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Jim Haynes is an underground producer
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Jim Haynes is an underground producer
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"Let's have fun, let's enjoy every minute, let's dance, let's sing, let's make love, let's giggle."
Conversations
1 October 2009

Jim Haynes is an underground producer

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Tom Hunt

Kate Bezar on Jim Haynes

Jim Haynes loves people and he loves life. Now in his late 70s, he has served dinner to over 130,000 people in his Parisian home/atelier over the past 33 years. In 2005, 18 people got together and wrote a book in homage to their friend Jim who “has made getting to know people his life’s work.” In it publisher John Calder explains, “It is not so much that he is innocent – at his age and with his experiences he could hardly be that – but that he wills himself to be an optimist …

He sees the world as he wants to see it and ignores all evidence to the contrary.” Jim was lucky enough to be a young adult in the ‘swinging’ ‘60s, a time and an attitude that seemed to suit him perfectly. Art and culture have been central to his life; he started the first paperback only bookstore in the UK in Edinburgh in the late ‘50s, closely followed by the Traverse Theatre, the Arts Lab in Covent Garden and ‘IT’ newspaper. He has authored a number of books and published several more, and then there are the dinners.

This story originally ran in issue #21 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KATE BEZAR: So you do have at least one vice, you drink caffeine.

JIM HAYNES: Yeah, I have more than one vice. I do Nutella as well.

That’s hardly a vice.

It’s hardly heroin but … I had a really sore throat last night and thought I was going to have to cancel, but it seems to have come right.

Any secret remedies?

No. I’m not a medicine man really, but, having said that, I’ve been taking seven pills a day since 2001 when I had a heart attack in Edinburgh. I went to the [Edinburgh International] Festival, to a press screening of a movie and I’d actually been feeling bad for two days. I thought, I really should look into this. I’d had a little heart attack. They kept me in hospital for three or four days and they thought I was an American tourist. I lived in Edinburgh for ten years and consider it a major part of my life. I haven’t missed a Festival since 1957 when I went to my first one. I had one phone call from a friend in Edinburgh and the news spread like wildfire; “Jim is in hospital in Edinburgh.” So suddenly journalists started calling and friends and flowers arriving.

And you came through it ok? That’s great. Some say that you were, in many ways, the instigator of the Festival’s ‘fringe’ component. Is there any truth to that?

No. The truth is that the official Festival was very conservative, very straight. It was mainly big orchestras, big theatre companies and big ballet companies. Then a few parasitic groups, small companies, started coming to Edinburgh and defiantly putting on shows. The only thing I did was that I had a bookshop and I advertised and sold tickets for them and then I printed a programme. This was in 1960 and the Fringe was already going, I didn’t help organise it or anything. I also started a theatre in Edinburgh called the Traverse. It’s still going today. It was a professional theatre with professional actors and we had a policy to only do new works, new plays. It had a bar and a restaurant and a gallery attached. The thing that made it an immediate success was that you had to join, but for a very small sum of money, like a club. Before that, to drink on Sundays you had to be a traveller and you could only drink in your hotel, but in a club you could drink. So it became the centre of the Festival because drinking on Sundays was suddenly legal. They were quite exciting days.

Did you still have your bookshop at this stage?

I still had the bookshop, but I was mostly spending time in the theatre. The bookshop was great though.

Let’s just go back a bit. What took you to Edinburgh in the first place?

Well, I’m from Louisiana. I grew up in Louisiana and also in Venezuela because my father was in the oil business there. I started travelling at a very early age – like around 10 or 11 – to Venezuela. Then I went to a boarding school in Atlanta and then I went to university in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. You know, you go through these little, tiny, minor crises of “What am I doing here?” and “Where am I going?”

What were you studying?

I was studying economics, but not very seriously. I was partying a lot which I think young men and women like to do still today. I dropped out and no sooner had I dropped out but … In those days they had National Military Service in America and I got my call-up papers. I’m walking down the street in a complete daze thinking, “God do I want to be in the army?” and I see a poster saying “Fly with the American Air Force” so I walked around to the address and next thing I know I’m signing up. That changed my life completely. They sent me to San Antonio and one thing led to another. I could talk for hours about it, but

This story originally ran in issue #21 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #21 of Dumbo Feather

I ended up in Edinburgh where there was a listening base for listening to the Russians.

