Monday, October 08, 2012

Sophie Parkin interview: The Colony, the stars and the sailor's cock

'Driberg also admitted to Christopher Hitchens in the Colony that he loved going into special committees in the House of Commons with semen still sticky at the corners of his mouth'

The late Sebastian Horsley at the door of his local
To order a copy of The Colony Room Club 1948-2008, visit Sophie Parkin's dedicated site, here

In 1948, Muriel Belcher founded the The Colony - the Soho private drinking den that became infamous for stellar misbehaviour over 60 years. In 2012, one of its patrons, Sophie Parkin, releases The Colony Room Club 1948-2008: A History of Bohemian Soho, which charts the secret life of a refuge that drew some of the most celebrated minds, talents and livers of the second half of the 20th Century (and Kate Moss) and tells a great many tales of unreported high jinks and debauchery. Parkin interviewed upwards of 50 surviving former Colony habitués for the book and has dug up a trove of fab photos.

Madame Arcati enjoyed a bout of intercourse with Sophie - those of a tender sensibility may want to pass on this interview...

Q: Sophie Parkin! You’ve written The Colony Room Club 1948-2008 – is anyone alive from that era who remembers anything?

SP: ‘Plenty of both I‘m glad to say,’ as Muriel said to Dan Farson when asking her about her sexual proclivities. Paul Johnson was a great interview as was the fruity and funny Sir Peregrine Worsthorne. Anne Valery (think Tenko) , Irma Kurtz - wonderful about John Hurt and Francis Bacon ('Last night I was stuck between a Ham and a Bacon') - and the definition of a bohemian bar. And once I reminded mother [Molly Parkin], a few indiscretions popped up around Tony Shaffer (playwright), Cedric Price (architect), Ernő Goldfinger and Robert Brownjohn, the designer of the first James Bond credits; oh, and John Bryce the producer of The Avengers in his Aqua car. All very 1960s.

Shove in the whipping guardsman story concerning Victor Spinetti and the Colony couple from Hampstead and it's almost a Joan Littlewood production. Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'be – you’re telling me!

Q: ‘The Colony was a club for lushes and is best off gone. Incidence of liver cirrhosis will decline’. Discuss.

SP: Have you been to other clubs? Some of the ‘new wave' of fashionable clubs are so depressing and unfriendly you drink to forget you are there. They never organise beanos like the 'Come in Chapeau Party' 1968 to raise money for a disabled children’s Christmas party for kiddies with MS. Victor Lowndes kindly supplied the waitresses - Bunny Girls, Annie Ross and George 'wigglebum’ Melly provided the entertainment, poor kids! 

One day Jeffrey Bernard organised a trip to Ascot for the horse fanciers and got an open top double decker to stop outside whereby members got on through the first floor window. Bernard took all the bets and when the races ended mysteriously disappeared. 

The club wasn't just a place for lushes, it was for outsiders whether from the upper classes or the lower, Burroughs/Bacon/Freud or Sir Frederick Ashton, Trevor Howard, LS Lowry, Sir Robert Helpmann and Lady Rose McLaren. It was for the blossoming of great conversation whether with Keith Waterhouse; or Johnny Speight with Kate Moss as a bar maid or Daniel Craig with Joe Strummer on guitar and Todd Matshikiza on piano and Lisa Stansfield on vocals. 

Everyone played there on Sunday nights from The Hours, The Magic Numbers, Badly Drawn Boy to Alabama 3 and The View.
Ian Broad on Hampstead Heath

Q: Who’s the cunt who decided that the Club should be no more. I mean, if I Google ‘The Colony’ there is a website claiming the Colony still exists. Please explain.

SP: I don’t know why someone hasn’t taken that down. I don’t know who built it but Michael Wojas, who paid for it, has been dead for 2 years.

Perhaps it was the landlord Mr Ibrahim after Ian Board tried to strangle him; perhaps it was Michael who wanted the legend to die with him. The Colony however is less a place more a state of mind and when I open the Deal Arts Club from the huge funds of my book The Colony Room Club 1948-2008 it will transfer there. It will have to be a membership club - ordinary people on a day trip to the seaside might be offended by the full use of our language and the freedom of our thoughts.

