Avec les beatniks à Shakespeare & Co.

Just returned from a week’s holiday in Paris – did lots of fantastic things like dancing the Madison at a gay tango club, was serenaded by a circus accordion lady over dinner, went to a Chopin concert in the park, mooched around bookshops and classic movie cinemas, rode around on the brilliant city Velib bikes, met some nice people, stayed at a terrible hotel which became almost funny in its escalating crapness, ate so many rolls and cheese (stolen from breakfast to save money on lunch and dinner) that I can’t look at one again, read in parks, stared at gargoyles, hated hole in ground toilets, got overwhelmed at Versailles and stunned by the Manet in the Musee d’Orsay.

But possibly the highlight for me was falling in with some literary beatniks (their description!) through the Shakespeare & Company bookshop. I’d discovered from their website that they had a drop-in writing workshop called the Other Writers Group and emailed its organiser, David Barnes, to check if I could go along. It wasn’t too busy because a lot of people aren’t around in the summer, but the people I met there were really friendly and welcoming and gave me wonderful feedback on a story. And then we went to the pub. Two American ladies, Margaret J Hults & Marie Davis, who live and write together, gave us a sneak preview of their upcoming iPad application book, Spoon And The Moon, a sexy interactive fairytale which looks like it will be fun.

David’s story is interesting. He moved to Paris from England a few years ago because “I didn’t feel at home, at home,” slept at the bookshop for a bit and helped out in the shop, then asked them if he could set up a writing group there – you would have thought such a famous place would have all that entrenched, but they didn’t; thus proving, I guess, that if you’re too shy to ask, you don’t get. As a result he was now launching an anthology later that week called Strangers In Paris – stories and poems in English by non-native Parisians – so we went along to that a few days later. It was a great event, held right outside the bookshop, in the sunshine, with loads of people crammed around to listen to some readings (the shop itself, while marvellous, seems to always be so completely stuffed that I guess they couldn’t have it indoors). Incidentally the book, which of course I made sure to have David, Margaret and Marie sign, is really good, some excellent stories and a better souvenir than a Eiffel Tower model!

Later that night, David kindly invited me and Iain along to their spoken word night, Culture Rapide, which is just an incredible event: I was so impressed with the large number of people who came along (and it’s weekly!) and with the very high quality of readings. We have some great literary events here but there seemed to be something special about this, perhaps because of the location, perhaps because of the energy coming from people who had chosen to come together in a writers’ community, a little out of step with the country, with the trends. They seemed to just love words – their own, each other’s, famous words (with a few reading out their favourite passages from well known works). There was singing and drinking and lots of friendly conversations.

Very nervously, I performed my story World Enough And Time (hastily printed out that afternoon in an Internet cafe) – and people laughed! They got it! I was really happy to be part of their thing for a night. Drunkenly, we discussed setting up an international exchange of some kind, a new Auld Alliance. I’m open to ideas.

If you go to Paris, I highly recommend checking out the night, or the bookshop, or the group. If you go anywhere, actually, I recommend seeing what literary community they have there and whether you can visit and be inspired. I know I’ll be doing that on my next holiday, wherever it is.


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