This was in 1956, just after the Suez Canal was seized by Nasser …

So when you say “listening base” …

Governments, believe it or not, spy on other governments. I hope you’re sitting down, I don’t want you to be shocked by that. That’s what they did; they listened to other governments. It was an airbase in which no plane ever landed or took off; it was just antennas, highly guarded day and night. I immediately asked the base commander for permission to have permanent night duty from five to midnight, permission to study at the University of Edinburgh during the day and permission to live in a small room in Edinburgh at my expense. To my amazement he granted permission to all three requests. After getting out of the military I had no income so with some money I had saved I started a bookshop. I decided it would be unique; it would be the first all-paperback bookshop in Britain and there would be no rubbish. It would be just great books arranged by subject rather than by publisher.

Did they really arrange them by publisher before then?

All Penguins together, all Pans together … There weren’t many publishers publishing serious paperback books; serious paperbacks only came later.

Your interest in literature – where did that stem from?

When I was very, very young. My father had gone to university on a football scholarship and before the season began he had his nose broken so he never played football in his entire career at university, but they did honour the scholarship. He had books in the house and I was intrigued by primarily two poets: Dorothy Parker, who I think is one of the great American poets of all time, and Langston Hughes, another great poet. I don’t know if you know their work. Dorothy Parker was this incredibly intelligent woman who was very cynical and at the same time extremely romantic. She didn’t seem to ever have any love affairs that worked out; they were always disasters. There’s a poem of hers which is fairly typical titled Unfortunate Coincidence and it goes; “By the time you swear you’re his, shivering and sighing, and he vows his love is infinite and undying, Lady, make a note of this, one of you is lying.” Dorothy Parker was a very major influence in my life and I kick myself for never having written her a thank you note, which she probably would have tossed in the garbage can anyway, but still, she was major. The other, Langston Hughes, was a black American poet, who wrote … Well this is typical, ‘I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes, But I eat well and I grow strong and tomorrow they’ll see how beautiful I am. I, too, am America.’ That kind of thing. I lived in the South you know. And, of course, Henry Miller. Someone gave me a copy of Tropic of Cancer when I was a teenager in America.

Was Henry Miller’s work still banned in America then?

Yeah, it was published in Paris and smuggled into America. Of those three major influences in my life, I never met Dorothy Parker or Langston Hughes, but I did meet Henry Miller and got to know him fairly well; he was a wonderful man.

How did you get to meet him?

Through John Calder who was a distinguished London publisher. He published 23 Nobel Prize-winners I think, virtually out of a suitcase. He was an eccentric character in many ways and a dear, dear friend of mine, one of my oldest friends in Europe … I met him in 1959.

Through the bookshop?

I wrote him a letter when I opened the bookshop saying, “I am a fan of your books and I’m opening a bookshop next to the university. I’d love to have a catalogue of your books and sell them.” … I said, “I haven’t got a lot of capital, so don’t expect really quick payment, but I’m honest and I’ll pay you as soon as I can.” That began a lifetime friendship and I sold a lot of his books! He said I was his biggest outlet north of London.

People used come from all over Britain and Europe and other places to my bookshop.

I gave away free tea and coffee. I had performances in the evenings in the bookshop. Hessian drapes would fall over the shelves and we’d perform plays and have signings and do readings and concerts. It was a real hive of activity.

Quite unlike anything else that was being done?

One of the things I claim that I did for Scotland and for Edinburgh was … All the young Scots were heading for Australia, New Zealand, Canada, North America and South Africa. They were abandoning ship because they thought there was no future in Scotland and here I was, a young 20-something year-old American guy and I started a bookshop and a theatre and many other things too.

You gave them something to stick around for?

Exactly.

You must have met a lot of people through the bookshop including some of your heroes – was that pretty fantastic.

