A new book about Soho has been written by Darren Coffield. This is Tales from the Colony Room: Soho’s Lost Bohemia. It was reviewed in a recent London Review of Books by novelist Andrew O’Hagan whose review may be even more amusing than the book. It does not limit itself to the particular watering hole to which the book is devoted but wanders all over the neighborhood as well looking into Fitzrovia next door. The review opens with this:
Soho never was what it was. That’s its essence: it was always ‘lost’. Its merits are chiefly nostalgic and its denizens were always ghosts. It only existed as a ragged story and an old tune, one each singer could make his own. Nothing in Soho ever quite happened, and the place was always passing into song. […] The Colony Room, 41a Dean Street, was actually a dump full of interesting maniacs tearing lumps out of one another. But the facts don’t cover it. The need for it to be something it never was is the interesting story. […W]hat I loved most was the drinks and the smokes and the endless talk, and the fact that on every corner there was a room where people auditioned for parts that didn’t exist.
Early on, the review makes its way into the Academy Club with this result:
Up in the Academy, Auberon Waugh, happy in the corner and cushioned by an IRA informer or two, bought a round of drinks and told me he’d just run a review of my first book. He said it wasn’t at all bad. ‘What, the review or the book?’ I asked. ‘The review,’ he said. ‘I don’t give a bugger about the book.’ Those clubs were fun, and everybody was 26 (apart from Auberon Waugh, who managed to get through his whole life without being 26, though he might once have been 16, and was undoubtedly, and lastingly, six).
After brief considerations of other literary landmarks such as Jeffrey Bernard at the Coach and Horses (who may have also hung out at the Colony Club) and Julian McLaren Ross at the Wheatsheaf (a Fitzrovian boozer), the review comes to the Colony Room which is the principle matter at hand. That section opens with this:
Francis Bacon was 39 when he tipped up at the club in 1948. He was introduced to it by Brian Howard, the poet and journalist who is Miles Malpractice in Vile Bodies and ‘two-thirds’ of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited (the other third, Evelyn Waugh said, was Harold Acton). Howard is now best known for a single hateful phrase (‘anybody over the age of thirty seen in a bus has been a failure in life’), which is a pity, because the new drinking club run by his friend Muriel ought to have given him a much deeper sense of what failure meant.
And so on for several columns.
In his gossip column in The Times, Patrick Kidd thought O’Hagan’s review so good that he started a recent installment with this:
A new book by Darren Coffield on bohemian Soho, called Tales from the Colony Room, allows the author Andrew O’Hagan to reminisce in London Review of Books. O’Hagan used to frequent the Academy Club where he once met Auberon Waugh, who told him he’d just done a review of O’Hagan’s first novel. “Not at all bad,” Waugh said. “The review or the book?” O’Hagan joked. “The review,” Waugh replied. “I don’t give a bugger about the book.” Acid put-downs are part of Soho culture and the queen of them was Muriel Belcher, founder of the Colony Room. They included a dig at the poet Sir Stephen Spender, who was known as Brenda when in Soho. “I don’t know why they call her Spender,” Belcher sniffed. “She never puts her hand in her pocket.”
Auberon also features in a recent article posted by The Oldie. This is a memoir by A N Wilson in which he recalls those friends he misses most during lockdown. After a portrait of Hugh Massingberd, he writes this:
Bron’s widow Teresa said to me not long ago that most of what he wrote would now be unprintable in the papers. If that is true, and I think it is, it is a sign of how much we need this great writer. I think he was one of the very greatest writers of his generation. He was our Jonathan Swift. In some moods, I think his Private Eye diaries, which I re-read all the time, are better than Swift. He was a truly paradoxical figure, since he could be more cruel than any writer who has ever seen print. No one in personal life could be more generous, warm or polite. None of the journalists at the moment seem to be quite aware, as he was, of what a mad world we inhabit. Or of the monstrous stupidity of our political class. His thoughts on Brexit, Lockdown and so many other things have been sorely missed in the last twelve months. When he was sixty-one, there was a dinner. A friend asked him what he would have liked most for his birthday. He replied “The absolute assurance I won’t see 62”. Alas, his wish was fulfilled.