An excerpt from The Colony Room Club, 1948-2008 – A History of Bohemian Soho by Sophie Parkin
(In memory of Oliver Bernard, born 6 December 1925, died 1 June 2013)
The real obsession for young people in the 50s, however, was with jazz. Traditional, bebop or otherwise, it was causing loosened corsets in smoke-filled basements across Soho. It had come over from America in the 1940’s and by the early 50s young people, even the improbable likes of Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, were going wild for it, as was Colony member Geoffrey Wynn who composed the jazz for Jaques Tati movies as well as writing the story of Alain Roman’s WWII espionage – The Empty Coffin.
The clubs were ‘temples of New Orleans devoted to cold coffee and hot sex’, as John Mortimer remarked. Humphrey Lyttleton’s, ‘Humph’s’ at 100 Oxford Street Club had queues on Mondays and Saturdays right through to Soho Square. Although Humphrey was not a Colony member he went often with Wally Fawkes who was in his band. He had the typical Colony mentality: whatever assignment you are offered say ‘yes’ first and learn about it afterwards, and refuse to be a member of any club that would have you. Thus did Humphrey go from trumpeter to cartoonist to food critic to TV presenter to chairman of radio panel shows.
George ‘Bunny Bum’ Melly, known for his enticing wiggle on stage, was with sidekick John ‘trumpet’ Chilton not helping the governments cause towards being, ‘upright and proper’. They voted with their feet for all night jazz raves. Drugs, dancing and inter-racial friendliness moved onto sweaty all night Calypso parties, leading to physical abandonment between men and men all classes. Cy Laurie, clarinettist, opened a club in Ham Yard. During the day it was Mac’s Rehearsal Rooms at 41 Windmill Street, at night the first ‘Alnite Raveups’ Cy Laurie’s Jazz Club featuring Melly on Vocals. They were easy pick-up joints for those that knew how. The puritanical social fabric of early 50s Britain was being destroyed by jazz. In this time of austerity, wrote Melly, ‘Soho was the only area in London where the rules didn’t apply… tolerance its password, where bad behaviour was cherished.’
‘The great thing about Jazz, is that no one, not a soul, cares what your class is, what your race is, what your income is or if you are a boy of a girl or bent or versatile or what you are.’ So wrote Colin MacInnes. Permissive thinker and Pre-Raphaelite, Edward Burne Jones was MacInnes great grandfather. MacInnes’ cousins were Rudyard Kipling and British prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Gay and with a penchant for silent dark West Indian men, MacInnes championed the black cause and people who knew him said that he gave money away to people who needed it, taught immigrants the rules and their rights in this new country, well before Citizens Advice had set up its neighbourhood scheme. A Barbadian friend, who shared a flat with him, Michael Hunte, said: ‘He thought society was giving us a raw deal, so he bullied us all the time to make more of ourselves.’ MacInnes lived at night and imposed upon his white friends. He wrote the novels Absolute Beginners and City of Spades and his homes and book locations were the streets of Soho and Notting Hill, where the ruthless racketeer Rachman ruled and whom MacInnes rallied against. Strange they might have been in the Colony together when Christine Keeler was Rachman’s mistress.
A kind of sociologist, predicting trends like the power of the teenager prior to its invention, MacInnes loved Muriel and vice versa but many other members found him terrifying. He had a way of standing in the corner staring hard and making spiteful comments delivered with a sneer. ‘Despite his cantankerousness, Colin could be endearing.’ Dan Farson wrote. He was also a perceptive journalist for the literary and cultural magazine Encounter, started by Stephen Spender in 1953 and infamously detailed a description of Muriel and club culture during the 50s in Soho and the way that the law had not foreseen these sorts of clubs growing. Legally they were meant to be Co-operative Societies, where no profit or loss was made. But in reality they were wholly run, bought, sold and administered by individuals who did profit. Whether Muriel or Brewster Hughes with his own club The Abalabi, The Club Afrique with Ambrose Campbell, Boris Watson of The Mandrake, Mary Douse (known as The Scull) of The Kismet where criminals and coppers mingled, Slim Cattan of The Georgian they all relied heavily on the personality of the manager and the membership they attracted. Of course, Muriel insisted she was far too busy to ever visit other people’s clubs but the Colony certainly made a profit for her.
