Book Club: 'Tales from the Colony Room: Soho's Lost Bohemia', by Darren Coffield

Robyn Black

Robyn Black

15 May 2020

Darren Coffield, former member of London's Colony Room, takes us behind the bar of one of Soho's most famous drinking dens

What is the art of hospitality? Chic surroundings? A charming host? The ability to gather together like-minded people?

All this and more I suppose. How, then, did a tiny room decorated in ‘melancholic green’, overseen by a ‘gorgon-like proprietrix’ and attracting ‘no clique, (nor) crowd’ become such a legend of the London scene?

In honour of one of London’s most infamous Soho establishments, former member Darren Coffield has written the authorised history of a place he claims saw ‘more romances, more deaths, more horrors and more sex scandals’ than anywhere else in its 60-year history.

How, then, did a tiny room decorated in ‘melancholic green’, overseen by a ‘gorgon-like proprietrix’ and attracting ‘no clique, (nor) crowd’ become such a legend of the London scene?

Originally opening in 1948, the Colony was a bohemian hangout attracting a motley crew of, not just the musicians and artists it became known for in its later days, but also the toffs, barrow boys, petty criminals, and strippers of its early years. In the pages of this book, the blurb attests, ‘you can queue for the loo with Christine Keeler, go racing with Jeffrey Bernard, get laid with Lucian Freud, kill time with Doctor Who, pick a fight with Frank Norman and pass out with Peter Langan’. You could also be served a drink by Dick Bradsell who was the last person to preside over its bar.

It is written in the style of ‘oral biography’, which means it is a series of quotes taken from thirty interview tapes of club members, given to the author by the club’s final owner Michael Wojas. I’m not usually a fan of this style of book, but in this sense it works to reflect the sheer number of people connected with the club; the disparate characters of its members, and invokes the snap-shot memories of a night out generated by evenings in places like the Colony.

Running a drinking club is... ‘a way of life…a vocation like being a priest, a calling’

Despite the sheer volume and fame of characters in the book though, it’s the three owners that shine through. From the aforementioned original owner, the ‘gorgon-like proprietrix’ Murial Belcher, to the terrifying Ian Board, and Wojas, who was either the saviour of the club or its murderer, depending on who’s being quoted. As well they might too, for running a drinking club is, as described in the penultimate passage of the book, ‘a way of life…a vocation like being a priest, a calling’ and it consumed all three of them.

As Soho becomes ever more sanitised, it does us all good to remember venues like the Colony Room and remember that hospitality is an undefined art indeed.

Hardback, £25; e-book, £10.28, Unbound

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