The Colony Room was, for me at the time, a wonderful discovery. It provided an atmosphere of delectable depravity for the select company of alcoholics and would be artists who managed to win the reluctant approval of Muriel Belcher, the gorgon-like proprietrix.
A long flight of stairs led to this louche establishment and Muriel sat at the entrance, perched on a stool, resembling nothing so much as a Nazi anti Semitic caricature. Her barman and sidekick was Ian ‘Bawd’, an evil looking catamite with a name as Dickensian and descriptive as Muriel’s. They were a double act, and only a very select few of London’s upper class riff raff earned their approval.
Here, in this small, smoke filled room could be found, on almost any night of the week, Francis Bacon in black leather doling out champagne, and Malcolm Williamson, Master of the Queens Musick, noodling at the keyboard in a dark corner. Elizabeth Smart, that Canadian beauty, poet and mistress of the poet George Barker, was always there, and the critic John Davenport, ‘half seas over,’ as they used to say.
Who else can I see through the fumes of Gitane and Senior Service? Who stands at that nasty little bar and looks at me over the parapet of nearly sixty years? ‘The Roberts’ of course, Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun, two artist ‘partners’ who painted identical pictures in the ‘Post-War’ style. My countryman, Colin MacInnes, great-grandson of Burne-Jones and chronicler of Notting Hill and Soho, would certainly be there with a couple of his black protégés, turning more vicious with every drink. A glimpse, perhaps, of Tom Driberg, saturnine journalist, MP and putative spy, cruising the room in search of rough trade, a charming scumbag emeritus whose only claim to respect was to supply a one-word addition to a poem by John Betjeman. He once took me to the nearby Mandrake Club and quizzed me about a writer friend of mine in Prague. And there was always a tall, distinguished personage addressed by Muriel as ‘the Commander’. No doubt he was. A tall, John Cleese-like gent, in command of submarines I later heard, and mostly in command of himself; but after fifteen gins his old seaworthy eyes flickered in the direction of one of the dolly birds who occasionally fluttered into this cage aux folles.
There were certainly some lovely girls there, drawn to the dissolute atmosphere of the club and its habitués, most of whom resembled characters in one of Simon Raven’s more scabrous novels, or personages from a Weimar painting by Dix. Amongst the lovely girls would be Georgina Barker, with whom I long ago enjoyed the most intimate of all human connections, and that charming artist Sally Duxbury, and Sandy Fawkes, reckless blonde journalist and fashion editor, who was later to cohabit with an American serial killer. Of course that celebrity drinker and celebrator of self-destruction, Jeffrey Bernard, would frequently loiter in the Colony when he wasn’t down the road at Gerry’s club on Shaftesbury Avenue, but Muriel didn’t like him much. And in the company of Frank Norman, the jailbird playwright with an ominous razor scar on his soft pink face, Jeffrey became truculent. “His parents sent him to wrong school and he never got over it,” said Elizabeth Smart, enigmatically. A permanent member was Daniel Farson, flaneur, journalist and biographer of Francis Bacon, whose face changed over the years from angelic blonde choirboy to, well, a Francis Bacon portrait.
So what was Muriel’s secret? What did that ogress and her malevolent elf Ian use to entice us to that infernal club? As she grew even uglier and he transformed from lah-de-dah rent boy to a booze bitten queen with a strawberry nose, we still climbed those fateful stairs? Their secret was: ‘the Slate”. No one paid. It was the alcoholics’ paradise. You merely ran up a slate. Later, much later came the reckoning, but you never knew how they arrived at the astronomical total, and alkies like to pay more anyway. It’s our reward and our punishment. When they called the men ‘ fuck-face ‘and the women ‘cunty’ we still came back for more. We thought we were all on ‘life’s threshold’, when we were actually at the terminus.
© Barry Humphries 2020