Seventies Nostalgia

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Post Mortem

A lot of Originals have died since I wrote about them in the late Seventies. Francis Bacon was one of them. He died in 1992. It’s a miracle he didn’t die sooner as he was an active member of The Colony Room, a small bar in Soho which is still popular today. I met him (briefly) and the late Muriel Belcher, The Colony’s owner at the Zanzibar club in Covent Garden, who promptly invited me along to her private drinking club. Never again! In “Frantic”, my novel about the early Seventies, the characters were interested in drugs, not in an overdose of booze. I’m not a drinker, which is why I soaked up the bar’s ‘ambience’ with a clear head. The Colony is a small room and was crammed with alcoholic writers, painters, actors and debauched personalities of the day.
‘Name me one woman writer who can write,’ slurred Jeffrey Bernard, the alcoholic journalist at a nearby table. I sent him a note, advising him to join the AA. He was obviously researching his 'Low Life' column in The Spectator, once described as 'a suicide note in weekly instalments.' The Colony’s walls were covered with piss and the language was pornographic, but everyone seemed happy enough. Even Ian Board, the foul-mouthed barman who later inherited Muriel’s crown, didn’t seem to mind when I ordered an orange juice. I suppose that was because I was a guest of Muriel’s.

I later officially met Jeffrey Bernard in the pokey office of Ritz Newspaper in Covent Garden. We were both writing columns for the rag at the time. I had gone to the office past my deadline with the intention of finishing my column there without any interruptions. Unfortunately, Jeffrey Bernard had the same idea. I happily spread my hard copy on an unoccupied desk, and began to type on a manual typewriter, trying to finish my column. Jeffrey Bernard emerged from the lavatory and erupted when he saw me working away.
‘Get off my f........g desk!’ he screamed. I automatically screamed right back at him, which surprised me as I don't normally lose my temper. Jeffrey was impressed. He apologised to me, offered me a drink and took me to the Coach and Horses, another of his spiritual homes. We were served by Norman Balon, who had the honour of being London’s rudest barman. Balon is still alive but as far as his old customers are concerned, he’s a dead man after retiring this year.

After our drink, Jeffrey Bernard was always civilised towards me whenever we bumped into each other. After I finished the first draft of “Frantic”, he even asked his literary agent to represent me, describing me as 'a sixteen year old genius.’ Jeffrey Bernard was a committed drinker, and was immortalised in Keith Waterhouse’s play, ‘"Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell”, which starred Peter O’Toole, another loyal disciple of the Coach and Horses. Jeffrey eventually had to have a leg amputated due to diabetes. Since his death, the old Soho seems to have become sanitised. In the Seventies, Soho was thriving with hardcore porn stores and strip clubs. Naive punters were fleeced by sleazy hostesses in clip joints, and of course aggressive prostitutes practiced their trade in the streets and in rooms all over Soho. But, I always felt safe walking along the back streets late at night. Although vice flourished, the atmosphere seemed unthreatening. The porn stores have since closed down, and the area has been cleaned up by the police. The only surviving eccentrics from the Old Days seem to be old relics who hog their barstools in the pubs, lamenting the good old days when individualism was a bonus. The Colony now attracts a younger, less outrageous crowd.

Frances Lynn, copyright: 2006

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