Well, John Calder, Sonia Orwell (George Orwell’s widow), and I had the idea of making literature and contemporary writing a part of the Edinburgh Festival. We approached the Director of the Festival who’s the Queen’s cousin, Lord Harewood, and he was open to it. He said, “As long as it doesn’t cost a fortune, if you can break even, yes, we’ll sponsor it.” So in 1962 we hosted The Novel Today which had 70 novelists from all over the world and it was a big, big, big success. We had people like Mary McCarthy, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, William Burroughs, Khushwant Singh, Marguerite Duras … There were pretty amazing people there and, unlike today when there are writers’ conferences and writers stay an hour, sign books and leave, we had them on the stage together, for a week, and at parties every night. I organised most of the parties. They were great, everybody came and talked. On the stages in the afternoon people from the audience would pass up questions and it was really very exciting. The following year we had dramatists and we were going to do poetry the next year but the Lord Mayor of Edinburgh cancelled it because we had an event on the last day of the Festival which caused a big scandal. Women could be nude on the stage in Britain if they didn’t move – that was the law. They could pose statuesquely, but no movement. We had an event, a ‘happening’, in a session called The Future of the Theatre and there was a nude young woman, a professional model, who was wheeled across The Organ Gallery at the top of the stage so you saw her in a blur. Technically, she didn’t move, but she was moved. It was a lawyers’ delight: did she move or didn’t she move? The Mayor of Edinburgh was scandalised by this and there was never another writers’ conference at Edinburgh until the ‘80s. Now it’s a major part of the Festival.

So you were in Edinburgh for ten years?

Yes, from ‘56 to ‘66 and I haven’t missed a Festival since, I go back every year; it’s wonderful. Do you know Edinburgh?

No I don’t.

Oh you really should get yourself to Britain in August some year and just discover. There’s one problem though; if you go, you’ll have so much fun, you’ll have to go back every August forever. I can’t imagine not being in Edinburgh in August, that’s the problem.

Are you an honourary visitor?

I’m treated extremely well I must say, so well it’s almost embarrassing. Everyone’s very kind to me and I’m always invited to theatre productions and dinners, everything really.

What made you leave Edinburgh in the end?

The Minister of Culture at the time in Britain was a woman named Jennie Lee, an amazing, amazing woman. She was born north of Edinburgh in Fife and she ended up in the Labour Party, married a very important Labour politician, [Anuerin] Bevan who created the National Health System in Britain. She was like the grand old dame of Labour Party politics. I went to a conference about two hours east of London called The Future of the Small Theatre, or something like that, and gave a talk. She was there and also gave a talk. Afterwards there were drinks and I boldly asked her if by any chance she was driving back to London [laughs] and of course she was being chauffeur-driven in a Rolls Royce. She said, “Would you like a ride?” We bonded and became mates and were very good friends until the end of her life. It was very funny to me who was looked on as a kind of a radical figure in Britain. She was a Scot of course and was Minister of Culture and very proud of the Traverse and what I’d created in Edinburgh because

I’d done it without taking an empty hat around begging for money, I’d just done it on my own initiative.

So she asked me if I would run a theatre in London that had been a bit of a white elephant. I said, “Jennie, I’d love to animate this theatre, but I can’t give up Edinburgh,” and so for one year, 1965, I commuted between Edinburgh and London and lived a two-city life. It worked. The theatre did extremely well. We won the Best Play of the Year Award and had a lot of successes. London was beginning to swing with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Twiggy, fashion, everything, so I decided to move south and extremely painfully gave up Edinburgh.

That theatre wasn’t the Arts Lab was it?

No, it was a big, conventional theatre. The Head of the Arts Council, Arnold Goodman, later Lord Goodman, was a friend of Jennie’s and the Labour Party’s lawyer, the Observer newspaper’s lawyer, anyone of any importance’s lawyer. We used to have breakfast and talk philosophy, cultural dealings and politics … Then I decided I didn’t want to run the theatre anymore

I wanted to run something more experimental, a little wilder, freer and unconventional,

so I left the theatre, a bit under a cloud as far as Lord Goodman was concerned, but Jennie understood completely and was very supportive all the way through. That was when I started the Arts Lab in two warehouses in Covent Garden. In the main warehouse we had a cinema in the basement, a gallery on the ground floor, a restaurant on the first floor and in the second building we had a theatre, plus I lived there.

Jim, that’s a huge undertaking.

It was a huge undertaking. There’s something now in London called the ICA, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and it’s virtually a copy of what I did in ‘66-‘67. When I say, “I” in the first person singular, it sounds like I’m doing everything, but in fact I was a little bit of the initiator but there were other people involved. We also started a newspaper too at the time called International Times (later, IT).

