Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

The End of the Colony Room

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 8th September, 2008

The curtain will come down on 60 years of Soho history when the private members’ drinking club, The Colony Room, closes soon, so that the Dean Street building housing it can be turned into flats. Generations of writers, artists, photographers, their muses and multifarious hangers-on have used it as their social base, from Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud to Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin. The novelist Colin MacInnes probably best summed up the Colony Room’s morbid attraction when he wrote: ‘To sit with the curtains drawn at 4 p.m. on a sunny afternoon, sipping expensive poison and gossiping one’s life away, has the futile fascination of forbidden fruit.’

The poison — often gin and tonic, or champagne, was indeed expensive, not least because one did not just buy one’s own drinks, but was expected to stand rounds for everyone at the bar, often on the barman’s whim. Even in later years, one felt the ghostly presence in the place of its long-deceased first patronne, Muriel Belcher, whom I described in my book ‘Soho Characters of the Fifties and Sixties’ as ‘a foul-mouthed, butch bisexual of Portuguese Jewish origin.’ She presided over the Colony Room — which the original habitués referred to simply as Muriel’s — like a hawk, ‘perched on her stool near the door, ready to pounce on any newcomer or person who was currently in disfavour.’ Her put-downs were withering. She referred to all men — not just the numerous homosexuals who frequented the Club — as ‘she’. Even the late German Fuhrer was cut down to size by being referred to as ‘Miss Hitler’.

But Soho being Soho, new places, new faces and new trends have superceded the old, as they doubtless always will.


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