Soho drinking dens with real wit and a pulse are thin on the ground these days. So heres to the Academy cheers, says Anthony Haden-Guest
Soho drinking dens with real wit and a pulse are thin on the ground these days. So here’s to the Academy — cheers, says Anthony Haden-Guest
On 10 May, 2000, a twinkly item appeared in the ‘This London’ section of the Evening Standard. ‘When it comes to celebrities, you should have spotted at least one of the following,’ it chirped. ‘Bjork in the Met Bar; Alex James in the Groucho; Joe Strummer in Browns; Robbie Williams in Madam Jojos; Neil Hamilton at the Irish Club; Auberon Waugh at the Academy Club; Shane McGowan in Filthy McNasty; Liam Gallagher in Primrose Hill.’
Well, Auberon Waugh died a few months after this, but you could have sold tickets to watch an eager celeb-hunter accosting him in the club that he had founded, in part, one feels, precisely so as to get away from readers such as this (who would now be satisfying their appetite for news with the loathsome freesheets).
There is something of a time-machine aspect to the Academy. One is swept away from a landscape of media-friendly watering holes in which ‘creatives’ with bald heads and black suits beaver away at the viral marketing of their brands to a shadowy place where you imagine you might find yourself sitting next to Max Beerbohm’s Enoch Soames, or Anthony Powell’s X. Trapnel, or one of those decidedly more fictional figures who rate themselves fortunate to get a skewering in Private Eye.
Waugh launched the Academy in a cellar beneath the building on Beak Street, Soho, within which he edited the Literary Review, in December 1989. Early on, he wrote to potential members to note that the annual dues were £75 and requesting them to send a copy of one of their books to display on the premises.
An assistant at the magazine assumed that the incoming literary wash were review copies and hauled them off to the Charing Cross Road, where the second-hand dealers were mystified by the £75 cheques enclosed within.
Bron was the creator of the Spectator wine club, so the Academy soon became as well known for the excellence of its wines as for the sometimes sardonic humour of the membership, to say nothing of the shifting humours of Bron himself. Poets were banned, given that they never stood a round, and otherwise top-notch women paid them far too much attention.
In the late 1990s, Naim Atallah, who owned both the Literary Review and the building which housed it, decided that he needed more space. The Academy was turfed out of its cellar premises and remained homeless for two years. Then Waugh spoke to Andrew Edmunds, who has a prints-and-rare books operation on Lexington Street alongside his restaurant, and who did happily have a space.
As Auberon Waugh would have wished, his death did not put paid to the re-born Academy, which is now run, as it has been for ten years, and splendidly, by Mandana Ruane, with Edmunds dishing up the grub. You have to know just where the place is, though. The name appears in small type on a long list of bells, whereon you expect to see the cards for ‘French Lessons’ and ‘Strict Disciplinarian’, but actually you see ‘Merchant Ivory’ (the film-production company).
Then up one flight and you are into the smallish space where somehow or other the Academy Club has managed to replicate its original cellar aesthetic, from the black oilcloth on the tables to the indescribable uncolour of the walls. ‘It’s a grubby old 18th century room,’ Edmunds says, describing the colour as ‘tobacco cream’.
There’s a jumble of well-read books on a mantel shelf to remind you that the Academy is a literary club, but in a way specific to London. Any American equivalents – and there are no exact equivalents, at least that I know of – are ‘serious,’ careerist, competive.
Even Elaine’s, the long-time writers’ joint in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, is big on photographs, and home to the humming machinery of literary celebrity. The late George Plimpton’s drawing room was very much an Academy equivalent, especially during one of his Paris Review parties, but Plimpton is dead, and he has no successors.
You are likely to see literary agents in the Academy, as well as editors and the other apparatchiks of the book world, and projects are discussed, even contracts; but writers very, very seldom talk about writing, and this isn’t the place to hang out if you are trying to compile a treasury of early 21st-century quotations.
The place is social, gossipy, somewhat tribal. It references the high-minded – the Bloomsbury Group, say – as well as Grub Street and literary journalism. ‘Sometimes I look into the Garrick and there’s no-one there,’ says the artist Martin Fuller. ‘And then I walk up into the Academy. And it’s full of Garrick members.’
‘I think Bron would have liked the way it has turned out,’ Edmunds says. ‘It’s really become a sanctuary for writers and their friends.’