“It’s a social event with intellectual underpinnings—a very fancy frock with excellent underwear,” he said, “It still gets so hot and busy – people faint, there is still plenty of flirting, and people still wake up the next day thinking, talking, and (now) tweeting about it.”
Meet Damian Barr, a columnist, playwright, writer, and a modern day salonierre. Yes, Damian is the founder of the London based Shoreditch House Literary Salon, making an old tradition both new and welcoming. After reading about the Shoreditch House Literary Salon in the New York Times, Tatler, and British Vogue, I knew I had to learn more. How did this new venture come to be? “Well, salons were wildly popular in the 19th century across Europe,” said Damian, “All I am doing is bringing something back into fashion. Hopefully, it has substance as well as style!” He held his very first Salon at the Shoreditch House in 2008. It all began when Damian simply wished to attend a book event that was about the audience as much as it was about the authors and artists of the works discussed. As he put it, he longed for a better class of literary gossip! “We thought we’d be wildly successful if we had 30 people attend,” he said, “70 folks turned up! Now we have about 300 people who come from far and wide, often lining up around the block to get inside.”
“But, this is about creating and binding together a real community in the real world who go to real bookshops and buy real books.
It’s about eBooks and real books. It’s both.”
So, has his modern concept of the Salon changed since the initial plan? “Yes, we have microphones which I resisted, but it is vital for everyone to hear,” he said, “I was worried they would be impersonal. We started with two guest speakers and now have three or four. We always have free pizza and a welcome drink.” At the end of the day, Damian’s craft of modern day literary gatherings is very similar to those held during the golden days of salons in the 19th century – it’s still about the people who come to see the art and artists as much as it is about the work. “It’s a social event with intellectual underpinnings—a very fancy frock with excellent underwear,” he said, “It still gets so hot and busy – people faint, there is still plenty of flirting, and people still wake up the next day thinking, talking, and (now) tweeting about it.”
And, speaking of tweeting, the Shoreditch House Literary Salon provides a welcome relief and opportunity in our increasingly digital world for individuals to experience personal interaction, share emotions, and be – well, human, while sharing their experiences together online. “This is about taking social media offline,” he said, “We have over 4,500 people in a very active Facebook group and they communicate before, during, and after the salon on Facebook and on Twitter. But, this is about creating and binding together a real community in the real world who go to real bookshops and buy real books. It’s about eBooks and real books. It’s both.” Is it possible that this type of gathering is the bridge to connect the two worlds of print and digital media that are still fighting to come to terms with one another?
“We’ve already been number one on iTunes. Clearly there is an appetite in the world for live literary events that are as much about the people in the room and the person behind the books as the books themselves.”
“It’s a success if one person buys a book they hadn’t considered before and it’s a TOTAL success if they love that book,” said Damian.
No matter the source or medium of the literary material, Damian hopes that the salon educates – whether it’s during the event or through the discussion that follows. “I want people to leave feeling smarter than when they arrived, to feel stimulated and not just by the delicious cocktails,” he said, “It’s a success if one person buys a book they hadn’t considered before and it’s a TOTAL success if they love that book.” And, for faraway fans and those intrigued by the concept, he shared the Salon now uploads its gatherings to iTunes. “I am amazed at our success,” said Damian, “We’ve already been number one on iTunes. Clearly there is an appetite in the world for live literary events that are as much about the people in the room and the person behind the books as the books themselves.” And, what about the concept of expanding the Salon? Has Damian planned for an expansion to other cities? “I recently partnered with the wonderful British Council and we held a Salon in Moscow with two Brits and two Russians,” he said, “It was fascinating to reintroduce this format to a city once famous for such Salons.
Does he have a favorite story from the Salon he can share? “That I can tell you? What happens at the Salon stays at the Salon,” he said, “We have a private dinner after that’s always loads of fun! I think I loved seeing 250 people leap to their feet, many of them in tears, after the Right Reverend Richard Holloway spoke without notes about Yeats and doubt and faith. It was I have to say, an almost religious experience. James Frey was on the microphone after Holloway and it’s not often he’s stuck for words, but he was then.” At each gathering, Damian introduces the night, the guests, and the theme if they have one. “I love the moment when I have a drink in my hand and I can look around the room and see all of these faces totally focused on the guest who is about to read,” he said, “A magic spell descends and all of these busy glamorous people just stop and listen and allow themselves to be taken somewhere new.”
“I think I loved seeing 250 people leap to their feet, many of them in tears, after the Right Reverend Richard Holloway spoke without notes about Yeats and doubt and faith. It was I have to say, an almost religious experience.” - Damian Barr
As for 2012, the next Salon is on March 14th and four writers will be unveiling all new material. “That’s a vital bit of Salon,” he said, “David Nicholls launched One Day at the Salon, Helen Fielding wrote the first three pages of the new Bridget Jones especially for us! So, we have Chris Cleave, Richard Holloway returns, Alexandra Shulman from Vogue, and Colm Toibin. I also run a smaller boutique Salon for Aubin & Wills and we have four UK dates and some really exciting authors planned. I’ll also be doing some exciting collaborations this year!” On top of the monthly inspiration he gathers from the salon, Damian notes other personal inspirations to be Diana Athill, Truman Capote, Dolly Parton, Edmund White, and Richard Holloway.
“I have 108 books on my bedside table,” he said, “I will die under a pile of books. Dislodged in the night.”
With so many happenings and events planned for this year, where does he go in his spare time, or to simply relax? “Right now, I am at Aikwood Tower in the Scottish Borders,” he said, “I am supposed to be writing my new book for Bloomsbury, but instead I’m catching up on emails. Here, I can look out at night and not see a single lit window. I am alone, but not alone and the weight of the 14th century house and its history is all around, but doesn’t hold me back.” Planning the happenings of the day to follow, first things first, he notes he’ll be up early for porridge and coffee. “Then, I’ll head out for a walk along the river, watching out for salmon, and maybe chatting to some anglers before heading back to cook lunch and settling down to an afternoon of writing.” At the moment, Damian is wearing quite a few hats. “I am running a writer in residence scheme for Gladstone’s Library, planning curious literary hjinx with Hendrick’s Gin, sitting on the Board of Brighton Fringe, planning and hosting Reading Weekends in the UK and abroad, and coordinating my cinema projects (Silent Cinema and the Starlite Urban Drive-in.” Is that all? “Well, then I need to finish writing this book,” he said, “My memoir is called Maggie and Me and it is for Bloomsbury. Everything I do involved stories- telling them, sharing them- making them up.”
Well, if one thing is for certain, it’s clear Damian is not making up the fact that he’s certainly accomplished! And, what are his favorite books? “It changes all of the time,” he said, “But, In Cold Blood, Stet, and The Color Purple.” He notes that he currently has 108 books on his bedside table. A picture of his nightstand would quite possibly warrant a Salon of its own. “I will die under a pile of books,” said Damian, “Dislodged in the night.”
Photography by: Daisy Honeybunn