When I first started my blog page my two main objectives was to show a different side to this great capital of ours and to make a virtual gentleman's club (where of course ladies are allowed to join), in which one can feel that they are part of a club where one can have a fine glass of brandy and talk crap.
I would like to bring up a point that the term gentlemen's club is now unfortunately used to describe a place where young ladies who can only buy clothes which are too big for them visit: These ladies then commence to dance, sometimes around a rather polished metallic pole. The XL sized garments do not hang in the proper manner that is accustomed to these ladies and after a few seconds of the Charleston they find their clothes slip off and fall to the floor. These clubs are frequented by gentlemen whom feeling pity for these fair dames, offer money so they can buy themselves more proper attire, unfortunately for these unfortunate creatures the only place to put this money is in their garters. The men go home in floods of tears, wishing there was more they could have done.
The gentleman's clubs I speak of are not such places.
Ever since I came to London over 12 years ago now, I always had an interest in these ancient hidden members clubs and what lay behind the door policy. I was lucky enough to have visited quite a few and be a member of some. What always interested me was the way that each club would attract a different kind of person, it was like being in adult gang with people that are interested in the same things you are, also a great place for networking and being on the pulse of your industry. Many historic moments have occurred in our cities london clubs,it may be remembered that Lord Queens-berry s incriminating note accusing Wilde of "posing as a somdomite[sic.]" was left for him at the Albermarle Club. While Phileas Fogg started his journey from the Reform Club, went around the world and returned to the same club in 80 days.
Before I go any further let me give you a brief history of the 'gentleman's club'.
A BRIEF HISTORY
The Clubs had their origin in the old Coffee Houses which came into existence as a result of the introduction of coffee into England from Turkey, by David Saunders, in the year 1652. So rapid was the success of the new beverage, so universally was it found to lend itself to social gatherings, to promote conversation, and alas to afford opportunities for gambling, that by the middle of Queen Anne's reign the number of Coffee Houses in London and Westminster had grown to several hundreds, some imaginative estimates putting the figure at 2,000. Hence arose the clubs in our modern sense; houses for the chosen few, where men of common tastes and of one class might meet together. In the fashionable neighborhoods the indiscriminate type of Coffee Houses almost disappeared, giving place to houses which adopted a political or party colour of their own. The nineteenth century was the age of clubs, each with its own building resembling a stately mansion where gentlemen smoked, drank, ate, read (in libraries or news rooms), gambled, played billiards, and socialized among their peers. Members were elected (or not--that is, blackballed) and clubs members often had common political or recreational interests. Among the political clubs in the Victorian period were the Reform Club, an institution of the Liberals with a name relating to the famous Reform Act of 1832, the Conservative, and the Carlton founded by the Duke of Wellington in 1832. Others clubs were for members of the universities (The Oxford and Cambridge University Clubs), for automobile fanciers (The Royal Automobile Club), for mountaineers, for members of the Army and Navy (The Army and Navy Club), for travelers who had been more than 500 miles from London (The Traveler's Club), and for artists, writers, and scientists and their patrons (Athenaeum Club). It was not uncommon for a gentleman to have membership in more than one club. Women were of course not admitted, although by the end of the nineteenth century there were some clubs for women. Waiting lists were long, even for males. These large clubs were most often designed in the classical style, even though much Victorian architecture was inspired by Gothic precedents. Most had a number of large rooms: library, lounge, dining room, smoking room, billiard room, and card room. In the second half of the century some provided bedrooms for members who lived outside the city and preferred to stay in the club rather than a commercial hotel. Many had outstanding libraries. The clubs were generally furnished in an austere "bachelor" style, foregoing the "feminine" clutter of the typical Victorian house. Its worth pointing out that many of these clubs didn't judge you by the colour of your skin, but more so on your up bringing. It was quite common to see an Asian or Black gentlemen frequenting the halls of these establishment. But woman 'No'.
Many of these clubs still exist with the same house rules that date back over 250 years ago. But in the eighties at the peak of Thatcherite consumer Britain a new wave of private members clubs opened. These clubs still had the impossibly strict membership rules, but with the difference that they were not solely for men of the upper classes. One such club was the Groucho Club on Dean Street which opened in 1985 as "the antidote to the traditional club." In this spirit, the club was named for Groucho Marx because of his famous remark that he would not wish to join any club that would have him as a member.
Membership is difficult to obtain and its members are mostly drawn from the media, entertainment, arts and fashion industries. The club is known as a haunt of Young British Artists, including Damien Hirst, whose behavior caused him to be banned several times from the club. I used to have a friend that was a member of the Groucho Club, and visited quite a few times during the time of the so called Brit Pop sensation, I was there the night that The Gallagher brothers decided to throw snooker balls at each other, they were also banned...for a while anyway, as it was great bit of historic mythology for the club.
And thats what many of these clubs live on and make them interesting, also in the 90s I was a member of a club called Tatty Bogles (The bogle is also a creature that loves to vex humans until they go insane) off Kingly street, legend has it that the club was owned by the guy that played Flash Gordon in the old black and white TV series, I don't know what truth lies in this, but one thing for sure it was the strangest, darkest little place you could have imagined. It looked like it was stuck in 1973 with staff that looked in their 70s too. But thats what made it so endearing, it felt like your own private secret den, where the fake and over priced glitz of modern london were banned. Of course this same understatement attracted a post ironic crowd, who started to make the club more popular. Even Kate Moss could be seen frequenting its dark corridors, it was then that you knew the place had lost its original feel. Recently it has been closed down for a complete refurbishment, I'm not sure what it will be like but I'm sure it will loose a lot of its charm.
