Droll jokes were the signature style, and Muriel must have been pretty good, because everybody, not least the barmen, spoke exactly like her. ‘I don’t know why they call her Spender,’ Muriel said of the poet in his scampering years, before he became Sir Stephen. ‘She never puts her hand in her pocket.’ Members felt that drinking anywhere else wasn’t really drinking. Coffield’s book is a terrific ode to screeching – as well as a generous social history – and it lobs a multicoloured grenade into the frigidity of the present moment. We are living through a period when sexual fluidity can be used to reduce freedom rather than to enlarge it, and the story of the Colony provides a good lesson in the art of letting people be. Muriel ‘dissolves the sexes’, Bacon said at the time, ‘so that they come together in a relaxed way to live out their hour’s fantasy’. That is as good a presiding philosophy as any speakeasy requires. Bacon, for his part, fell in love with Peter Lacy, ‘a former fighter pilot turned club pianist. He was also a sadomasochist with a comprehensive collection of rhino whips.’
According to Coffield, “the only unforgivable sin in the club was to be boring”, but, as always in books about Soho and its denizens, while assertions are made about the pervasive wit and conversational brilliance, actual evidence of dazzling talk is nonexistent. There is nothing left but ugly recollections of snarling and swearing, everyone plastered and “getting angry” like “a pack of mongrel bitches in a slum alley”. If Coffield had hoped to resurrect mythical beings, all he has found for the historical record are thoroughly pathetic “pale and blotchy” self-destructive types, who resided in bedsitting rooms “with a sink, a gas ring and a chamber pot under the bed”.
‘Here there were no rules, no conventions of sexuality, class, money or age that divided the rest of Britain. To be young and different in the regions was hell. But in Soho it was heaven because you could be yourself.’ The book is an elegy to that vanished world; not necessarily the best of times for everyone, but a world where people talked to each other, not just their mobile phones. And always there at the Colony bar would be the members, propping it up, slumped over it or, later in the day, asleep under it.
Once they decided you fitted at the Colony, you became part of the family. It helped if you didn’t really fit in anywhere else. Homosexuality was illegal for the first 19 years of the club’s existence. But if you were gay, you didn’t have to worry at the Colony. If you had a drink problem, nobody bothered. In fact, if you lived any kind of rackety life, you were welcome. “I always felt that the reason why the Colony had such longevity was that the club acted as an extended family for those who didn’t fit elsewhere in society,” Coffield says.