Oliver Bernard described Soho as being, a ‘members club in itself’ and that you joined clubs within that club to get away from tourists and football louts. But wherever you went subscription had to be paid: a half pint in a pub, a cup of tea in a cafe. Nothing was free. Both Bernard and MacInnes point that there were few clubs where you could be certain to meet all your friends and that to go about alone was easiest to fit into a place like the Colony as you didn’t have to worry about your friend being entre nous, offended or rejected. For Bernard, the place where most different sorts gathered was The Caves de France, next door to the Colony, where you could expect to meet some of the Colony’s banned members, the two Roberts (Colquhoun and McBryde), poet Sydney Graham, critic John Raymond, Peter Brook, Nina Hamnett, writer Frank Norman, Paul Johnson and many others. “It was possible to move from one end to the other and talk with an entirely different collection of people,” says Bernard. “To do that in the Colony Room, you had to stay much closer to people and be more intimate.”
Gerald Hamilton was always in The Caves and extraordinarily proud to have been the opus for Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood. He vied with Aleister Crowley for the title of Wickedest Man in Britain. It was said that not only had he avoided conscription during the war by escaping to Ireland dressed as a Mother Superior but had before the war sold forged passports to Jews, informing the Nazis as they approached the border, thus being paid twice. When challenged by Farson: “Is it true that you are the wickedest man in Europe?” he replied: “Oh that’s very kind of you” he chuckled. “Wittiest, well really…”
“No not wittiest, wickedest.”
“Well”, he replied with outraged innocence. “I’m just a harmless old man and when my time comes I shall face my maker with great confidence.”
‘I expect he bribed his way in,’ writes Farson. I’m sure he was right but as with Crowley, never under estimate the wicked.
Farson’s view about it being a more innocent era was perhaps due to his own innocent eyes. The poverty of the time, the buttoned-up behaviour that could be unleashed with a word, the atmosphere of violence hanging like a cloud waiting to burst. Crowley who had been defeated in a libel action by Nina Hamnett, perhaps had cursed her. By 1956 Nina had had enough, forced to live in Paddington and no longer her beloved Fitzrovia, she threw herself from out of the window. Her body spiked on the railings 40 feet below.
A play written by her friend Bob Pocock about her had been aired on the radio and she hadn’t liked what she’d heard. Friends often fall out over portrayals of each other, whether by paintings or words, with egos trampled. At 66 the acknowledged Queen of Bohemia died. Her last words were,
“Why can’t they let me die?”
A year later Hamnett’s friend Johnny Minton, the life of so many parties, also committed suicide. Norman Bowler his lover, was in love with Henrietta Moraes, and Minton made him choose; Bowler chose her. “My heart fell to my boots,” Moraes said. Minton never awoke after taking an overdose.
Like his friend Hamnett, Welsh wild man Dylan Thomas failed to get out of bed one morning at The Chelsea Hotel in New York of pneumonia (there was little sign of cirrhosis of the liver). He raged against ‘the dying of the light’ and was only 39 but produced a body of work that defined him as Wales’ greatest poet. Hamnett’s fellow Tenbyite, Augustus John would die in his 80’s in 1961, lorded with Honours and leaving behind a scurrilous reputation and (some estimated) 100 illegitimate children. He had made Fitzrovia his, had been part of The Chelsea Arts Club since the century began and was president of The Gypsy Lore Society as well as The Gargoyle; the old school were dying out.
As Douglas Sutherland wrote about the Colony and Soho in the 1950’s: ‘You cannot really expect to have such diverse personalities packed in a small smoked filled room, with the drinks rattling across the counter like bursts of machine gun fire, and maintain the calm of a tea party on the vicarage lawn.’ But if you survived, what an education.
You can buy ‘The Colony Room Club, 1948-2008’ from www.thecolonyroom.com for £30 or from various independent bookshops. Sophie will be talking about the Colony and its members’ behaviour and showing slides at The Groucho Club on Sunday 21st July at 7pm, and at The London History Festival on the 17th of October. There will also be an Exhibition of Artists of The Colony Room at England & Co gallery, Great Portland Street in December 2013. Contact Sophie for more information or to RSVP for The Groucho Club event on the 21st.