Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Soho’

Tales from the Colony Room

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 9th June, 2020

Tales from the Colony RoomFor six decades from 1948, the Colony Room Club in Dean, Street, Soho, was a moth-trap for London’s Bohemians. Its life span — not bad for a club — fell into three distinct periods, like the Ages of Man, each presided over by a boss whose personality impacted on both the membership and the atmosphere. The Colony Room’s heyday was in the 1950s and 1960s, when a sharp-tongued Jewish lesbian, Muriel Belcher, was in charge; she features in the little book I wrote for the National Portrait Gallery 20-odd years ago, Soho in the Fifties and Sixties, illustrated with paintings and photographs from the NPG’s collections. Muriel took the young artist Francis Bacon — whom she called “daughter” — under her wing. Other artists, including Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, became habitués. Witty when in a good mood, she could be cutting about people who failed to impress her. Perched on a bar stool near the door, she watched the comings and goings like a hawk, from time to time rummaging in her capacious leather handbag. Her barman, erstwhile hustler Ian Board, took over after she died, his rudeness exceeding even that of the landlord of the Coach and Horses pub, Norman Balon. Once handsome, Board’s face was ruined by drink, his nose finally resembling a giant ripe strawberry. He too passed on and was succeeded by his barman, Michael Wojas, an altogether sweeter man, until drugs warped his mind and sucked up much of the Club’s takings. By then, most of the old regulars were dead, though Young British Artists like Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas had adopted the place. Not long before he died, Wojas called last orders on the place, to the dismay of many of its diehard supporters.

Tales from the Colony Room 1Many books have been written about Soho in general, and the Colony Room in particular, but Darren Coffield’s crowdfunded Tales from the Colony Room: Soho’s Lost Bohemia (Unbound, £25) is quite different from all the others I have read in letting the characters who congregated in the Colony Room talk about themselves and each other, as well as the Club itself. Much of the book is made up of short snippets culled from many hours of taped interviews made over the years, seamlessly interwoven with extracts from articles and books that are presented in the same, informal interview style. For nearly 400 pages, Darren Coffield lets people speak, have conversations, bitch about each other, the voices of Francis Bacon and others resonating from beyond the grave. Much of the banter is scabrous, a lot of it hilarious, other parts downright cruel. But such was the mix that at various times characterised the Colony Room, where the only real sin was to be boring. As Coffield notes, it would be impossible these days for such a place to exist and thrive, not just because Soho has ceased to be a cheap area in which to live or play, or because many of the young creative talents migrated to East London. People these days don’t want to while away their afternoons drinking champagne or spirits and chain-smoking in a tiny, sickly green venue up a tatty staircase. Social media, mobile phones and other forms of networking have taken over. Literally next door to where the Colony Room was is the Groucho Club, some of whose members might claim to be the new Bohemians, but trust me, they are not.

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From Russia with Love

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th March, 2018

SIFFA UKThere isn’t much love between the UK and Russia these days, in the wake of the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, but while the war of words continues between the two governments, at a cultural level there is a determination to keep things friendly. So there was a good turn-out — and no embarrassing demonstrations — at the gala UK premiere of Artyom Mikhalkov’s 2016 film, Betting on Love, at the Soho Hotel’s screening room in Soho last night. The event was all part of the London end of the Sochi Film Festival Awards (SIFFA) — a relative newcomer to the film festival circuit, based in the Black Sea resort that hosted the Winter Olympics four years ago. There were drinks and awards of various kinds before the Soho screening, with a great many bouquets of flowers. Stephen Frears — who collected a certificate, along with one for an absent Dame Judi Dench — was so festooned with blooms he could have opened a stall in Columbia Road market. Artyom Mikhalkov was on hand to receive his own Sochi gong. His film was a romantic comedy that made many nods to the rom-coms of the 1960s and 1970s, with a bit of James Bond thrown in. The hero was a diminutive Armenian waiter working in a sushi restaurant who nonetheless has the chance of winning the hand of a fair maiden. There are some nice gags about Russian mafiosi as well as armospheric location shots in Las Vegas, but the film was as frothy as whipped cream in a can — and everyone kissed, made up and paired off at the end.