A very ‘proper’ sounding masthead, but I take it, it wasn’t?

No, it wasn’t and The Times newspaper chain was very upset by us calling it International Times so that’s why we changed the name to just its initials. It really was a great paper and it captured the flavour of the time. Everyone read it; the Beatles loved it and supported it a little bit; it was great.

How do you come up with your ideas for doing things? Is it literally just an idea and you think, why not? Or do you see a commercial opportunity?

It’s not about commercial opportunities; I see an exciting, fun idea.

It’s got to be exciting, it’s got to be fun, it’s got to be worth doing;

it’s got to make everyone’s life better and it’s got to be a valuable tool for the community. How I got the theatre building in Edinburgh was because it was owned by a friend of mine and it was empty. I said, “Let me have it and turn it into a theatre club” so we had a four-storey building on the main street of the Old Town in the Royal Mile of Edinburgh, for one shilling a year rent. He was made the Honorary President and his name was on the stationery, but we got the building. You have to do things like that when you have no capital. Your capital is your energy and your ideas.

How long did IT run for?

It was a paper that I jokingly said refused to die. I left IT after about two or three years, that’s how long I usually last at things. I don’t get bored, but I get new ideas and move on to something else. IT kept resurfacing and went on for years and years and years. Someone would take it over in a very anarchistic way and use the same logo we had, which was Theda Bara, the ‘30s Hollywood actress, a stunning brunette. So people would just start printing the paper again and suddenly there’d be a new issue of IT out when there hadn’t been one for years.

Was the content always fairly anarchist?

Yes and no. It was pro-decriminalising drugs. I’ve never been interested in drugs. I’ve always been interested in personal freedom and I always thought that the duty of the state is to advise and to warn, but ultimately each person makes their own decisions. I said, I don’t want anyone telling me what I can read, or what I can see on television or in the cinema. I don’t want anyone telling me what I can eat or drink, it’s my choice, it’s my life, and that was more or less the policy of the paper. I didn’t take drugs and I don’t drink much alcohol, very little, but my only vice – and I don’t really call it a vice – is that I love women and think they’re great.

But that’s as bad as it gets.

I guess … and chocolate.

Nutella.

Nutella is fairly recent. It’s only been since I’ve been in France that I’ve discovered it.

Was IT your first foray into publishing in terms of publishing things yourself?

No I published booklet in Edinburgh when I was running the bookshop. I went to hear the greatest living Scottish poet at the time, Hugh MacDiarmid, give a talk honouring David Hume, one of the greatest philosophers in Scottish history. I thought the talk was brilliant and said to him afterwards, “What’s happening to your talk? Will it have a further life?” He said, “I’ll put it in my drawer and that’s that.” I said, “May I publish it?” I published 1000 copies and that was my first venture into publishing. Sadly today I don’t even have a copy. I went to the National Library of Scotland a few years ago and they had two or three copies and let me see it. But IT wasn’t the only newspaper I’ve done. One day I was having tea in London on a Sunday afternoon with Bill Levy, a friend and ex-editor of IT We were both moaning and groaning about how IT was not going exactly as we would like it to so we decided to start a sexual freedom newspaper. It was called SUCK and had its office in Amsterdam because I knew that if it was in London it would be busted by Scotland Yard. We had one of your famous Aussie ladies on board, Germaine Greer, who was an editor. I knew her in those days so I called her up and said, “Come in, we’re starting this sexual freedom newspaper; do you want to be on board?” She said “Yes” and, I thought, wrote some of her finest stuff. It was a great newspaper.

I imagine that would have been right up her alley. Did you write for it as well?

I did. I actually didn’t write very much until I moved to Paris in ‘69. The first book that I put out myself was called Hello, I love you. It was an attempt to demystify sexuality and say that anything two or more people do, if it brings them happiness and if all the people involved are d’accord, if all the people are alright with it, then it’s fine; that was the thesis. It didn’t condemn anything, any so-called perversion. There was a wave of Puritanism, particularly in the women’s movement, sweeping Europe. I was very much pro-women and a feminist. There were two or three women in Europe, one woman in America – Betty Dodson, and Germaine Greer, Suzanne Brogger and a few others who said, “Look, we’re not anti-men; we have to assert and obtain our sexual needs and desires, that’s the problem.” I supported that.

