A Meeting with Jim Haynes

Those of us with long memories will remember a distinctive rhino’s head which used to hang outside The Paperback Bookshop in Potterrow ( an area long since redeveloped) and will remember the owner, Jim Haynes, a very charismatic American who was at that time one of the key players in Edinburgh’s culture scene. Jim has now lived in Paris for many years, where his Sunday dinners have become legendary, but faithfully every year he comes back to Edinburgh for the three weeks of the Festival. I was fortunate enough to meet up with him at the Book Festival and learn more about this fascinating man and his love affair with Edinburgh.
It started in 1956 when Jim had military service at Kirknewton, a joint British/American base that served as a listening post for Russian information. He was on night duty, and obtained permission to attend university and have his own flat. He fell in love with the city, and became very involved with student and cultural life. In 1959 he was demobbed and opened The Paperback Bookshop, the first of its kind here in Scotland.

The rhino’s head came from the New Club. In Jim’s own words, “I was walking past the New Club one day as this large head was being carried out to the rubbish. I’ll take that! I said.”

The bookshop was the venue for plays and events, coffee and discussions, and in 1960 the first Fringe programme was printed there, and tickets sold there for Fringe events. Alternative Theatre Edinburgh style was born. Also happening at The Paperback Bookshop were many literary events, which could be said to be the forerunner of the Book Festival.
In 1963 along with Richard Demarco, Jim co-founded the Traverse Theatre in small premises off the High Street, an event which will have its 50th anniversary in 3 years time. Plans are already underway for this event to be celebrated with Jim in attendance. Looking at the vibrant Traverse scene today, Jim feels like a “proud Grandpapa”, as well he might.
To begin with the Traverse was a Club Theatre, with membership subscriptions providing the funding. Because of its club status, drink could be served there on a Sunday, in these far off times when Scottish licensing laws meant that on the Sabbath only bona fide travellers could partake of alcohol in their hotels. This of course made the Traverse very popular anyway, but the policy of producing only new works meant it soon acquired a cutting-edge reputation for experimentation and the avant-garde.
Having worked his magic on Edinburgh, Jim moved to London and set up first the Jeanetta Cochrane theatre and then the Arts Lab in Covent Garden. A job in Paris then followed, where Jim became Professor of Media Studies and Sexual Politics.

Paris has been his home ever since, and also here Jim has done something extraordinary and become the Godfather of Dinner Parties. More than 30 years ago with a chef as a house guest he began to have twice weekly Wednesday and Saturday dinners which became famous for their eclectic mix of interesting people. Word spread, the dinners became more popular, and in deference to his neighbours Jim decided to restrict the dinners to Sundays only.

Over the years at these dinners, often with up to 80 guests, friendships have blossomed, deals have been struck, marriage partners have met, artistic life has flourished. For over 30 years Jim’s dinners have been a feature of Paris life, in true salon tradition. Everyone passing through is welcome. All you need to do is find Jim’s website and send him an e-mail. There is no charge as such, but you are asked to leave a donation in an envelope. Profits from donations go to various artistic and social projects. Because he is such a renowned host, he was approached last year by After Eight mints to make a commercial featuring one of his dinners for their product. The ad appeared at Christmastime last year, raising Jim’s profile even further for a whole new generation of people.
He is also heavily involved with the Calcutta Film Festival and spends time there each November. Courteous, gregarious, interested in all that is happening, he is quite simply remarkable for a man of any age, let alone a man of somewhat advanced years. When asked if life is getting quieter these days, or if he had any plans for slowing down there is a simple most emphatic answer: “Never!” He leaves Edinburgh at the end of August, and already a list is opening for the September dinners.
I must get to Paris one of these days…..


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