Saturday, June 26, 2010

Michael Wojas' Burning Up

Colony Room landlord Michael Wojas’s funeral service – or “burning up” as he would have called it – was a deeply moving event that mirrored his irreverent, kindly and quirky approach to life.

It seemed for me strange returning to Kensal Green Crematorium, in north-west London. I had not been there since Freddie Mercury’s burning up in 1992. On that grim day, there were only around 20 family, band and friends inside the chapel, and around 150 journalists, me included, outside.

For Michael, there were 300 mourners crowded into the chapel, many sitting on the floor at the front or standing at the back.

Possibly the greatest gathering of Colony Room Club folk ever, you could see them blinking in the bright sunshine before the service or getting tanked up at the pub down the road.

There was definitely a bohemian tenor to the crowd. The chap next to me, for instance, was displaying in his jacket pocket a quick caricature of Michael he had sketched on the way to the crematorium with the word “cu*t” written above it.

Michael had come in a cardboard coffin, in the glass-covered sidecar of a combination motorcycle.

I found the service deeply moving. Michael’s girlfriend, Amanda Harris, read a Dr Seuss book which, remarkably closely, recounted the adventure on which Michael had embarked in his life.

Friend Sally Dunbar summed up his kindliness and quirky humour in her glowing tribute, and poet John Moore caught the free-wheeling nature of the Colony Room in a poem he read.

The tears came, however, when Michael's brother spoke, reading out a letter from his heartbroken mother who had recently also lost her daughter to cancer. She used the Polish version of Michael's name in the letter.

For the first time I thought of Michael’s early life, his family and the conventional lifestyle he had rejected.

It was intriguing to hear Michael Wojas had attained a 2.1 in chemistry at Nottingham University. Having endured two years of a chemistry degree just a few years later at Hull University, I could picture Michael in a stained white lab coat, slaving over a complex synthesis in organic chemistry practicals on old Victorian acid-scarred thick wooden worktops, Bunsen Burners flaring, amidst acrid and noxious odours from dangerous hydrocarbons. It did not seem him at all.

Far easier to imagine the next stage of his life: travelling round Europe, picking fruit in the Mediterranean sun, working in French bars, before drifting to Soho and landing a part-time casual job at the Colony Room Club, then run by Ian Board.

I never met Ian Board or his predecessor Muriel Belcher, but as a member of the Colony Room Club for the last dozen years of its life, I always felt I was drinking with their ghosts.

The club was partly a shrine to their memory, and to their association with each other and Michael Wojas, the chosen successor.

Indeed, the legend of the verbal abuse you could expect at the Colony Room lived on.

However, I can only ever remember politeness and good company from Michael.

If he swore, it was certainly not directed at me or other members. And the only time I can recall him losing his temper was when the Catholic Church was mentioned.

A Humanist led the service at Kensal Green. Humanists, I observed at another friend’s (Mike Knapp's) funeral a few years earlier, are adept at summing up the legacy of those who do not believe in the after-life.

The Alabama 3 conjured up a special atmosphere in the chapel. As well as the tears there were a lot of smiles and laughter, especially when it came to the ‘burning up’ with the cardboard box not fitting through the hatch to the furnace.

It gave mourners the chance to lay their hands on the coffin after the service, before they bustled off onto a green vintage double-decker bus or, in my case, the Tube to wend their way to the wake, on the first floor of the Groucho Club, Dean Street, Soho – next door to the now-defunct Colony Room.

The wake passed in a bit of daze, not that I drank much. One minute the room was empty, then for hours you could hardly breathe.

At around 4pm many of us traipsed downstairs and outside, stopping the traffic on Dean Street to let go of scores of green helium balloons with handwritten tributes to Michael on their tags.

Standing with my old friend Clancy Gebler Davis in the shadow of the Colony Room, I wished I could go back up the rickety stairs to see it again one last time. Much of its ancient apparel is still there, I heard someone say, but it was locked up of course and no one present had a key.

It was great to see those green balloons rise above Soho into the flawless blue sky.

Back inside the old Grouch, the live music kicked off.

I never attended music nights at the Colony Room.

For me the club was about quiet afternoons and early evenings. I would drop by and talk with Michael or join a round of old soaks at the bar.

I guess because of that I did not know many of the other members, something that struck home to me at the funeral and the wake.

The music at the wake was great.

A very tall bloke with a bowler hat and mirror shades compered, introducing a soulful singer who performed an excellent number.

An very upset woman read a poem that I found puzzling and disturbing in equal measure.

Later, a guy played the spoons like there was no tomorrow, and two guitarists strummed their instruments behind their backs. (You can tell that I am out of practice with this music criticism malarky!)

Lisa Stansfield started her short set with the memorable words: “Shuddup or f*ck off!”, referring to the Groucho hubbub that refused to quiet for the musicians.

I loved her rendition of My Funny Valentine – and told her afterwards, though I could not catch what she said in reply. I have always liked Lisa, a typically down-to-earth member of the Colony Room.

Her duet with another singer - who name I don’t know (sorry!) - was also superb.

The most moving turn, though, was a girl who half-sang, half-spoke about what Michael Wojas had done for her with a chorus line something like: “That’s why you f*cking mean so much to me.”

It also struck the nail on the head. People loved Michael because he listened to them and was kind.

There he was in the corner seat smoking and drinking himself to death, soaking up the woes of his clientele, prescribing more booze. A self-help group for alcoholics, as someone said at the funeral.

