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At Vout-O-Reenee’s

December 15, 2014
by the gentle author

“It’s a tribute to Sophie!” - John Claridge

When Contributing Photographer John Claridge summoned me to the crypt of the Church of the English Martyrs in Prescott St down by the Tower of London, I had no idea what to expect. It was already late in the evening as I descended the stair and rang a doorbell labelled Vout-O-Reenee’s. To my amazement, I discovered this was the portal to a hidden outpost of Soho Bohemia secreted in this unlikely corner of the East End, where John was waiting at the bar to greet me.

Named using the invented language of jazz legend, Slim Gaillard, this new members club is the brainchild of Sophie Parkin who wrote the official history of the Colony Club. It is a charismatic zany netherworld, where you encounter arms protruding from the wall holding lamps in the manner of those in Cocteau films and all manner of knowing Surrealist references, as celebrated by John Claridge in his playful series of montages which accompany this feature.

Instantly recognisable by her scarlet lips, black beret and sense of panache, Sophie presides regally over this subterranean nocturnal world with a feverish intelligence. “I’d like to be called Madam Parkin,” she admitted to me, “I always wear hats because I don’t like umbrellas.”

You can guarantee that if Falstaff returned to Cheapside today and discovered the Boar’s Head gone, he need only walk over here to discover a worthy successor to Mistress Quickly in Sophie, flaunting a flirty line in amusing backchat and knowing innocence.“Even if you’re famous, nobody’s going to ask for your autograph here,” she reassured me unnecessarily, “so you can leave your ego outside at the door.”

“At eighteen years old, when I was a student at St Martin’s School of Art, I got a job at the Zanzibar Club and I got jobs for all the other students too,” she explained, rolling her eyes significantly, “And it worked very well because we were good-looking and mouthy, which suited the customers who came to look at us – so we all had a great time. By the age of twenty-one, I was the manager and I got invited to open a club in Hong Kong – so I thought, ‘You can’t say, ‘No.” but it was a complete disaster.” Sophie gave a shrug and poured herself a glass of red wine, taking a sip as if it were the distillation of her experience.

“In the nineties, when I was bringing up my children by myself and writing books, a friend offered me the job of managing 1 Hoxton Sq,” she continued, picking up the story years down the line, “so I wrote a press release saying, ‘This is where all the artists are, the most fashionable place in London.’ Journalists are so lazy that it only took one person to print it and then the others followed suit, and we were booked solid three months in advance – ridiculous isn’t it?”

I nodded sagely, without being entirely convinced that this was the sole reason for Sophie’s success, and I took a sip of my whisky while she cast her eyes around the room from her commanding position behind the bar. “This is all my imagination, a small reflection of the inside of my brain,” she confessed, “I couldn’t contemplate doing Colony Club II, because what’s the point of that?”

“Soho has gone and it’s never going to come back,” she concluded authoritatively, taking another quaff of wine.

Those people who don’t fit into Shoreditch need somewhere else to go and going into pubs is not possible for single women  - but here everybody talks to everybody,” she confided to me proudly. “People keep asking when we’re going to open a restaurant, but I can’t be arsed. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of places to eat in East London is there?” she exclaimed suddenly, before adding fondly, “If you’ve got a drink, who needs a restaurant?”

I was just thinking that this seemed an ideal place to pass the long hours of a cold winter’s night when Sophie said,I always worked at night when I was running clubs, I think my best time is about ten at night – it’s to do with the time of day you were born, I was born in the late afternoon.” As one who also works nocturnally and was born in the late afternoon, I was grateful for this explanation of my pattern of behaviour.

“I’ve always been drawn towards Surrealism as a style of expression,” Sophie declared unexpectedly in an urgent whisper, interrupting my reverie,“I think if you can’t get a laugh in a day you are living the wrong life.” And we raised our glasses to that.

Unto the dark tower came the Gentle Author….

