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A house of free spirits

by Allan Brown,
The Sunday Times, December 13, 2009

There are two things in life to which I have particular aversions: meeting strangers and eating in strangers’ houses. So there are few less auspicious projects to undertake than a visit to Jim Haynes at his atelier in Paris. Now 76, Haynes was the man who, with John Calder and Richard Demarco, founded the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, and who opened Britain’s first paperback bookshop in the same city. Both events are widely attested as central in transforming the Festival Fringe into the sprawling, monolithic jamboree it is today.

photo : Alastair Miller, 2009
photo: Alastair Miller, 2009

Wry, laconic and with a touch of the Mark Twain to him, the Louisiana-born Haynes is roundly of the opinion that people should have a good time, all of the time. He was a pied piper in the swinging London underground scene that spawned Germaine Greer, the International Times and Oz magazine. His own publication of the era was entitled Suck and was stocked infrequently, it’s safe to assume, in WHSmith. He then went to France to teach sexual politics at the University of Paris — a subject for which, by Haynes’s own admission, he was seldom unwilling to lend a hand when it came to the coursework.

Meanwhile, the same spirit of spontaneous elation he brought to the Fringe does its best to live on at No 83 Rue de la Tombe-Issoire in the 14th arrondisement.

For 34 years Haynes has hosted, come rain or shine (barring the three weeks when he returns unfailingly to the Fringe), a weekly open-house soiree for all who trouble to call up and place their name on the guest list. Each Sunday, up to 140 free spirits and seasoned Haynes groupies show up at his gently mouldering art studio for dinner.

The gatherings are the longest-running piece of performance art on Earth. The event is circled in red on the itinerary of every bohemian who passes through Paris, with previous attendees including the actress Chloe Sevigny, Allen Ginsberg, the cartoonist Robert Crumb, the aforementioned Greer, Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon. Haynes had been a close friend of Ono and John Lennon in the swinging London days.

“It’s something I’m kinda used to, making dinner,” Haynes said. “When I first arrived in London, my landlady was Sonia Orwell, the widow of George, and my rent was cooking meals at her little parties. So I’d go around saying, can I get you anything else, Francis Bacon? Are you all set there, Mary McCarthy?

It’s often the fate of old hippies, however, to find that the material world seems keen to co-opt and compromise them, and such has proven to be the case with Haynes. To the deep surprise of all who’ve encountered him, he is presently the face of a Christmas television advertising campaign for After Eight mints. The sweets are presented by Haynes as the perfect summation of any dinner party — even one at which the host is acquainted with only a statistically negligible proportion of the guests.

As is the way, his fixtures and fittings were moved across Paris to a film studio and reassembled. But the resultant commercials give some taste of the full Haynes experience and philosophy: all races and creeds round the big aluminium pot of peace, dining from the paper plates of global understanding, whether they be a Norwegian neurosurgeon or a South African bodybuilder.

“Well, I could have said, hey, that would be a real sell-out, no way, man,” he says the morning after, as the strangers’ mess is cleared away. “But I thought it was more important to create a record of the dinners and to pay tribute to all who’ve ever come to a dinner here — a way of saying, hey, look at what we did together, all of us. I’ve always liked After Eights anyway, always had them at the dinners. And, obviously, the bread is not unwelcome. It’ll buy more bread for dinner parties.”

Haynes first arrived in Britain in the mid-1950s with the American air force, serving in a listening station at Kirknewton, in the hills outside Edinburgh. He volunteered for night shifts to give him time to study literature at Edinburgh University during the day. He then secured leases on the paperback bookshop and on the premises of the Traverse Theatre at peppercorn rates, from a local farmer with little other use for them. To circumvent the laws that prevented Haynes from presenting the bolder material he favoured, the Traverse was obliged to function as a club.

It’s impossible now, he says, to capture how primitive Edinburgh was in the late 1950s. Because he was American, he strained his resources to secure a second-hand car but: “I might as well have been driving a spaceship,” he says. “It felt like I’d dropped from the skies, saying, hey, you people can’t see what an astonishing place this is. Let me try showing you a few things.”

