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Artillery Row

Whatever happened to the British bohemian?

Twilight of the Soho set

“I’m not one of those made-up poofs!” hollered Francis Bacon, at nobody in particular, as he ordered yet another round of gin and tonics in The Colony Room Club.

The club, which closed in 2008, was one of a triumvirate of smoke-filled watering holes that serviced the network of artists, writers, actors, criminals and misfits that made Soho home in the mid-to-late 20th century.

The French House is still going, as is The Coach and Horses — though, like Soho itself, they have been stripped of much of their character.

Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, George Melly, Peter O’Toole, Tom Baker. These were the sorts of people who called such dens of iniquity their turf. They were bohemians in the truest sense; the antithesis of the shiny-faced young thrusters pretending to find each other interesting in Soho House today.

The remaining link, between the new generation and the old, is alcohol. Arguably the louchest, lowest-lifer of them all, the journalist Jeffrey Bernard, drank vodka in prodigious quantities. He was, essentially, a professional alcoholic — as opposed to so many in the cultural sphere today, who are alcoholic professionals.

“Jeffrey Bernard is unwell”, The Spectator would print, in the space where his column should appear, when the old fruit had allowed his second bottle of vodka of the day to bleed into a third. The phrase gave Keith Waterhouse the title for his play about Bernard’s life, which starred O’Toole in its original run, the dialogue pieced together from Bernard’s columns.

Bernard wrote as elegantly as he smoked, the prose winding across the page in a series of languid plumes. It takes skill to write — and smoke — like that.

John Le Mesurier, who took things a step further and lit up a joint at the BAFTAs, made a permanent smouldering fag an extension of the soul; the delicately held Woodbine adding inflection and dash. Bernard and O’Toole pulled off the same trick. Curiously, stubby people can’t do it. You need a bit of length.

“I think most people lead lives of such annihilating boredom, sort of paralysed by the awfulness of life,” remarked Tom Baker, “that being in an alehouse, drinking with a few acquaintances and talking a load of rubbish half the time, is a tremendous relief.”

Of course, as Christopher Howse notes in his excellent book, Soho in the 80s, it was unsustainable. Tom Baker is, happily, still with us, but most of his drinking crowd are long dead, in many cases taken by the bottle.

Graham Mason, known semi-affectionately as Soho’s Angriest Drunk — once telling John Hurt “you’re just a bad actor” — ended his days wired to an oxygen cylinder, sipping wine as he stared through the window of his East London council flat, along the Thames at the life he could have had.

Bernard fared little better. The drinking got worse, and eventually his right leg went. Loneliness enveloped him, and he found himself placing an advert in the personal column of The Spectator: “Alcoholic, diabetic amputee seeks sympathy fuck.”

It was a far cry from the glory days, when Muriel Belcher, a magnificent Jewish lesbian, would sit by the door of the Colony Room Club and shout “Hello Cunty!” at anyone brave, or foolish, enough to stagger in. A friend of mine recalls going — only once — and finding the whole experience terrifying.

Perhaps these characters cast a particular spell over those of us who are, when we survey our lives, downwardly mobile. 

I certainly feel they have something to teach us

I certainly feel they have something to teach us. They were egalitarians, they were meritocrats, and they embraced the whole spectrum of life. Common criminals drank with celebrated thespians. Kitchen porters mixed with politicians, conservatives with communists.

Their central mission, I think — aside from drinking — was to sit stubbornly outside the 9-to-5, and to refuse to bow to convention. Their exploits, therefore, give all of us who are palpably less stylish a taste of la vie bohème.

But it is amusing to consider what they would make of the current consensus. There were plenty of gays, lesbians and bisexuals amongst this group, yet it’s hard to believe they’d be much impressed by today’s humourless, corporatist LGBTQI+ “community”.

And what of Gary Lineker, currently in the news, parading his “empathy”? Well, they probably wouldn’t know who he was. But if they did, they’d likely think him — as they’d likely think all the new generation Sohoites spilling onto Greek Street this evening, and every evening — stultifyingly dull. It’s not just his politics. It’s the predictability. It’s sad, I feel, that when you hear a person is a writer or an artist — or, God forbid, a “creative” — and you know exactly what they will think. 

You know how they’ll dress, who they’ll hang out with, what they tweet. You’ll know the television programmes they pretend to watch, the books they pretend to have read. You can probably even guess their dietary requirements. Most of the time your guess will be right.

The decline of the English bohemian is not a happy thing. 

Perhaps it’s the inevitable consequence of mainlining progressivism. A bohemian can only really thrive when there are sets of rules and expectations — social, sexual — that they can make it their business to reject. Similarly, that other trope, the eccentric English aristocrat, has been largely swept away, along with the old aristocracy – to be replaced by a new elite: progressive rather than conservative, but still, ironically, unelected, and every inch as fierce in defence of its interests.

But I, for one, would love to see a bit more colour, a bit more imagination and, well, a bit more diversity in our culture. Let us hope we’re just temporarily unwell.

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