Let’s have fun, let’s enjoy every minute, let’s dance, let’s sing, let’s make love, let’s giggle, let’s enjoy ourselves. I suspect we only have one time around.

Is that just part of your nature, or was there a particular time in your life that shaped your view of the world that way?

I think early Dorothy Parker was a major factor. I quoted her poem earlier to you. In a way it’s very cynical, but it’s also very true. People had to promise everything in order to be able to hug and kiss; it had to be, “I’ll love you forever, now can I hug and kiss you.” Yet I think all that is unnecessary and that romanticism is a big killer because women who would say yes would turn out to be not a good girl after all, because ‘good’ girls don’t say yes, ‘good’ girls say no. Men who got a ‘good’ girl to say yes then felt guilty about ruining a woman or spoiling her in some way. All that romantic drivel in our movies and advertising and songs, why can’t we just have: “We like each other and we’re here on earth now, let’s enjoy ourselves.” I shouldn’t really take up time by asking you about yourself, but I’m curious about you and your magazine, how you got started, how it’s doing and how many you’ve got working for you.

I have a great band of freelancers, writers and photographers, all over the world really, but essentially it’s just me and occasionally I can pay people; but more often than not I can’t, which is a real shame.

Two of my heroes are Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. There’s one scene where Tom’s aunt wants him to whitewash the fence and he goes outside in the hot Missouri sun and he starts to whitewash and he whistles and sings. Then kids, his contemporaries, come up and say, “What ya doing Tom?” and he says, “I’m having fun”, and they say, “Oh, we want to have fun too,” and he says, “Well, what will you give me?” and they say, “I’ll give you some marbles and a ball of string if you let me join in.” So he ends up getting the whole fence done by his friends. I think that’s you and me. You just make people want to do it. That’s been one of the philosophical underpinnings of my life. When I started the Traverse Theatre it was a slum of a building full of cobwebs and falling apart, but if you just make it a really fun project, just make it meaningful, then everyone wants to be involved.

That’s obviously what you’re pretty good at: having a vision for something and being able to communicate that to other people so they see that and want to get on board.

Heady days in London in the ‘60s, anything seemed possible and there were lots of abandoned buildings. Britain was still recovering from the Second World War. When I first got to Edinburgh in the ‘50s it was dark, dank, poor; there was not a lot of hope on the horizon, and then suddenly in the ‘60s things started exploding – youth culture and music and fun. People started having fun and, in class-stratified Britain, where the upper class didn’t speak to the lower class, suddenly the class system disappeared, especially among the youth. There used to be an image of working class kids with their noses pressed against the window pane looking in at ‘society’ having fun. Then, in the ‘60s the image became upper class kids with their noses up against the window wanting to come out and enjoy the fun. To a certain extent that did happen and I think it was largely the Beatles who were responsible.

So how do you have fun these days Jim?

Oh well, I love the Sunday dinners you know; they’ve been going now for 33 years and they began totally by accident for me and a few friends together. Now it’s major.

I get 150 people from all over the world calling every week wanting to come

and I can only really take, in bad weather 60 or 70 maximum, in good weather 110–120. It’s a hell of a lot of people from all over the world who don’t know each other; the only thing they know is that they’re coming to a meal in a sculpture studio (many don’t even know that) in the middle of Paris, well the south side of Paris, and they’re going to have a good meal, as much as they want to eat and drink, and they’re going to meet a lot of incredible people. I’ve had some amazing people here, and they’re going to have fun. And they do; people come back week after week.

You have a few regulars?

Oh yeah. I have an architect friend from Sydney, David Turner, who came to Paris and stayed. I guess he’s been here for 20 or 30 years now; he’s retired and he comes every Sunday. He doesn’t even call; he only calls if he’s not coming, otherwise he’s on the list every week. I actually went around the world once, thanks to a woman from Melbourne who I gave directions to. It was at a fashion show in a hotel and we had a camera crew shooting this Japanese designer – actually we had the first video unit in Paris to shoot fashion shows. This woman, Yvonne Row Rockman, was standing next to our set-up; we chatted and then I excused myself and started going downstairs and I saw her leaving. She said, “It’s too hot upstairs,” and I said, “Let me show you where you can see it from a very nice spot.” So I took her into the back where the models were changing clothes and gave her a glass of champagne. She had a wonderful view then. Afterwards we ended up going out for dinner and discovering that we had three friends in common, one in London, one in Paris, and one in Zurich – it was totally bizarre. When she got back to Melbourne she wrote me a letter saying that she and her husband, Irving Rockman, who was the mayor of Melbourne, would like to invite me to Melbourne, but on one condition, that I accept a trip around the world and stay for two or three weeks with them in Melbourne, so I did. I always say, you should be kind to strangers because you never know who they are and what might happen.

