Tag Archives: Sohemia

The more bohemian forerunner of The Groucho Club in London’s Soho

Sophie Parkin at the Sohemian Society last night

Sophie Parkin at the Sohemian Society meeting last night

The Groucho Club stands rather discreetly in Dean Street, Soho, with no identifying name and behind windows half-hiding what goes on inside. Its members are media trendies, but rather respectable – even if they might have a self-image of themselves that they are not.

What they certainly are not is true bohemians. But Dean Street clubs were not always this way.

Last night, I went to the Sohemian Society in an upstairs room at the Wheatsheaf pub in what some call Fitzrovia, some North Soho and some aspirational estate agents even sometimes call Noho.

Sophie Parkin, daughter of Molly Parkin, was showing an extraordinary series of photos she had collected for her new self-published book about The Colony Room Club 1948-2008: A History of Bohemian Soho.

Sophie Parkin's new history of Bohemian Soho

Sophie Parkin’s new history of Sohemia

As I blogged a couple of days ago about self-publishing, it’s worth mentioning that Sophie has said “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 two 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.”

For most of its life, The Colony Room Club was run by the irreplaceable Muriel Belcher, who tended to welcome all comers  to the Colony with the greeting “Hello, Cunty!”

Based in a small upstairs room in Dean Street, the Colony became famous as a drinking club for the likes of painters Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, writer Dylan Thomas and polycreative George Melly.

Opposite the Colony Club in Dean Street stood the more up-market Gargoyle Club, which was interior-designed by the artist Henri Matisse and architect Edwin Lutyens and had as its chairman the painter Augustus John. It had been opened in 1925 by aristocratic playboy and bohemian David Tennant – not to be confused with Doctor Who – and actress Hermione Baddeley.

“David Tennant was very bohemian,” explained Sophie Parkin last night, “but he was very against ‘theatricals’, as he called them. So he would not allow even Hollywood actress Tallulah Bankhead to join his club straight away. It might be because of the story that she had met some kind of high-class landed gentry type Englishman and spent some time with him – ‘got to know him’ in a Biblical fashion – and the next time she saw him was in the Café Royal and he snubbed her, so she said loudly: What’s the matter, dahling? Can’t you recognise me with my clothes on?

Even more bizarre stories about the even more bohemian Colony Room Club abound, featuring the likes of writer William Burroughs, painter L.S.Lowry and ballet dancers Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann. With the likes of writers Keith Waterhouse, Johnny Speight and Jeffrey Barnard around and with sometime barmaid Kate Moss (the model) and barman Daniel Craig (later James Bond), the possibility of legendary stories arising is endless. In the early 1960s, even Christine Keeler and Stephen Ward were said to be frequent visitors.

There were other even more surprising luminaries – including spies Burgess & Maclean, who allegedly spent their last night in London at the Colony Room Club before they fled to the Soviet Union. And East End gangsters Ronnie and Reg Kray.

Sophie’s book includes quotes from Ronnie and Reg saying how much they enjoyed meeting artist Francis Bacon at the Colony and, last night, an audience member mentioned a rumour that the Twins had actually stolen some paintings from Bacon, then sold them back to him.

The Colony was known for its homosexual members at a time when homosexuality was, as Sophie says, “not just illegal but very illegal”

The Krays had been introduced to the club by their gay MP friend and Colony Room Club regular Tom Driberg (later reputed to be a Czech spy).

According to Sophie, Driberg “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”.

“There’s a lovely story about Tom Driberg,” Sophie Parkin said last night, “getting annoyed with another member, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who had become a publisher. In one book, Geoffrey had included a picture of him in the company of the Krays. Tom told him: I don’t want my reputation destroyed. He was complaining about this to Muriel Belcher at the Colony and she told him: You never seemed to mind when Ronnie’s cock was in your mouth.”

Sophie also talked about David Archer, the publisher in the early 1950s of Dylan Thomas, George Barker, Louis MacNeice and others.

“You can,” said Sophie, “name all the major poets of that era and he published them all in Parton Press and let them retain copyright. He had inherited a huge amount of money and didn’t care about money – He just gave it to people who didn’t have it. And then, at the end, he ran out of money and everybody deserted him. He lived in a bedsit and died penniless. He committed suicide and, the day after, suddenly this Foundation found him. They didn’t have the internet in those days. They had been searching for him for five years and they had another great big huge amount of money to give him.”

So it goes.

The Colony Room club is now no more.

So it goes.

It has been turned into three flats.

Sophie Parkin and her husband now live in Deal, Kent.

Last night, Sophie’s husband told me they hope to open the Deal Arts Club soon.

According to Sophie: “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.”

Indeed.

After all, Sohemia is a state of mind rather than a physical location.

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In Sohemia: God bless the onion-like layers of the English class system

(A version of this piece was also published by the Huffington Post)

I once interviewed Nigel Kneale, author of the still extraordinarily excellent BBC TV series Quatermass and The Pit.

He was born in the Isle of Man and told me he thought being a Manxman had helped him as a writer because his upbringing was British but he also simultaneously felt an outsider.

