Reviving the Enlightenment in London: A Conversation with Damian Barr

Posted on January 24th, 2011 by

There is a relic of literary history that many have thought dead since the days of the French Revolution. However, with the help of Scottish writer and journalist Damian Barr, the literary salon has been resurrected as a haven for literati, intellectuals, industry professionals and really anyone with a passion for books. Our class had the opportunity to meet with the charismatic Mr. Barr at a conference room in the London Library (which certainly lent to the literary atmosphere) to discuss his work as a salonniere and writer.

He came in late, after our tour of the Library had already finished, fresh from a meeting with his new agent. Sweating and explaining that he had run the entire way to the library, he began his presentation in his undershirt, giving me the impression of a confident person that preferred familiarity to formality. Not really sure where to start, after only a moment’s indecision he chose to regale us with the history of his biggest claim to fame in London.

Damian Barr had the idea for beginning the Shoreditch House Literary Salon over three years ago, while working as a “reader-in-residence” at the Sanderson hotel. Finding that he needed some solitude so as to remove all distractions from writing, Mr. Barr decided to take out a room at the Sanderson for a month. When he realized he needed a means of paying for his hermitage, he struck up a deal with the hotel: he would offer his services as a reader to hotel patrons to cover his stay. He did not expect this service to be so popular; however, when word got around about the man at the Sanderson who would deliver his interpretations of bedtime stories, poetry and other prose, the hotel experienced a rise in popularity. People would say how much they wished there were an open venue for these readings. Someone suggested he start a salon in the style of 18thcentury France, where socialites and notables of the day would get together to discuss philosophy and literature at length. Mr. Barr first thought the idea to be somewhat farfetched, but was eventually swayed. The initial episode of the literary salon, held at Shoreditch House (a space usually reserved for swanky, members-only clubs), was equipped for forty guests; when the number in attendance reached over sixty and the club had to begin turning people away, the Shoreditch House gave Mr. Barr a banquet hall. He was afraid that the vast space was overcompensation, and that it would drown out the intimacy of the event. However, the attendance this time was well over one hundred guests, and the salon has been running successfully ever since.

The content of the salons generally includes two to three guests giving a reading of their own work or someone else’s, followed by an interview conducted by Mr. Barr. Alcohol-fueled socializing and the occasional hookup were interspersed through the evening. I asked Mr. Barr if he had ever had a difficult or challenging guest; he was quite jovial in telling me that Bret Easton Ellis, renowned author of American Psycho and Less Than Zero, showed up late to the salon only to declare that he would not be reading from any of his books, nor would he do an interview. But Mr. Barr, not one to be thrown off-course by the occasional obstacle, took it in stride; the evening ended up being just as successful as any previous ones. There are guests he dreams of getting on board with the salon enterprise: a younger Gore Vidal, Hilary Clinton, and Maya Angelou (with whom he is currently “in touch”) among them. Diana Athill (who helped to publish Norman Mailer and John Updike), on the other hand, was a dream fulfilled. Regardless of fame or notoriety, though, it is clear that Damian Barr is bringing a new opportunity for literary appreciation to the social world of London. The conversation continues through the work of, as he sees it, “the first male salonniere. Well, gay male salonniere.” And after his thoroughly engaging presentation, I wanted to listen to that conversation for as long as possible.


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