Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Francis Bacon’

Adrift in Soho ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 15th November, 2018

Adrift in SohoSoho in the 1950s and 1960s was a magnet for young people tired of post-War England’s grey atmosphere and grey food — a place where you could find a good, cheap French or Italian meal or sit for hours over a beer in the Coach and Horses or a coffee at the 2i’s, and where sexual liberation had arrived. In Colin Wilson’s 1961 novel, Adrift in Soho, a young provincial, Harry Preston, is drawn in, at once intrigued but also slightly nauseated by the astonishingly free people he encounters, at various stages in their creative growth or disintegration. Some are self-manufactured “characters”, while others are genuinely eccentric or original. And many seem to have succumbed to Sohoitis, a clearly mental as well as physical lassitude that can lead to depression and death. Pablo Behrens’ new film, of the same title as the book, beautifully captures the atmosphere of the period and place in a cinematic style that is a homage to Francois Truffaut and the French Nouvelle Vague. There are some really beautiful shots and angles and good use is made of the sub-plot of a film being made within the film. Owen Drake, as Harry, looks suitably bemused as he chronicles the people and events around him, from seedy strip joints to preparations for the Aldermaston anti-nuclear March, but it is Chris Wellington as the handsome young sponger and lothario, James Compton-Street, who really steals the show, charming but reckless and ultimately doomed. There are some nice cameos, not least a scene with a camp Francis Bacon-inspired artist, but there are also longueurs. Cutting 15 or 20 minutes from the film would make it sharper. The politics could be edgier, too. The film has been made on a tight budget, which at times shows, but it is nonetheless an important achievement, and as Colin Wilson’s son, whom I met at the premiere after-party in Soho, said, his father would probably have been pleased.

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Soho in the Eighties ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 30th September, 2018

Soho in the EightiesIt is widely acknowledged that Soho bohemia had its heyday in the 20-odd years following the Second World War. My old friend Dan Farson (charming when sober, poisonous when drunk) wrote a successful book called Soho in the Fifties that captured the revels of the age, and in the 1990s, at the request of the National Portrait Gallery, I put together a little volume Soho in the Fifties and Sixties, lavishly illustrated with portraits from the gallery’s collection. Now Christopher Howse, the bearded deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, has taken the story forward a generation, in his new book Soho in the Eighties (Bloomsbury Continuum, £20), which is mainly a collection of stories and reminiscences from his own Soho days and nights during that period. The main venues where the action (or more properly, perhaps, inaction) takes place will be familiar to connoisseurs of Soho’s past, notably the Colony Room, the French pub and the Coach and Horses. In fact, the last-mentioned public house (presided over by the self-proclaimed Rudest Landlord in London, Norman Balon) figures particularly prominently, as Christopher Howse’s favourite drinking-hole. There’s even a convenient sketch map of the Coach’s interior, showing where the regulars often sat. Some of those regulars had been around for decades, leftovers with hangovers from the past, like Jeffrey Bernard, the Spectator‘s “Low Life” columnist, but other characters Howse mentions were new to me. The twin artistic peaks of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud are still visible on the Soho landscape, though the YBA Damien Hirst and his fellows were starting to take over the Colony Room. Howse’s stories are largely the Soho stable of drink, bitchiness and occasional true wit, but it is telling that many of those he recounts actually date from the earlier, heyday, period, when Muriel Belcher still sat perched on her stool in the Colony Room, ready to pounce on any hapless newcomer, and where people still remembered Dylan Thomas. So although there are some amusing passages in Howse’s book, anecdotes scattered like confetti to mixed effect, overall it comes over as a Requiem for bohemian times past.

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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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