Now, if we assume most members of the Colony were/are drunken reprobates with casually vacant genitalia, who will threaten to sue you? There's a pretty tale or two to tell. 

Foreign Correspondent Dick West swears it didn’t happen to him but that an Australian reporter went up to interview Tom Driberg MP. The Colony he thought would be a Gentlemen’s Club. He was greeted at the door by Muriel and asked to be directed to Mr Driberg, ‘He’s the one in the corner with his hand round that sailor's cock.’ Driberg liked a man in uniform. 

But he also liked a working class man - Geoffrey Wheatcroft apologised to Driberg at the Colony for putting a picture of Driberg, Lord Boothby and the Kray twins in a compromising photo in a book by his publishers. Driberg said mournfully, ‘It’s just it’ll stop me getting into clubs’. Not the Colony. As Muriel drily noted: ‘He never worried about it when Ronnie’s cock was in his mouth.’ 

Driberg also admitted to Christopher Hitchens in the Colony that he loved going into special committees in the House of Commons with semen still sticky at the corners of his mouth.

It wasn't only homosexual activity, however. Christine Keeler and Stephen Ward were often at the bar (is it true Lloyd Webber is making a musical of it all?). Paul Johnson said she was very dreary, though Ward used to like to have dog collars and leads on girls he took to pubs and he didn’t drink more than an orange juice. A decade later, Peter Langan - the famous Brasserie owner - could often be found of an afternoon delighting middle-aged ladies by crawling around the banquette and putting his head up their skirts and (as George Melly put it) 'yodelling in the canyon.'

But why did Peter choose to wear those white linen suits? The follow-through stains showed up something awful.

Q: You were a member of the Colony. Were your genitalia casually vacant? Don’t you say to your wonderful mother Moll: ‘How could you have exposed me to such a place, with all those ghastly drunks slavering over each other!’

SP: It was a wonderful place; you must be a tiny bit jealous? I am eternally grateful to both my Ma and Pa for taking me in there and I was proud to be a member but it was odd seeing people like Jude Law or Stella McCartney in there at the end.

As to my vacant or otherwise purse I shall quote Irma Kurtz, agony aunt of Cosmopolitan -“The Colony wasn’t a pick-up joint. If you fell in love or lust, that was nice, but it was beside the point. Bohemian behaviour meant that you didn’t share the same restrictions and morality. Now everybody sleeps with anybody from Hendon to Highbury. Sleeping with someone because you want to doesn’t mean anything now.” Quite.
The Colony enjoys free promo
Q: What were Muriel’s teeth like? Was she lesbotic? I think you say somewhere she was only a bit lesbotic. Ian Board was definitely lesbotic – didn’t he throw Francis Bacon out once and said he was a useless painter or something?

SP: Never. Everybody was frightened of Francis; he had such a huge presence, and a charisma bigger than Nelson’s Column. 

Muriel was known as a Portuguese Jewish lesbian from Birmingham whose parents owned the Alexandra Theatre – all total bollocks. Along with the fact that The Colony was named after her Jamaican girlfriend Carmel. Carmel, aka the Fox, wasn’t about when Mu first took over the club; it had been a club for old colonials. Paul Johnson was taken there first in 1947, pre it being Muriel’s, with Jimmy and Teddy Goldsmith - and they were on the lookout for Benzedrine – it was all the rage then. She definitely had a soft spot for pretty boys and good-looking women. Ian liked leather-clad men who would beat him.

Do you want a picture of him as a male model on Hampstead Heath? [Yes please, see above - MA]

Q: Is it true Will Self was a habitué? I believe he was particularly kind to persons behind the bar. Yet he now claims the Colony was a hideous place – didn’t he satirise it in Liver? I can’t recall the title but there was a liver in it. 

SP: I don’t know if that is satire. I know all the Private Eye lot like Peter Cook went in the Colony and he opened up The Establishment where Lenny Bruce performed in London - and Terry Southern.

I thought satire was meant to be funny? Anyway, Self was (so he tells me) in love with the barman Ben Tranin, but that’s his story to satirise or otherwise. It's strange how people's drug of choice separates them. I personally can’t stand popping pills or puffing weed or shooting up, which tends to kill many more people who do it than the percentage of people who drink and die of liver disease. He insists everyone died of cirrhosis of the liver, but Wojas was a druggy more than a drinker, and Ian’s liver was fine. Unfortunately cancer of the lungs killed him. He liked a fag.

