celebrate 60 years of soho members' bar the colony room as traces its creative history and speaks to owner michael wojas
The Colony Room is an intimidating cubby hole which, over the past 60 years, has seen everyone from Francis Bacon to Kate Moss hold court. Time Out peers into this fiercely creative hub of old Soho and gets some house rules from proprietor Michael Wojas
Colony Room owner Michael Wojas
There’s a buzzer hidden down a filthy corridor on Dean Street that you probably shouldn’t ever press if you’re moderately prudish or offended by sentences where the clauses, conjunctions and adverbs are made up entirely of swear words. There’s a clue to what you can expect in the name next to the bell. Written in thick marker pen is the pithy ‘Cunty’.
The room at the top of the narrow stairs is about the size of the front half of a caravan. It’s warm, verging on stuffy, and everything is painted a crepuscular shade of green. A small upright piano is covered in old band stickers. Just to the right on the wall behind is a giant print of Paul Simenon rice-flailing his bass in Pennie Smith’s iconic Clash shot. Knackered green banquettes line the walls facing a grotto of a bar. Perched on top is a bust of a former owner; shots of long-dead former regulars hang insouciantly around the bar.
Look around and you’ll find, with a total lack of fanfare, artworks by a host of members including Sarah Lucas and Gavin Turk. The cash till is a huge saloon-bar behemoth decorated in the style of a Damien Hirst spot painting. It also has ‘Cunty’ etched on it. The severe-looking face on the photograph above the till, with its nuance of mischief in the eyes, is that of Muriel Belcher, founder of this bijou space which Francis Bacon describes as ‘a place to dissolve our inhibitions’.
Photos of former members adorn the walls
‘Fuck off: it’s just my front room with a bar in it.’ This is the voice of the man at the centre of it all. Resplendent with Ramones jacket, vodka bottle and a facial expression that can move from smile to snarl and back again at a lightning rate is ‘Cunty’ himself: Michael Wojas, only the third owner in the history of the Colony Room, known to its supporters and friends as ‘the members’ club for outsiders’.
‘It’s a pretty addictive place,’ says Lucy Wood, 38, an artist who has been drinking in the Colony for the last two years. ‘It becomes difficult to go anywhere else after coming here. There are plenty of members’ clubs in Soho which have a similar spirit, such as Gerry’s down the road, but I think this is the hub and it’s great to be able to come here and avoid political correctness and sleazy men.’
Others put the reason for its members’ loyalty even more bluntly. ‘Anyone is welcome in here,’ suggests regular Stephen ‘Black Sheep’ Lees, lawyer, and a member since 1986. ‘We have chippies and barrow boys as well as artists. Just don’t be fucking dull – that’s the golden rule.’
‘The value of this place is just so great,’ says plumber Laurence Lynch, who is installed at the bar counter as punters wheeze into the room on a typical Thursday evening. ‘We’re living in a country that has spent so many years trashing its institutions. London is the drinking capital of Britain. Soho is the drinking capital of London. And the Colony Room is the drinking capital of Soho. This place is one of the last of the absolute institutions.’
The Colony is the antithesis of Soho House, the Groucho or any of the starry media haunts. Conditions are cramped, facilities are almost non-existent, they don’t take cards, there’s no food, not even crisps (‘What do you think this is, Regent’s Park Zoo?’ retorts Wojas to requests for snacks). Even ordering a beer is considered a slight faux pas, with gin, vodka and Champagne the members’ tipples of choice.
So, in an age where Soho bars and clubs only have a slightly longer shelf life than the average theatre run, how has this tiny attic room managed to survive with only three owners for 60 years? Belcher’s reign, which ended with her death in 1979, was followed by that of her even more ferocious successor, Ian Board (owner until his death in 1994), and current incumbent Wojas. Set up in 1948, at the height of Britain's post-war frugal hangover, the club was originated by vivacious lesbian nonconformist Belcher, a razor-tongued hostess who claimed to know ‘fuck-all about art’. Instead she had a love of people who didn’t belong. This prompted her to give a visiting Francis Bacon a place to imbibe gratis as long as he promised to bring in rich buyers of his works who would spend money in the place.