As the evening wore on, I realised that it was not only his friends' wake for Michael Wojas but for the Colony Room they had lost in late 2008 (or, in reality, some time before that).

As the music played out with a rousing set by the Alabama 3, many were dancing and grinning. One girl amidst them was weeping uncontrollably on another’s shoulder.

I was shocked by some of things written in the press about Michael Wojas.

Social writers seemed to find it impossible to distinguish him from Ian Board or Muriel Belcher, as if they were just three incarnations of a Colony Room Dr Who.

I am fortunate to have nothing but happy memories of Michael Wojas and the unique club that gradually died with him.

This is my tribute:

Michael Wojas’ Burning Up

Michael arrived wearing cardboard
On a motorbicycle made for two,
He took his place at the bar
And smiled at his motley crew.

Sally wore a top hat,
Clancy was a beacon of green,
Amanda spoke of 'strange birds',
Michael watched it all, content, serene.

The sound system went on the blink,
The Alabama 3 struck up a tune,
Michael sang along within his box,
It was quite like The Colony Room.

The Burning Up went awry:
Michael's final earthly joke,
The cardboard did not fit the hatch,
Michael wasn't ready for his last smoke.

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Grimsey Island

Around the time of the General Election, I decided I needed to quit this land for a break to try to regain tranquillity of mind.

So, as it was becoming clear that we were in hung parliament territory, I arose after a couple of hours of sleep (having been up most of the night watching the results come in), and hopped on a flight to Iceland.

It took a long time to get there. To avoid the plume of smoke from the erupting volcano, my Iceland Express jet flew up to the Arctic and back down again. After almost five hours (twice the normal flight time), we touched down near Reykjavik. By early evening, I was checked into a room, supping gin and tonics with my dear friend Midders.

I won’t expend time on the adventures we had out of the town in “Rekkers”. Suffice to say, we had a laugh and then drove across Iceland to his adoptive town, Akureyri.

Although it is the second largest town in Iceland, “Akkers” is about the same size as Lewes. If anything it is even quieter than Lewes during the week, and with the mountains overlooking it, it is just as beautiful.

It was just what I needed. I went swimming in the geothermal baths every day, walked in the foothills or driving along the coast in the Midders-mobile, an awesomely fast machine which I could only comfortably drive in his absence for fear of being given driving lessons!

Bliss! Then one day I booked a flight to from Akkers Airport to Grimsey island, a strip of land on the Arctic Circle 25 miles north of Iceland.

It was a quintessential late Spring day as we climbed over the fjord and navigated through a spectacular range of snow-capped mountains in our 15-seater light aircraft before covering the final stretch and espying Grimsey – a dun-coloured oasis in an azure sea.

What I liked about Grimsey was the quiet. I walked most of the way round the island and, for most of the time, did not see a soul.

I loved the clifftops of the coves full of puffins and Arctic terns, which were tame enough to swirl around you and still wild enough not to nick your sandwiches.

From the southern side of Grimsey, you get a spectacular view of the nearest mountains of Iceland.

From the northern coast, Greenland could be seen shimmering in the distance. At the most northerly point there was a little pyramid of stones and a short drain pipe. It would have been good to have cooked over an open fire there as the sun sank in the sky.

I walked on around the perimeter of the island. Although it is only around five-and-a-half kilometres by one-and-a-half, Grimsey takes more walking than you might expect.

When I had clambered out of the plane, the Grimseyan who had opened the door and greeted us went into hoots of laughter when she saw my shorts. “You’re going to get cold,” she said. In reality, I was boiling by the time I’d walked round half the island and found myself racing against the clock in trying to get back to the plane (when we arrived, we’d been told it would be three-and-a-half hours before it took off again.)

Huge tufts of sand-hued grass covered much of the island, like fields of teddy boy quiffs.

Realising I would not have time to completely walk round the island, I make the mistake of leaving the path and yomping across country.

The terrain got rougher, the grass taller and sharper, and then I encountered marshes and fences. I began to wonder if I would ever make it back to the air strip, as I waded on, waist-deep in grass.

I emerged near the church (it used to be said that the Arctic Circle went through the pastor’s bed!). It is a beautiful structure as are the comfortable houses with their big plots.

Chess is popular on Grimsey after a rich American passing on an ocean liner paid for every household to be given a chess set.

I wondered what it would be like living full-time on Grimsey through the warm summers and the bitterly cold winters.

It would be glorious to sail into Grimsey Harbour one day in bright sunshine with that cooling Arctic sun on your face.

My few hours on Grimsey were very happy ones. I was sad to leave, despite the pleasure of flying through the snowy mountain range again in a small plane with an open cockpit.

Back at Akureyri, I hung out with Midders and his local and ex-pat mates at Mongo "Jerry’s" Bar, a welcoming place on the corner of a row of shops in a superb.

I did not really want to return to Reykjavik and when I did I had to wait days for a flight to take me home (the volcano again). At least I didn’t hang out at the airport like a whingeing Pom, returning each time to the centre of town and haunting Oliver’s Bar which I made my own (well, it was named after me).

It was lovely seeing Midders again in his ecological niche. He is a very private bear and has this time requested that I use no photographs of him.

I eventually arrived back in Blighty, which had turned Libertory in my absence - feeling mentally stronger and more resilient.

Here are some pictures of the erupting volcano. One I took from the air as I flew to Reykjavik, the other close up on a day-trip with Midders.