I do not have that advantage – though, born in Scotland but having lived my life almost entirely in England, I feel Scots but distanced; British but not at all English.

There is a layer of English society – or perhaps several overlapping onion-like layers – which floats.

I exaggerate, of course.

But there is a level of intelligent, sophisticated and moneyed English people who glide through life. They may not feel they have money; they may even struggle financially; but they know they have the security blanket that they are never going to fail utterly and end up in the gutter with no friends, desolate, unable to keep body and soul together.

This last week, I went to the Sohemian Society for the first time and I think that layer was visible. The Society is ostensibly a celebration of the culture and history of Soho, which has always had a Bohemian element to it. But Soho overlaps into Fitzrovia and both those areas attract interesting people. Perhaps half or more of the audience, though, had never heard of the Sohemian Society; they had come along specifically to see the speaker that night.

Before the talk started, a couple of women behind me were chatting about the actress Dulcie Gray, whom they had known; the very amiable man who sat next to me turned out to be the editor of a very exclusive reference book; the speaker that night, Andrew Barrow, had written a biography of Naked Civil Servant Quentin Crisp whom he and others in the audience had known.

Of course, grim reality enters into everyone’s life. Dulcie Gray died earlier this month aged 95 and, alas, was mostly forgotten by Middle England. The very exclusive reference book edited by the man next to me – like all reference works – is under an economic sword of Damocles held by Wikipedia and the internet in general. And Quentin Crisp died twelve years and one day before the Sohemian Society meeting, now just a footnote in English social history, perhaps even seen as a fictional character in some long-ago gay film – Didn’t he appear in that chest-buster scene in Alien?

And then there are the melancholic memories of what might have been but never was. The would-be Icarus characters who might have flown through English artistic life and might even have missed the sun but who never even took off.

Author Andrew Barrow was talking to the Sohemian Society (which is open to all – anyone can wander along) about his book Animal Magic: A Brother’s Story

It is about his brother Jonathan Barrow, who was killed with his fiancée in a car crash just a few days before their wedding in 1970. Jonathan was aged 22 and, a few days after his death, Andrew found the manuscript of a very bizarre novel Jonathan had recently finished writing.

In The QueueJonathan included several mentions of head-on car crashes and, in a another scene, there was another dark premonition of what actually did happen after his death. The church booked for his wedding ceremony did become the venue for his and his fiancee’s funeral.

Their funeral was just a few days before the day on which they had been going to be married.

Judging by the extracts read by Andrew, The Queue is wildly surreal, featuring a cast of humans, animals and hybrids.

When Andrew showed the manuscript to Quentin Crisp shortly after Jonathan’s death, Quentin said: “Your brother looked healthy, happy, natural. He could have played head prefect at Eton. But everything else about him is extremely odd. Not faintly odd. Extremely odd.”

The Observer has said the book treads the thin line between “brilliance and total barminess”.

The Independent on Sunday says it is “a wild picaresque fantasy, erotically polymorphous … with a cast of bizarre humans and talking animals”.

That would be the hens and stoats and toads and suicidal owls, a central dachshund called Mary who is an alcoholic drug addict and extremely promiscuous, a spineless hedgehog, a human sheep old enough to remember Disraeli and a fish specially-trained by the police for “complex underwater retrievals” which gets lost down the drain in a dirty bookshop in Soho.

Not your normal novel, then.

Though very English.

Someone in the audience asked Andrew if he thought it would have been published if Jonathan had lived. The answer was yes, almost certainly, because Jonathan (who had a job in advertising) knew lots of publishers.

Jonathan Barrow, it seems to me, was one of those people who would have glided through life; he seems in retrospect to have had a wonderfully artistic and creatively fulfilling future ahead of him, gliding through English society.

But, in a handful of seconds, his timeline stopped.

It can happen to anyone.

Ars longa. Vita brevis.

The sword of Damocles hangs over everyone’s head, held by a thin thread.

Andrew Barrow has now had Jonathan’s book published.

And his own book Animal Magic – about Jonathan and about The Queue – has also been published and been described as “a funny, dark memoir. Think Tommy Cooper describing a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.”

Which may be a good description because, in his youth, Andrew tried to be a stand-up comic – mostly, he says, by nicking Tommy Cooper’s gags.

He admits he was awful.

But he himself is almost as interesting as The Queue.

He is intelligent, sophisticated, witty and a good writer.

He introduced the legendary Daily Telegraph obituaries editor Hugh Massingberd to Ken Dodd at the London Palladium.

He has lived.

Country Life magazine described Animal Magic as “Deft, witty and poignant”.

The Lady wrote: “This book ultimately belongs to Jonathan, and it is testament to his sibling’s skill that he appears here so vividly, his supreme peculiarity preserved”.

To the Sohemian Society, Andrew Barrow said: “If just one reader writes to thank you and say they enjoyed a book you have written, it makes it worthwhile. You hope to make them laugh. If they laugh and cry, that’s even better.”

Amen.

God bless Englishness.

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