“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
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