sheekey's, to download some stories from the old days. We twittered for an hour – that is, I twittered about the Soho village, Michael made intelligent remarks about the arty clientele, and Board growled unenthusiastically – then Board got up. He had to go. "You not well, Ian?" asked Michael. "Feeling a bit tired?"

"Nah," grated Board, "I just can't stand any more of this crap chat."

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