Jim Haynes is a fascinating figure. Grandfather of some aspects of Edinburgh’s cultural scene and a one man social network long before the creation of MySpace, Bebo, or later on Facebook. This is his 60th festival and he jokes that he’ll do another 60 and then call it quits. Born in Louisiana Haynes wound up in Edinburgh after being drafted. Managing to get into the airforce instead of the army he did well in initial training. When asked what he would like to do in the airforce he said that he already spoke Spanish but would like to learn Russian or Chinese and so was assigned to the Russian language school. He set about finding the officer who made everything happen and requested to be sent to the smallest possible base in Western Europe, preferably near a city. Three days later the man got back to him to ask ‘How does Edinburgh sound?’
He arrived in Edinburgh just after the festival in 1956 and got himself permanently assigned to the 5-midnight shift (along with permission to reside in the city) so that he could attend university during the day. He failed to mention to his superior officer that one of the things he wished to study was the anatomy of the future mother of his son. He got hold of a car so that he could drive out to the base and despite not smoking at all or drinking much he could get hold of cheap cigarettes and alcohol, so he was welcome as parties everywhere.
When the time came to leave the airforce his family said that if he returned home he’d be set up with a job, house, car, but if he stayed in Edinburgh he was on his own. He had a little saved up from chauffeuring an uncle before he was drafted and when he sold his car he was left with £600. On finding a run down antique (or really junk, he says) shop he walked in and said ‘Madam, I’d like to buy your shop.’ She replied that it was about time she retired and how did £300 sound and thus began the Paperback Bookshop, the first of Jim’s many lasting impressions on Edinburgh. A replica of the rhino’s head sits on the side of Edinburgh University’s Informatics building, commemorating the exact location of the shop. Nearby sits a large book with a theatre production set into one edge, referencing the productions that he put on in his shop before the founding of the Traverse.
The Paperback Bookshop was the location of a striking photograph. It sold a number of books you weren’t strictly supposed to sell, thanks to the censorship in place at the time. A woman came in asking for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and when Jim confirmed that they had it she put her money on the counter and declared that she would be back for it in half an hour. Sensing something interesting about her behaviour, Jim called his photographer friend Alan Daiches, who arrived in time to see the woman return and carry the book outside using tongs so that she wouldn’t have to touch it. Once outside she doused it in kerosene, lit it, and ranted and raved about its awful contents for while. The pictures Daiches took went round the world and put the shop firmly on the map.
Every story Jim tells speaks of a remarkable, busy life. Not content with the Paperback Bookshop, he went on to start the Traverse Theatre Club (a club rather than simply a theatre so that they could avoid having to get scripts past the Lord Chamberlain and serve alcohol after 10 at night). Started in an upstairs flat on Lawnmarket, it grew and moved and eventually found its home on Lothian Road next to the Usher Hall and the Lyceum. He was asked to animate a theatre in London and after a highly successful year, moved on to start his own enterprise in two spaces in Covent Garden. One a theatre, the other a cinema, gallery, and restaurant. He has written books, some of which gave him the ‘godfather of the social network’ title.
Jim’s guidebooks were less about the sights and more about collecting the details of 1,000 people, able to speak English, who would welcome western tourists into their country. He did so successfully in Romania, Poland and then kept going, eventually resulting in an interesting research trip to Russia. He knew one man in town, whose event he went to see and who then said that if he stayed close they would both be invited to dinner with the mayor. The evening progressed as advertised and they found themselves at a dinner with a whole cast of some of the most important people in town. The mayor and his guests and staff and right down the end of the table, the ‘two schmucks’ who were the least important people in the room. Jim Haynes, and Vladimir Putin.
Not content with his so far highly varied life, Jim moved to Paris and a teaching post at Sorbonne University, where he eventually started the longest running dinner party in the world. Every Sunday for the last 37 years he has hosted a dinner party in his atelier in the 14th arrondissement. Anyone in the world can go, provided they call and confirm a space. The Sunday before he came to Edinburgh for the festival 119 people came. Tens of thousands have come over the years. I attended, and helped prepare, three of these dinners in 2010, and took a friend a year later. They are wonderfully bizarre occasions that speak volumes about Jim’s love of people, new connections and memory for faces. Each one is presided over from his tall stool, where he greets old friends and new alike. The evening is peppered with his cries of ‘Julia, come and meet Michael!’ or ‘Who hasn’t met Pierre?’ He doesn’t seem satisfied unless everyone who comes has met at least one new person and somehow, it works. Despite it being a room filled with strangers from every corner of the world, there are none of the awkward pauses one might expect. Jim’s energy fills the room and that alone is a rich source of conversation if other things fail.
Listening to him speak in the corner tent in Charlotte Square gave a glimpse into the rich and varied life of an extraordinary man but it is as his dinners where you can truly see what he loves about the world and why he is so loved in return. His event at the book festival was sponsored by Edinburgh Napier University, who have started the Jim Haynes living archive. They collected vast amounts of paperwork from his house in Paris, from the hundreds of newsletters he used send and now posts online, to details of how many thousands have attended his dinner parties over the decades, to his letters and writing. An American university had also been interested in obtaining his archive but Jim felt it would be better sent to a university in the city where he made such an immense cultural impact.