… and descended to the crypt …

… where Jan Vink waited …

… to open the door to the netherworld (Portrait of Muriel Belcher of the Colony Club upon the floor)

“Jazz Musician Slim Gaillard wrote a dictionary of his invented language and that’s why the club is called ‘Vout-O-Reenee’s'” - John Claridge

Portrait of Sophie Parkin in the ladies toilet

Matt Johnson at the piano - “I knew his dad from the Two Puddings” – JC

Painted tiger rug on a painted wooden floor

“It’s a stuffed bird that I photographed in the Spitalfields Market” – JC

Giant ladybird on the ceiling

Joints of meat hanging in the toilet

“Molly Parkin’s paintings in the Stash Gallery – you have to explore it for yourself” – JC

“I pinned my founder member badge on this doll I purchased recently and that’s Sophie’s lips floating in a Magritte sky” – JC

“Although I photographed Sophie in front of Monet’s garden, this is another tribute to Magritte – with the brolley and the glass of water. Is she going to get wet?” – JC

“The Surrealists played chess all the time and I’ve put in the bishop with the cross because this game is in the crypt – it’s a checkmate” – JC

Homage to Marcel Duchamp in the toilet

“This is a portrait of Sophie from a few years ago and I’ve added the Dali moustache just as Duchamp did with the Mona Lisa, as a homage to the great Surrealist” – JC

Photographs copyright © John Claridge

Vout-O-Reenees & The Stash Gallery, 30 Prescott St, E1 8BB

Group exhibition of members’ work runs in the Stash Gallery until Saturday 3rd January – open from Tuesday to Saturday, 5-10pm

You may also like to take a look at

John Claridge’s Darker Side

John Claridge’s Lighter Side

10 Responses leave one →
  1. joan permalink
    December 15, 2014

    I was tempted to go here recently when Mike Westbrook’s jazz band were playing there – after seeing them at various other locations like Toynbee Hall and St Giles in the Field. I reckoned though that I was probably too old and unfashionable to fit in. I greatly enjoy the irony of the location though. My parents were married at English Martyrs and I was baptised there (we moved to Stepney soon after). My memories of the place are of the very dour Fr Scollard OMI (Oblate of Mary Immaculate) who was parish priest. He retired to Wetherby in Yorkshire and as a truculent teen we went as a family to visit him – not one of my favourite holidays!

  2. December 15, 2014

    The discussion of the relationship between the time you are born and when you feel lively was most interesting. I was born at 2:00 on a Sunday lunchtime, and over the years have come to favour a nap in the late afternoon; I have occasionally wondered if there was a correlation.

  3. December 15, 2014

    Very strange and surrealistic… indeed!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  4. Alice Neal permalink
    December 15, 2014

    Another set of beautiful pictures together with a lovely story. Love the toucan but particularly the homage to Dali!

  5. moyra peralta permalink
    December 15, 2014

    A change of genre! Glad the Gentle Author’s having fun!

  6. December 16, 2014

    Joan nobody is too old or untrendy for our club. We are neither about fashion or age; we are about feeling like the square peg in the round hole. If you’ve felt that all your life hopefully you won’t in Vouts. Please do come and see us and say hello!

  7. joan permalink
    December 16, 2014

    Thank you so much Sophie. At some point I shall wend my way from E15 to E1 in all my middle aged splendidness!

  8. milo Bell permalink
    December 17, 2014

    Sounds like my kind of place. Also sounds like the kind of place Louis Vause and his band should be playing.

  9. GJM permalink
    December 17, 2014

    I do not really understand these photos — I have looked at them for some time, but do not really understand them — what is being shown here, and is it normal for English people to consume alcoholic drinks in a church with their family and friends ? Or is it some kind of English art ?

    Can other readers help ?

    Thank you for your blog page.

  10. December 19, 2014

    Yes a most lovely and surreal place for a beer – and Sophie’s not kidding that your never too old or untrendy – my mum is 89 she often stops by for an Old Fashioned and I have been let in wearing some very dodgy footwear. My painting in the toilet I think was a self-portrait originally, but seems to have changed into a portrait of Sophie since I painted it in 1982, this is the sort of thing that can happen in Vouts….

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