Another one of my favorite clubs is The Phoenix Artists Club just off the Charring Cross Road. Again a basement bar ( my favorite type - I believe all good drinking places are closer too hell than heaven), is located in the original dressing and rehearsal rooms of the Phoenix Theatre where Laurence Olivier made his debut on stage in the thirties in "Private Lives" with Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. A large cellar like space with worn wooden tables and theatrical memorabilia. As you'd expect, the Phoenix Artist Club serves an arty looking clientele, from the usual old soaks to Topshop girlies. Members-only apparently, but they don't always check for a card. The Phoenix Artist Club is pleasantly dark and nicotine stained; more a wine and pint place than for cocktails love it.
But the club I've always wanted to be a member of, but I know will never have me is The Colony Rooms (also known as Muriel's) at 41 Dean Street, Soho, London. The Colony Room is an intimidating cubby hole which, over the past 60 years, has seen everyone from Francis Bacon to Kate Moss hold court.
There’s a buzzer hidden down a filthy corridor on Dean Street that you probably shouldn’t ever press if you’re moderately prudish or offended by sentences where the clauses, conjunctions and adverbs are made up entirely of swear words. There’s a clue to what you can expect in the name next to the bell. Written in thick marker pen is the pithy ‘Cunty’.
The room at the top of the narrow stairs is about the size of the front half of a caravan. It’s warm, verging on stuffy, and everything is painted a crepuscular shade of green.
The Museum of London website says of the Colony Room, "The Colony Room was one of many drinking clubs in Soho. The autocratic and temperamental owner Muriel Belcher created an ambiance which suited those who thought of themselves as misfits or outsiders."
Belcher,bucolic, alcoholic, lesbian heroine lover, had previously run a club called the Music-box in Leicester Square during World War II. She managed to secure a 3PM-to-11PM drinking license for the Colony Room bar as a private members club, whereas public houses had to close at 2:30PM. Francis Bacon was a founding member, walking in the day after it opened in 1948. He was "adopted" by Belcher as a "daughter" and allowed free drinks and £10 a week to bring in friends and rich patrons.
After Belcher's death, the club continued under the stewardship of her long-term barman Ian Board, known as Ida, until his death in 1994. In turn, it then passed to his veteran barman Michael Wojas, who recently celebrated his silver jubilee at the club. Board and Wojas have ensured that the Colony Room today is as popular as ever with artists of all types, and in particular of late, those who have come to be known as Young British Artists (YBAs), including Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Tracy Emin. It is the pulse of Soho, the thermometer of London. Why of course it’s the Finest of Wines, the most exclusive club in the Grandest of Cities, though its label may be a little tatty, ‘it’s history is beyond salubrious,’
Some might disagree with the rare beauty of the scummy entrance in Dean Street, but then they’d go to the Soho House, and quite frankly, they are the type of person you wouldn’t want or expect to meet there. I would be surprised to meet Paris Hilton there, but not surprised to bump into Amy Winehouse, I could imagine Britney Spears in her current state, like Princess Margaret or Sarah Lucas, collapsed drunkenly on the floor.
There are rules, unspoken of course, when you enter the Colony, disrobe your prejudice and join the party. Of course you will remain unique enough to be allowed in, to mix and mingle with the celebrities and miscreants, writers, artists, East-end boys and West-end girls, pop stars, drunks, actors, art dealers, poets, performers and plumbers; occasionally even the odd, and I mean really odd, lawyer, and prosecuting council might stand you a drink. But don’t be fooled by the roll call, this isn’t the Groucho Club, (now known as ‘Soho’s Wetherspoon’s’ by some). They’ll be a Lady this, or a Lord that, but not a sniff of an IT girl or footballer — whatever they are. Being rich or famous is not enough to be a member of this august establishment, and the waiting list is as long, and as short as it is for a Birkin bag; and that certainly wouldn’t help. Just remember you cannot enter and lie back on your laurels, you’re walking in the footsteps of sacred monsters and mythical beasts — Brendan Behan, Lucien Freud, Dylan Thomas, William Blake (shurelysomemishtake Mr Daniel Farson? Ed), Elizabeth Smart, John Deacon, Joe Strummer, William Burroughs, Jeffrey Bernard, George Melly, Colquhoun & MacBride, Colin MacInnes, Julian MaLaren-Ross, Patrick Hamilton, Nina Hamnett, Jean Muir, Lord Snowdon, Craigie Aitchinson, Terry Frost, Jeff Nuttal. The still living dignitaries include Damien Hirst, Big Twiggie, Sebastian Horsley, Brunton, Suggs and Chas, Clare & Lawrence the Plumber, John Moore, Wilma, Frances the transsexual, The Magic Numbers, Kate Moss and Stella McCartney, Amanda Harris, Pete Doherty, Vanessa Fenton, Alabama 3, Polly Morgan, Sean Bean, Simon Hopkinson, James Birch, Salena Godden, Barry Humphries, Sienna Miller & Rhys Ifans, John Maybury, Michael Smith, Fergus Henderson, Jude Law — dearie me, any more for the roll call?
However modern and trendy the cliental get, you cannot forget the history of this extraordinary establishment, where dreams have turned into the usual piss and biscuits at the bottom of the baby buggy by morning, but they have also become priceless art, music, books, films, poems, museum currency and saleroom extravaganza. More importantly it is the refuge and enticement for finishing that piece of work, though it has been known to stop you from doing your tax returns.
This little green room with its attached single toilet and cloakroom, has launched, introduced and buried some of the greatest art this past century has known, let alone what the future might produce.
The Colony Room might be small, but it’s like a beautiful tended and well-watered allotment, full of the vain and glorious.
Maybe there is something quintessentially British about being in a club, from the scouts to the street gang with their glorious hoodies. We love feeling like we are part of something exclusive. A place we can escape too and pretend to be someone else for the night.