A portrait of the Colony's original owner, Muriel Belcher, hangs behind the bar
The list of names that followed Bacon up the narrow stairs to the Colony is a roll-call of great British post-war writers, artists, thinkers and doers from Lucian Freud, Jeffrey Bernard and Colin MacInnes to Alex James, Kate Moss and Tracey Emin. However, Colony members are at pains to point out this is not a place that trades on nostalgia and reverence.
‘It’s boring to keep telling all those old stories about Francis Bacon drinking in here and Dylan Thomas puking up on the carpet,’ says Wojas as we chat in the tiny annex of the club before opening time. ‘I’d rather people were writing about Damien Hirst getting his cock out in here than all that old stuff. I have a great respect for the past. Muriel opened this place and she made it what it is. I haven’t changed much but I consciously try to keep it relevant by putting on art exhibitions, having live music when we’re allowed and stopping the habit of sloppy journos from the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary column printing the same old shit about stuff that happened here 40 years ago. Don’t get me wrong: Francis [Bacon] was a great bloke but I want the exhibitions we sometimes put on to be about new artists coming through.’
So what exactly is needed from anyone wanting to join the Colony? ‘I’m really quite pleased that we have a reputation for being intimidating,’ Wojas replies. ‘Just by instinct. I know. Lots of people do find it intimidating when they’re brought in by members and want to go back to the pub. It’s not really the place to have business meetings and, at some point in the evening, you’re going to end up talking to everyone and only certain types of people want to do that. You have to know when to use kid gloves and when to say “fuck off”. It’s best when you can get to a situation where a group of lads are thanking me while I’m throwing them out!’
I ask Wojas if he shares the same proud lack of art knowledge as Muriel Belcher? ‘I know a lot more about the artists than I do about their art. I know about what art sells for and I think it’s ridiculous but what on earth are you supposed to know about art these days? I’ve no idea and I don’t want to discuss artists’ work with them when they’re in here. Their work either speaks for itself or it doesn’t.’
Despite the Colony’s remarkable ability to survive and renew itself, its charm is that of a throwback to another Soho, one populated by the maverick and the loner, rather than the mojito and the latte.
The Colony Room taxi service
‘I still love Soho but I get worried about Orwellian society coming on without people even noticing the closed circuit cameras,’ remarks Wojas. ‘There are so many more restrictions on us now. Letters I get from Westminster Council start off with, “In order to make things easier for you” which always makes me laugh as I just know it’s going to mean me doing their work for them! Every time you read “1984” there’s another few things that you can tick off saying, “That’s happened”. Sixty years ago it was a science-fiction book. Now people don’t even realise that so much of it has come true. It’s all leading towards restrictions on drinking and then it will come toward restrictions on movement. We’re basically being encouraged to stay at home, watch “Big Brother”, have them watch us and pop pills to make ourselves happy.’
The Colony is clearly a place where sycophancy takes a holiday. There’s respect for the past (in a rather profane, jocular way) but, more importantly, a steely resilience and a determined focus on renewal and revival. Asking someone ‘what do you do?’ is not encouraged (‘I fuck pigs for a living,’ is the type of response you can expect). The motto of the club, written on the website, of ‘Rush up, drink up, spend up, fuck off’ is perfect: just intimidating enough to scare off media dilettantes but honest enough to attract anyone who enjoys confrontation, debate and the germination of ideas.
‘It’s an anvil,’ Stephen Lees tells me towards the end of a Thursday evening’s drinking in the club, before everyone is thrown out at 11pm. ‘There’s no way this club would have survived for 60 years if it consisted of nothing but a load of pissheads getting arseholed every night. This is a place where very powerful people with intense creativity can swap ideas. The smallness is vital for that as everyone talks to everyone. We may drink plenty but Colony people are people who will get up in the morning and, despite the hangover, go about their work.’
‘I’m fairly tolerant,’ adds Wojas as the last of the stragglers lurch towards the increasingly lethal-looking stairs back down to Dean Street. ‘It’s like having a house party every day. Sometimes it’s shit and sometimes it’s great. I love it when I’m here and everyone is getting on and I’m not really doing anything at all. I’m just the conduit. I’m just providing a place where people can feel at home who don’t anywhere else.’
Look out for events to celebrate 60 years of the Colony Room by visiting www.colonyroom.com. A Francis Bacon retrospective will be showing at Tate Britain from Oct 1 until Jan 4 2009.
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