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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