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Along Came a Spider

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 1st August, 2015

Along Came a SpiderAnna Paola has been a familiar figure round Soho for many years. I remember her playing the piano at Kettner’s when that restaurant was owned by my friend (and great Liberal) Peter Boizot, but much of her adult social life has also been lived in the narrow grid of streets along and around Old Compton Street. Like many Sohoites, she has moved joltingly between jobs — ranging from teaching at Gordonstoun school in Scotland (when Prince Charles was a pupil) to performing in some of the more louche gentlemen’s clubs in Mayfair — just as she moved between a variety of different rented rooms and flats in London and even a series of relationships with older men. Truly a bohemian life, with highs and lows, ecstasy and depression, all of which she lays bare in her memoir Along Came a Spider (Avanti Books, £8.99), which is as much a stream of consciousness as a stream of memories, across more than 50 very short chapters. Anna was both talented and beautiful, a composer as well as a performer, which guaranteed that she would get back on her feet each time she took a tumble, and tumble she often did, whether as a result of the death of someone dear to her, or of a failed relationship. She is candid about the mood swings and the oft-faltering confidence, which at one point led her to turning down what could have been her great break in the United States. Her friend and fellow Bach aficionado, the comedian and pianist Dudley Moore, did go West before succumbing to progressive supranuclear palsy. Rather a lot of people in her book similarly meet awful ends in hospitals. Yet defiantly the author affirms hope and life at the end. She puts much of her instability down to having been given away for fostering as an illegitimate baby, so that all her life she has to an extent been searching for herself. Her prose is guileless, raw and immediate, sometimes resembling how I imagine she must have spoken during therapy sessions. It’s just a pity that this nicely presented paperback has apparently not been edited; her anarchic punctuation and the proliferation of single words or short phrases with quotation marks around them become grating, and even a wise friend could have gently pointed out that Beirut is not in Syria and doctors do not take the ‘Hypocritical Oath’.

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Maggi Hambling’s Walls of Water

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 2nd December, 2014

Maggi HamblingI used to see Maggi Hambling quite often with our mutual friend George Melly when he was such a fixture of Soho and London’s bohemia, so it was good to catch up with her again at the private view of her Walls of Water monotypes at Marlborough Fine Art in Albermarle Street this evening. I can never visit Albermarle Sreet without remembering that it was there that the seeds of Oscar Wilde’s downfall were sown, at the now defunct Albermarle Club, when the Marquess of Queensberry left a card for Oscar at the porter’s lodge, accusing him of posing as a somdomite (sic). Maggi of course made a wonderful reclining statue of Wilde, which is located near Charing Cross Station, and in which his spirit is reclining half out of his coffin, a cigarette nonchalently held aloft — though philistines kept nicking the statue’s cigarette, so it is no longer replaced. Maggi Hambling, like David Hockney, is a great believer in the freedom to smoke, so I was not at all surprised when she lit up in Marlborough Fine Art tonight, doubtless to the dismay of the gallery. The large selection of black and white monotypes on show are in parallel to a larger-scale exhibition on currently at the National Gallery, again all about water. This has been a leitmotif of Maggi’s work recently, as if the crashing waves along the Suffolk coast that is so dear to her have some mystical power communicating not just the force of nature but also an interface between life and death, maybe sometimes even summoning memories of Maggi’s departed muse, Henrietta Moraes.


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A Night at the Green Carnation

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 29th January, 2012

As a convinced Wildean (celebrating beauty and social justice in all their forms) since my Oxford days and as a sometime chronicler of Soho’s bohemian history, I’m surprised at myself that I had never been to the Green Carnation bar/club in Greek Street until last night — or indeed heard of it. Maybe it hasn’t been in existence for very long, as I have walked down that street so many times and it’s only a few doors along from the Gay Hussar (no pun intended) Hungarian restaurant, long a haunt of Labour politicos in particular. But it was at the Green Carnation that the LibDems’ national group for lesbian, gay, bi and transgender issues last night had their pre-winter conference social to limber them up for their business session at the party headquarters later today, which I will be attending in my function as a Vice President. Formerly known as Delga, LGBT+LDs have made great progress both within the party and now within government in promoting minority rights. Until his shock defeat in May 2010, Dr Evan Harris (MP for Oxford West and Abingdon) was a huge support, and in Lynne Featherstone, Minister for Equalities at the Home Office, the cause now has someone at the heart of government, moreover not only with the backing of Nick Clegg and the rest of the LibDem team but also of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. Gay marriage has been one of the top campaigning issues for LGBT+LDs, alongside the lifting of the ban on gay men giving blood, and it is to Mr Cameron’s credit that he has come out strongly for the former, despite the growls from his back woodsmen in the Houses of Parliament, not to mention the extraordinary comment earlier this week from the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, who said that the Prime Minister was acting like a dictator by promoting the issue. Oscar Wilde himself would doubtless have savoured the era we live in today in Britain and so much of the European Union, Latin America and beyond, where sexuality is no longer seen as a litmus test of respectability, or indeed acceptability, and where we celebrate diversity. The Queen recently received the credentials of a Latin American ambassador who went to Buckingham Palace with his male civil partner. Good for her, good for Britain, and good for true liberalism, which judges people on their character and their humanity, not on their sexual orientation or living arrangements.