Absolutely. Did you write Around the World in 33 Days out of that trip?

Yes.

And the series of books that you did, People-to-People …

I was travelling a lot in Eastern Europe and I realised very early on that there are two ways of travelling: one is to be a tourist where you go to see things … the Eiffel Tower, the Tower of London, Statue of Liberty, Opera House in Sydney, etc, etc, and the other way is to be a traveller. When you’re a traveller the main goal is to participate in the everyday life of locals. Every time I ask people in Europe, “What was the city you liked the best?” they’d say, “Oh we loved Stuttgart.” Then I’d ask, “What was the place you hated?” and they’d say, “We didn’t like Munich.” The next people I asked the same questions would say, “We loved Munich, but we hated Stuttgart.”

One reason people like places is because they encounter someone; they have an affair, or a nice meal, or a nice evening with some locals and it makes all the difference.

So these books were lists of 1000 people you could meet: the languages the people spoke, their passion, their profession and their address. This was before email in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s and people were going to Eastern Europe and Russia in tour buses and looking only at monuments and meeting no one; maybe a waiter, but that was it. In some places like Romania it was against the law to talk to foreigners. If you had a conversation as a Romanian during the Ceaucescu years and you didn’t report the conversation within 24 or 48 hours, you were committing a crime, so it was very difficult. I never went to Romania during those years because I thought, if I can’t talk to locals, and I certainly don’t want to get anyone local in trouble, then why go there? So, anyway, I did those books.

How did you find those 1000 people, I take it they weren’t all personal acquaintances of yours?

No they’re not, but in those days, and still today to a certain extent, to have a foreign friend, was a feather in your cap. They wanted to be in such a book so that they could meet foreigners, so it was extremely easy to make those books. The only thing was that in Russia, towards the end, a few people were frightened of being on lists because if you were on a list it was easy to round you up, you know. But even there, the young people all wanted to be in the books. I remember I was in the middle of Russia and I went into a store and said, “Does anyone here speak English?” and a woman came up to me. She was an English teacher but she’d never met a native English speaker before in her life. She went into the book. They were great, those books; I loved making them. I only did five but they covered ten countries.

Are you working on any other projects like that at the moment?

Yes and no. There are a few things under way. Things never stop; you think of projects and people try to rope you into projects, and I kind of hate saying no to anybody or anything because ‘no’ limits you. With ‘yes’ anything can happen.

I said yes and now I’m talking to you, meeting you, and I hope one day we can sit down over a meal and giggle about all this. Yes-sayers are fun and no-sayers are … I don’t know, no fun I guess. I like the word yes, I try to say it a lot. It probably gets me trouble sometimes … I get invited places and I almost always say yes. I was recently invited to a film festival in Moravia in the east of the Czech Republic – the films were about the ‘60s. It was fun to go there, meet those people and see those films.

It sounds like you’ve had a fun life.

I think we only have one time around and we have to make it meaningful, we have to make it fun and we have to enjoy every minute, and I’ve certainly tried. I’ve enjoyed introducing people to people, I’ve enjoyed the travel and I’ve enjoyed the dinners … I’ve enjoyed it all, it’s been fun.

Absolutely. If you manage to eat at least one really good meal a week, as you do, in the company of friends then …

Actually, I rarely eat on Sunday nights because I’m so busy making sure everyone’s happy, meeting each other and has something to eat and drink. I don’t eat till Monday lunch. If there’re leftovers I invite a few people over. Sometimes, even on Tuesday or Wednesday I’ll have a small party with leftovers.

It’s amazing how food can bring people together like that.

It’s one of the great cement or gluing devices. To sit down over dinner with a bunch of friends is great.

