Jim Haynes: A man who invited the world over for dinner

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Last February, I took my last trip abroad before lockdown closed in on us. I bought a last-minute ticket and jumped on the Eurostar to Paris, motivated by a sudden urge to have dinner with a friend. Jim Haynes had entered his late '80s and his health was declining, yet I knew he would welcome a visit. Jim always welcomed visitors.

The essence of that trip now feels like the antithesis of Covid times. I was far from the only guest wandering into the warm glow of his atelier in the 14th arrondissement on a wet winter's night. Inside, people were squeezing, shoulder to shoulder, through the narrow kitchen. Strangers struck up conversations, bunched together in groups, balancing their dinners on paper plates and reaching over each other to press the plastic spout on a communal box of wine.

Jim had operated open-house policy at his home every Sunday evening for more than 40 years. Absolutely anyone was welcome to come for an informal dinner, all you had to do was phone or email and he would add your name to the list. No questions asked. Just put a donation in an envelope when you arrive.

There would be a buzz in the air, as people of various nationalities - locals, immigrants, travellers - milled around the small, open-plan space. A pot of hearty food bubbled on the hob and servings would be dished out on to a trestle table, so you could help yourself and continue to mingle. It was for good reason that Jim was nicknamed the "godfather of social networking". He led the way in connecting strangers, long before we outsourced it all to Silicon Valley.

I only knew Jim in his later years, but his entire life was extraordinary. Born in Louisiana in 1933, he had lived in Venezuela as a teenager; founded the alternative culture centre Arts Lab in London, where he mixed with David Bowie, John Lennon and Yoko Ono; ran a sexual liberation magazine in Amsterdam, and all before becoming a university lecturer in sexual politics in Paris, his home since 1969.

And yet he was often seen as a son of Scotland, following an influential stint there in the late '50s and late '60s, when he established Edinburgh's first paperback bookshop, co-founded the Traverse Theatre and helped kickstart the Fringe festival.

When Jim died, at 87, earlier this month, a Herald obituary called him "the unofficial agent for the beat generation in Scotland".

While a lot of highly regarded people tend to retreat into their own circles after finding success, Jim never stopped reaching out to new people. The first time I heard from him was an email out of the blue in 2008.

I had written a newspaper article from Barcelona - not the one in Spain but the one on the coast of Venezuela - and it had brought back memories for him. His father worked in the oil business and had moved the family there when Jim was in his early teens.

My article was about meeting people through the Couchsurfing website, where locals opened their homes to strangers for free around the world. This was before AirBnB worked out how to monetise the idea, and the concept of non-commercial cultural exchange was right up Jim's street. "When you are back in Europe, come to dinner," he wrote, promising to tell me about an old travel project of his own that he thought I might like.

Intrigued, I headed to Paris soon after my return. I had imagined some sort of intimate dinner party with cultural elites, but what I found was more like a student house party - albeit with more mature attendees and only moderate alcohol consumption. (Jim was teetotal and proceedings ended strictly by 23:00.)

Jim instantly greeted me like an old friend and, as we chatted, he reached up on to his living room shelves to offer me a book. People to People read the cover line. It was the project he had wanted to tell me about.

He explained that, in the late 1980s, he had founded a guidebook series for countries behind the Iron Curtain. Instead of the standard descriptions of sights and hotel listings, the format was like an address book, including the contact details for hundreds of in-country hosts. The idea was that if people could not easily see the Western world themselves, he would bring it to them via travellers. It was "couchsurfing", but offline.

The hand-sized copy he pressed into my palm centred on Poland. I loved it and decided to travel there to see if the participants were still up for receiving random visitors, even though so much had changed.

Each person was filed under the town where they lived, followed by two or three lines, including their address, date of birth, phone number and hobbies. Through a combination of Google and snail-mail, I managed to get hold of several of them. Most had all known Jim either personally or through friends of friends. All had fond memories of the project and all were still willing to act as local guides to show me around.

In Gdansk, I asked civil servant Krystyna Wróblewska why she had signed up originally.
Йоко и его друзья
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