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Campaigning in Chinese London

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 18th April, 2010

I spent the first part of today on an open-top bus, hired by the BC Project to encourage British Chinese to register to vote before the deadline on Tuesday and to vote in the general and local elections on 6 May. This is particularly important because Britain’s Chinese community traditionally stayed aloof from politics, though that is beginning to change, not least thanks to the efforts of the bus’s compere, Joseph Wu of Spectrum Radio. The bus’s tour began in my own constituency of Poplar and Limehouse, as Limehouse was the location of the first Chinese settlement in Britain, founded by Chinese sailors who left ships that came into the old London docks. The docks have long since gone and so too many of the Chinese, though there are still some fine Chinese restaurants in the area. Our bus (which contained three TV crews and several radio and print journalists, as well as many eager young Chinese activists) then moved westwards to Hammersmith, where we called by the Chinese church at Brook Green, where we were joined by the Chinese LibDem parliamentary candidate for Hammersmith, Merlene Emerson and the LibDem peer, Navnit Dholakia, who has been very active in inter-faith and mutlicultural issues. Next to Holborn and St Pancras in Camden, where we were briefly joined by the Chinese Conservative parliamentary candidate, George Lee. Lunchtime was in Chinatown in Soho, with Mark Field (seeking re-election as the Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster) and his Labour opponent, Dave Rowntree. We ended the tour in Hampstead, at the offices of local LibDem Councillor Linda Chung — winner of the sensational Hampstead Town by-election in 2008 — whose efforts to get two fellow LibDems elected this time got a simultaneuous boost from a fleeting visit from Mirian Clegg.


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Getting Britain’s Chinese to Vote

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 21st February, 2010

London’s Chinatown spilled well over onto the north side of Shaftesbury Avenue in Soho today, as a Chinese New Year Festival drew crowds of many thousands of revellers. There was also a serious side to at least part of the proceedings, as the team I have been invoved with that has been encouraging the Chinese community in Britain to register and vote not only had a stall at the event, but also hosted a spot on the main entertainment stage. This was compered by Joseph Wu, Chinese Programme Manager of Spectrum Radio, and various Chinese political spokesmen appeared, including the (Conservative) Mayor of Redbridge, Thomas Chan, and the LibDem parliamentary candidate for Hammersmith, Merlene Emerson. I also spoke briefly (as a member of Chinese Liberal Democrats, former student of Chinese and parliamentary candidate for Poplar & Limehouse, where the first Chinese community in London was established). The Electoral Commission has itself just launched a campaign to get UK Chinese to register to vote. Further details at:

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The Photographers’ Gallery on the Move

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 14th November, 2008

thje-photographers-gallery   For 37 years, The Photgraphers’ Gallery has been based on a split site on Great Newport Street on the edge of Soho (technically, Covent Garden), pulling in half a million visitors per annum — a figure many larger museums and art institutions cannot match. This morning I joined a small group of journalists from the Foreign Press Association for a sort of farewell tour of the premises, where two exhibitions are bringing down the curtain on an era. The first is ‘Soho Archives: 1950s & 1960s’ (including some distinctly curious ‘artistic’ nudes by that old Soho roué Jean Straker, as well as some rather wonderful David Hurn black-and-white portraits of strippers, both on and off the catwalk). The second displays striking images of often desolate London faces by Dryden Goodwin, ‘Cast’. Sunday is the last day of public opening.

The good news is that the Gallery is moving to new premises, on the northern edge of Soho, at 16-18 Ramillies Street, initially in a warehouse while a much more ambitious building is constructed (for which funds are currently being raised).

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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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Pride in Soho

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 17th August, 2008

The LibDem LGBT group DELGA had a stall at Soho Pride this afternoon, so I stopped by for a couple of hours to help man it. It was encouraging to see how many of the (predominantly young) crowds of thousands milling around came up to sign DELGA’s petition against homophobic bullying in schools — a problem that is still prevalent (and even tolerated by some teachers), despite positive changes in legislation and public attitudes in Britain.

Although I have never lived in Soho, it has been a sort of ‘second-base’ for me in London for over 20 years, and I have been a member of the Soho Society for a long time. That is why I came up with the idea of my little book ‘Soho Characters of the Fifties and Sixties’, which the National Portrait Gallery published in 1998 and which completely sold out (though, alas, it has as yet not be reprinted). I still enjoy calling in on various places in the ever-changing yet always fascinating area. This afternoon, as often, I tried ‘something old and something new’: a glass or two of chilled rosé at the French House and a delicious Olivier salad at a new Georgian café round the corner, called (and run by) Romeo.

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