Page last updated at 13:33 GMT, Thursday, 25 June 2009 14:33 UK

Capturing the beat of 1950s Paris

(L) to (R): Robin Page, Canadian painter; Peter Bishop, English journalist; Larry Yampolsky,news-reel cameraman; Madame Rachou; Thomas Neurath; Peter Golding, London fashion designer; John Hammer
Journalists, cameramen and fashion designers relax in the Beat Hotel in 1960

Writers and artists have been gathering in Paris to celebrate the 50th anniversary of William Burroughs's book Naked Lunch. The book was written in the Beat Hotel - a hangout for photographers, models and writers - and Christine Finn recently visited to try to find remnants of beat culture.

The members of this international literary crowd have been trying to lose themselves here in Paris. Literally.

They are doing what the French call "deriving". It means throwing out the map, going with the flow, taking to the streets in a form of cartographic anarchy that can lead anywhere, or nowhere. Left, right, left ,right, right, left, left, left.

The syncopated rhythm of this random traversing is entirely appropriate. The group are all fans of the Beat culture, the movement that celebrated jazz and doing things differently.

William Burroughs
Naked Lunch was initially banned in the US. Photo: Harold Chapman

The people who have come here to mark the Burroughs anniversary and to remember Beat culture, are attending a host of events and exhibitions.

But for many of them, the highlight is the pilgrimage to a thin street on the Left Bank, to that beat-up refuge of creativity, the Beat Hotel itself.

A portrait of the author on show at an exhibition called Naked Lunch at 50 shows William Burroughs staring out of the frame, behind him a series of metal baskets.

It seems the author compiled this particular book by randomly placing pages of his writing in whatever basket he fancied - top, middle, top, bottom, middle, middle.

Free to 'derive'

The man who took that Burroughs portrait was the last resident of the Beat Hotel.

Photographer Harold Chapman
Harold Chapman remained a resident in the Beat Hotel until it closed

He is the British photographer, Harold Chapman, who is 82 and still taking pictures, albeit now digital ones.

He is also a friend of mine and in recent weeks I have been mining his memories.

Harold captured thousands of images of the Beats.

From the poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso to now-forgotten names. He spoke their language.

In the 1950s, he had hitch-hiked to Paris from suburban England wanting to do his own thing, he found Rue Git le Coeur.

A night job taking Polaroid shots of street crowds left him free by day to "derive", snatching the unexpected on the streets.

He likes the description of "a burglar with a camera."

Prestigious images

His landlady was the formidable Madame Rachou, who craftily monitored the activities of guests with a panel of bulbs on her front desk. They glowed according to how much electricity was being used in each room.

Harold used his bed-sheets, as well as his bed, to fashion a makeshift darkroom. He ate well on market discards.

I can re-trace his food-gathering routes, but it would be impossible now to follow his other centime-saving practice, foraging in the street for scraps of camera film.

Up in my attic room, I listened to recordings he had made of how the hotel used to be. The interior: dark hall, dust, paint peeling, bust doors, cracked windows

Remarkably, some of his best known Beat images, now displayed in prestigious international galleries, were captured on small scraps of celluloid salvaged from unused ends of film thrown away by newsreel cameramen.

The Beat Hotel closed in 1963.

Harold had moved from room to room until he was the last left to turn out the lights. Madame Rachou and her bulbs had retired.

Fragrant atmosphere

When it was relaunched as the Hotel de Vieux Paris in the 1990s, it had gone markedly upmarket, from Beat to boutique. Now it is getting a Naked Lunch plaque.

Beat fans have long made the pilgrimage.

Inspired by Harold's tales, I recently spent a night there.

Up in my attic room, I listened to recordings he had made of how the hotel used to be. The interior: dark hall, dust, paint peeling, bust doors, cracked windows.

A Turkish toilet on each floor - two footplates, a hole in the ground - and no lavatory paper, just a telephone directory.

Another Beat Hotel resident, Verta Kali Smart, playing an African piano of flattened bicycle spokes, the sound from the bar, fierce arguments, solo rages, laughter, coughing, singing, crying.

And he remembered the smells: perfumes, marijuana, Gauloises, oil paint and food. People often cooked in their rooms.

Others trawled the corridors for a sniff of something cooking in hope of a meal.

'Flea-bag shrine'

Today the whole building would be viewed as an art installation, but in its time it was dismissed by some critics as "a flea-bag shrine".

The guest book in the Hotel de Vieux Paris (formerly the Beat Hotel)
Despite going upmarket, the hotel still attracts fans of Beat culture

Another guest, the Beat poet Harold Norse, who died this month, predicted the hotel would one day be "a flea-bag shrine visited by art historians".

That image of Burroughs with the wire baskets is on the mantel piece at Harold's home on England's south coast.

It was the first of several photos he took of the quiet author known as the Invisible Man.

I asked how he had got to take it, expecting a complex tale of Beat Hotel favours. Instead, he had simply heard Burroughs was being interviewed for a magazine.

When the door to Room 15 opened, and the journalist and photographer were ushered in, Harold followed, took one shot, and made his exit. The cat burglar with a camera had snatched the cream.

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