Words Kirk Truman
Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
“There is a lot to be said for knowing where the trouble and the danger lie in a city – knowing when to cross the road. The suburbs hide their dangers whereas, in Soho, it comes neon-signed.”
There goes a rumour about the paving stones of Lexington Street beyond the wailing of the John Snow pub which, incidentally, is paired with writing. The rumour goes that, above the Andrew Edmonds restaurant there is a well-kept secret. Mandana Ruane tells of The Academy, one of Soho’s last remaining writers’ clubs and her time in Soho.
Having been in England for only a year after fleeing the 1976 revolution in Iran, Mandana first came to Soho as a sixteen year old schoolgirl. Soho immediately felt like home to her in a way no other country, city, or part, had previously. “Soho and I recognised each other and so a lifetime love affair began,” she explains. This love affair started quite appropriately at the renowned French House pub. A friend had been introduced to it in the week before by her utterly glamorous father, the painter Tim Behrens. Mandana and her friend, Fan, returned to the pub on one of a semi-legal excursion after free-range boarding school. “It was very Heaven. Walking into the French felt like crashing a cocktail party that had been going on for decades. And what a party: here were people from every walk of life; some rich or poor, some posh or tramps. Yet everyone spoke to each other and treated each other on their own merits. On a Saturday morning, there were soap stars and writers, pornographers and minor aristos, Getty’s drug dealer and ad-men, all quaffing halves of George Goulet champagne before doing the weekend shop in the market and Camisa’s. When the pub shut at 3, everyone would peel off to do the rounds of the numerous afternoon drinking clubs, up and down rickety staircases. It was an Education,” Mandana explains.
At such a young age, Mandana found herself being educated as to how to negotiate one’s way in the heart of a big city. She notes that, despite being London’s sin bin, Soho was – and remains – safe. “People look out for one another. There is a lot to be said for knowing where the trouble and the danger lie in a city – knowing when to cross the road. The suburbs hide their dangers whereas, in Soho it comes neon-signed,” she tells to me.
Mandana notes the coming of change in the Soho area during the past 30 years; some good, some bad. She thinks it lamentable to see the loss of many small businesses and workshops in favour of the rise of chain stores and chain restaurants. “30 years ago, men were shy of dining a deux together in all but a handful of bars and restaurants,” she says.
18 years ago, Mandana found herself standing in Andrew Edmunds’ print shop, a bag of legal files in one hand, the lead of her dog, Heathcliff, in the other. Andrew began to explain that he had been granted planning permission for the floor above the restaurant to be turned into a club. With the editor of The Literary Review Magazine, Auberon (Bron) Waugh, having asked Andrew to find a home for his then defunct club, the Academy, Andrew had put in an application having never expected it to be granted. “I had been a manager at a restaurant for eight years, but had recently decided to grow up by putting aside my childish husband and embarking upon a career in the law,” Mandana laughs to me. It was an idle fairy that overheard her in the Colony Room in 1981, wishing that one day she would live in Soho and have her own drinking den. Andrew approached Mandana about working with her.
Mandana replied to Andrew that next morning; “I know how we’ll do it. You can’t just be landlord to the club; you’ll have to be proprietor. And I know the way Soho clubs work and how these buildings and the restaurants work, so I’ll have to make the club with you.” This exchange marked the start of a beautiful partnership. Andrew, a man who usually takes several weeks to decide on the shape of a light bulb, said yes. Thus the Academy was reborn, with Bron as the Glamour, Andrew as the Capitalist and Mandana as the Workforce. The Academy opened its doors nine months after their initial conversation.
The club’s membership was to comprise of “writers and their friends” – a remit broad enough to allow for just about anyone with whom staff fell in love with or were tickled by. “Running a club is very much like cooking with people. Some flavours – though delightful in themselves – might not add to the overall goulash and, in a room as small as ours, care must be taken,” she explains on The Academy.
In her early years at the club, Mandana formed a marvellous alliance and friendship with Rowan Pelling, the then editrice of The Erotic Review magazine, who would find suitable candidates for membership, Mandana would reciprocate this service by providing contributors to her magazine. “I would defy anyone to spot the difference between writers for the Erotic and Literary Reviews: in truth, they were the same. The Erotic Review lunches at the Academy were everything one could wish for: a serving General squashed on the banquette in between the infamous rake, Sebastian Horsley, and the former mistress of a cabinet minister. In the interest of club discretion, I cannot say more…” Mandana explains.
Today, Soho’s drinking dens with real wit and a pulse are terribly thin on the ground. This Academy possesses something of a time-machine aspect. It is easy for one to be swiftly swept away from the outer-workings of Soho into this media-friendly watering hole in which true creatives are able to thrive, with each and every character that lurks about this place a decidedly fitting fictional character. These characters count themselves among the fortunate. They alone know of this hidden preservation of creativity in the setting of an 18th century room, dotted with well-read books.