Russell Norman's Dispatches from Soho: The Ghosts of Soho | 451life

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Russell Norman's Dispatches from Soho: The Ghosts of Soho

There is a scene in John Maybury’s dark biopic of Francis Bacon, Love Is The Devil, where the artist, played by Derek Jacobi, upends a bottle of Champagne over the head of the photographer John Deakin. “Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends,” he barks.

The scene takes place in the Colony Room, a small and drab private drinking hole up a flight of stairs on Dean Street. Its regulars were mostly alcoholics or artists or both and although it had bohemian credentials and a certain grim charm when you were as arseholed as everyone else, in the cold sober light of day, it felt more like the inside of a diseased lung.

The Colony Room is no longer there. The space has been turned into a flat. Do I miss it? Yes I do. Every time I pass the doorway at number 41 or look up at the two sash windows on the first floor, I get a pang of nostalgia and the occasional flashback. Most of the people I used to drink with there are now dead.

Until quite recently, talk in Soho was often of the “holy trinity”. This was a reference to the three drinking dens of Dean Street, of course, rather than the Christian fairy tale. These insalubrious watering holes were The Colony Room, The French House and Gerry’s. Whereas the first is now extinct and the last is a private members’ club, The French House remains the most accessible and is still very much alive.

The French (as locals like to call it) was formerly known as The York Minster but got its nickname by virtue of the tenure of Victor Berlemont and later his son Gaston. For most of the twentieth century they ran the pub and dressed the part of the typical Frenchman, particularly Gaston who wore a comedy waxed moustache and looked like he’d come straight from central casting. As it happened, the Berelmonts were actually Belgian.

But it was, and still is, the clientele that make the French so distinctive. Squeezing into the tiny ground floor bar today feels much like it might have seventy years ago when Maurice Denton Walsh wrote:

“We fought our way in, pushing through the crowd of sailors, whores, airmen, negroes and French sailors. Close to my ear people whispered to each other earnestly, ecclesiastically. The thimblefuls of golden whisky spilt on dark cloth when elbows were jogged. Someone said playfully, ‘I’m feeling hysterical.’ There was warmth and dirt and love and disgust and poetry and sweat.”

Artists, actors and journalists may have replaced the sailors, whores and airmen, but the feeling of barely contained hysteria remains today, particularly on frenetic midweek nights. There is an charged and slightly edgy air that is partly down to the world-weary staff (they’ve seen all the moves, know all the tricks, deal with all the characters) and in no small part because of the regulars, who guard their local with an almost proprietorial pride and more than a degree of wariness of any newcomers.

If you try to use your mobile phone you’ll be thrown out. Ask for a pint and you’ll be made to look like a fool (The French House famously only serves halves.) Ask for directions to Chinatown and you’ll just get a vague arm gesture pointing south. And if you dare to be abusive to any of the staff, you’ll incur the wrath of the landlady Lesley. She is fiercely protective of her team who are more like family; some have worked there for over twenty years.

But despite its foibles, quirks and idiosyncrasies, The French is an institution and as such it deserves to be celebrated and protected. It feels dangerously like it could be the last of its kind in Soho. If it were ever threatened with redevelopment or closure I would be at the front of the crowd at the protests. Mine would be the loudest voice at the rallies. I would be the first to lie down in front of the JCB.

The walls of The French House are covered with evocative photographs of previous customers and notable neighbours. There is even a shot of Francis Bacon standing at the bar, looking perturbed. Maybe he was on his way to the Colony to pour champagne over John Deakin. Perhaps he’d just been.

I have studied that photograph a hundred times. There is something about the expression on Bacon’s face that is unsettling. His eyes are black, his face is ashen. Only recently, I realised what it is that troubles me: Francis Bacon looks haunted. When the great and good of Soho die, their ghosts come to The French House to drink.

Russell Norman