Q: I see your book is published by you. Don’t tell me the cunts who run publishing didn’t sense a bestseller in their midst. What’s wrong with these hairy-eared swine? What were you supposed to do – re-title it ‘Harry Potter Goes Tits Up At The Colony’?

SP: Or arse up and heads down - I‘d like to have seen the book jacket in WH Smith. Actually we are publishing it ourselves because it’s the only way to make any money from publishing. Authors advances have shrunk to the size of a cock in the North Pole. And having spent 2 years of my valuable life on this precious tome I didn’t want to be paid peanuts and then see it sink from lack of proper marketing. It’s a great and glorious book not just about sex - there’s some culture in there too. As Muriel said about Peter O’Toole, if he’d been any prettier they’d have had to call it Florence of Arabia.

Q: Do you consume muesli before you write? Do you wear shades as you ply the keyboard? There are many aspiring writers out there hanging onto these bio details. 

SP: I like a nice piece of sourdough smeared with apricot jam before I set to. Would I encourage anyone else to spend 2 years on a history of the Colony? No, don’t bother - I’ve already done it, there’s nothing left to tell….

Q: Sophie, darling. You're a joy and a credit to all loose-livers, so to speak. Good luck with your glorious book.

To order a copy or two of The Colony Room Club 1948-2008: A History of Bohemian Soho by Sophie Parkin, visit her dedicated site. Click here

In a separate post, I report on the Arts Club - boasting a membership engrossed in London arts culture -  snootily declining Sophie's offer to talk about the Colony and her book - it's 'not suitable'. Click here.


Anonymous said...

Bacon most certainly was thrown out by Board. There's even a video on YouTube where Board talks about it.

Lady DooDah said...

Such a tour de force of an interview, just when I'd almost given up on you MA. Most refreshing though I can't say the same of Driberg's mouth contents.

Jonathan King said...

Fabulous - I shall purchase immediately. I'm so proud of being responsible for a UK Eurovision entry very nearly being the delightful ditty "Yodel In The Canyon Of Love".

Arts Club member said...

It would appear no one on this site can be bothered at least to Google. So a little edification.

Will Self's Liver comprises four stories, or 'lobes', two of which are linked caricatures of the Colony. These are Foie Humain and The Plantation Club.

In the former, the Colony-like club is described as a "static universe" characterised by "a perpetual motion of alcoholic fluid like a water feature with a concealed pump."

The Washington Post reviewer is worth quoting.

"Self's brilliance lies in his acute rendering of the miasmal Plantation Club, 'an aquarium filled with absinthe,' which he models closely on the Colony Room in London's Soho, the private drinking club founded in 1948 by the famously rude and foul-mouthed Muriel Belcher. She adopted as her 'daughter' one of the club's first members, the painter Francis Bacon, who appears in Self's story as a world-famous painter of 'brachiating apes,' 'well-built nudes' and 'neotenous golems, their heads part skull, part the melted plastic of dolls.' It's there in the Plantation Club -- 'an establishment where stasis was the prevailing mode,' with 'a permanently fizzing rod of neon screwed to the nicotine ceiling, lending a mortuary ambience to the already deathly scene' -- that Self's bohemians destroy themselves with alcohol and the cruelly lacerating remarks they regard as wit."

Self imagines the fetid and sterile world of the Colony aptly and brilliantly. Scholars who wish to rise above the hack apologies for the Colony of people like Sophie Parkin will find no better a memorialist of the shit-hole than Self.

Anonymous said...

The Arts Club is such a tedious place, especially if compared to The Colony Room. Frankly I never saw Will Self there and doubt he wss a regular or a member. Maybe he was before my time.

I wish this book well and hope it is indeed well researched. The demise of the Colony Room Club was a tragedy and, in my opinion, an act of vandalism.


Anonymous said...

How many pages has this book?

Anonymous said...

Ugh! I nearly threw up when I read that pull out quote. More!

Former NME person said...

Are those comments really from Jonathan King and Twiggy? Fucking confusing place this.