And you certainly make that happen.

Well, it’s now Friday morning and I’m going to start preparing for Sunday’s dinner. It’s going to be Louisiana food this Sunday. Louisiana has a healthy culinary tradition …

Gumbo – is that Southern?

Yeah, gumbo and all those things.

So will you cook that meal?

No, I’m going to help. I can’t cook for one or for two, I can’t make myself toast, ok I can do toast, but that’s about it – but I can cook, if pushed, for 100 people. This Sunday I’ll probably be the sous chef; I’ll be the understudy.

Generally you get someone else to cook on Sunday nights don’t you?

Yes. We’ve also got a great cookbook called Throw a Great Party. Three women: Cathy Sroufe, who was the first person to cook here 33 years ago, Antonia Hoogewerf from London, and Mary Bartlett, who’s from America – together we made this cookbook of many of our recipes, and they work. If you follow them you can cook for 100 people. It’s got two columns: the left column is for 25 people and the right column is for 100.

That sounds great.

How long has Dumbo Feather been going?

Just over five years. Four issues a year. So issue 20 is printing at the moment; that felt like quite a milestone.

Not a millstone?

At times, but all that means is that I need a holiday.

Have you been to Paris?

I have, but not for a while.

I’ve got a guest bedroom if you need it. Come and stay. I’ve got two guest bedrooms and a woman from Sydney is staying in one right now. Amanda Morrow is a journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald and she worked for the Guardian in London for a while. I met her on her second day in Paris at the Comedy Club and we had dinner that night. I said, “Stay in my guest bedroom until you find a place,” and she’s still there over a year later, and is a delight. She’s become a desert queen. I also have a woman staying here right now from Louisiana who wrote me an email asking if she could come to dinner. I said, “Do you by any chance cook?” and she said she did, so I said, “Don’t stay in a hotel, come and stay here and cook a Louisianan meal.”

So she’s in charge of this Sunday’s dinner?

Yeah.

Have you ever wanted to go back to America or are you quite happy being …

I always have a smart-arse reply to that question, I’m a little bit embarrassed. I always say, you can’t go back anywhere, you can only go forward because you change and the place changes. So, if I do, I’ll be going forward to America. People who ‘come back’ to Paris say, “Oh it’s so different,” and I say, “Well, look in the mirror and you’ll see something different.” Life is a trip through time and space and we can only go forward. I have no plans to leave Paris at all, but I had no plans to leave Edinburgh and I had no plans to leave London either. I stuck my toe into Amsterdam in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s too. I’ve enjoyed everywhere I’ve lived on earth. I enjoyed my teens in Venezuela, my 20s in Edinburgh, my 30s in London and I’ve now been in Paris for 40 years and I’ve enjoyed every minute here; it’s a great city.

By the sound of things it’s enjoyed you too …

I hope so, I hope I’ve contributed something to the city. One of the things people say is that the French are very difficult. They’re not difficult; it’s just big-city life. In fact, I think they’re as friendly as anyone anywhere, but one thing I’ve done through the dinners especially is introduce people to people. There are a lot of French people who I’m friends with, Australians and Americans and Brits and Scots. When you think that every week, 50 or 60 people of all ages, nationalities, religions, races and everything come here, and everyone gets along fabulously – there has never been a problem in 30-something years.

In fact, probably the opposite’s happened. I’m sure you’ve been responsible for making some amazing connections between people.

Many love affairs, friendships, babies, jobs … In fact, David Turner from Sydney that I was talking about earlier had always dreamed of spending some time in a monastery in Japan and on a Sunday night here he met a journalist from Tokyo and he talked to her about it. Her brother was a head monk in a Kyoto monastery so he went off and spent three months in this monastery. His dream had been fulfilled from a Sunday night dinner.

Do you believe in serendipity or fate? Is that what makes those connections happen?

I don’t know what makes them; it’s really unusual and totally bizarre. I don’t like to think … It’s such a mystery why things like that happen. I mean there have been evenings here where someone has met a long-lost friend they haven’t seen in years. A woman from Texas cooked once and she’d lost track of a particular person, then she went out to the garden to have a drink and there he was, having a drink in the garden. Why do those things happen? I don’t know.

Magic.

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Tom Hunt

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