The “medievalism” of Edinburgh in the 1950s then gave way to the stirrings of a city we would recognise today. Haynes had cemented his reputation as the crown prince of the happening and the freak-out, a field marshal in the war against the straights and the suits. In the wake of the 1968 riots, Paris was flypaper for seasoned radicals. Haynes moved and resumed his usual mission of “trying to introduce everyone in the world to everyone else”. Then, in 1975, the wheel turned full circle and Haynes found himself accepting catering in lieu of rent from his lodger, Cathy Sroufe. The following week an open invitation went out, and was never withdrawn.

Tonight’s dinner is wholly typical, says Haynes. About 70 people are sardined into his kitchen, the first room you find on entering his high-windowed studio in a courtyard down an alley in the Montparnasse district of the Left Bank.

The assembly has a noticeable female bias, perhaps 65%. Most are young, hip, artistic-looking, though there’s a peppery sprinkling of those whose first dinner could have been anything up to 30 years ago. Actually, perhaps dinner confers excessive gravitas upon the food. This isn’t a sit-down, cutlery-and-napkin-ring dinner, it’s a plate-on-knee free-for-all. Haynes, though, doesn’t appear to eat; he stays perched on a stool in the centre of the room, checking names, occasionally lunging towards parties he suspects might benefit from introduction. The rest of us just mill around, plates in hand. More than 150,000 have passed through this kitchen over the years, with countless marriages and children resulting.

Tonight’s meal is being made by Frances Sutton and a team of three others who, like her, work in Edinburgh’s public relations industry. It’s vegetable soup followed by beef stew and apple crumble. Haynes asks that visitors donate €25 to cover costs, but it’s no draggy bum trip if they don’t.

The remainder of the guests seem to fall into two camps: young gap-year trustafarians who’ve landed in town to work on their French, and the more experienced travellers who seek to tick off the must-sees of Europe, even if it happens to be little more than a funky kitchen crammed with strangers from Ulan Bator and Rotterdam. Meghan Sheffield, a journalism student from Toronto, falls into the first category: “The French don’t really like it if you can’t speak the language well,” she says, “but that also makes it difficult to find the places where you can improve. Then I heard about this and thought it was the perfect way to move into some Parisian circles.”

Or there was Tuula Isoniemi, director of the Helsinki Book Fair: “I’ve known Jim for more than 30 years and whenever I’m in Paris I come here; I couldn’t visit the city without coming to the dinner,” she says. “He is a very special man, Jim — utterly unique. He’s done more for global unity than any government. He was a one-man internet before the internet existed — a connector.”

Meanwhile, there’s a third constituency, sparser in number, and less fervent in their networking. They are the real veterans, the handful who’ve been coming here for two decades and more. They’ve seen the evenings change from sedate and cerebral soirees into nights of frenetic social stripmining. And this makes them rather sad, in a blue, French sort of way.

Rose-Ann Padua is a molecular biologist working on leukaemia treatments at the Diderot university in Paris. She’s been coming to Haynes’s for 16 years. But she has noticed a shift in emphasis. “It used to be that these were quiet, intellectual affairs,” she says, “but then the oddity of them began getting lots of coverage. And they get busier and busier. And now they’re really just a kind of intellectual speed-dating.”

You leave Haynes’s kitchen feeling that it was all bemusing but sincere, a tsunami of small talk. Haynes seems motivated genuinely by a 1960s peace-and-love brand of openness. The other attendees simply tailor the event to whatever itches the modern world has encouraged them to scratch, be they romantic, social, aspirational or just for the sake of ticking this charming but bizarre happening off the list.

The strangest thing was that every nationality with which one spoke admitted that their national character, like that of the British, rendered them allergic to conversing with total strangers — finally conclusive proof that, indeed, we’re all the same underneath the skin.

read the article on the Times Online Website
article by Allan Brown ©Times Online, 2009



2009, The Sunday Times : A house of free spirits

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