23 August 2009

British Beatniks

I have been thinking about the Beatnik movement in Britain that flourished at the end of the 1950s and into the early 1960s. It produced very little literature, a bit of music, some art and a few headlines. Beatniks were harassed in St. Ives Cornwall for their unwashed appearance and could not get served in pubs or even tearooms. A search on YouTube will reveal Alan Whicker asking Beatniks questions like 'When did you last have a bath?" They turn up in movies and novels and can be seen in episodes of early 60s TV dramas like 'The Avengers' and 'Knight Errant.'

The very earliest Donovan songs 'Catch the Wind' and 'Josie' have a tangible Beatnik vibe--in 1963 he had taken a trip to St Ives with Gypsy Dave. We are talking duffle coats, existentialism and anarchy, the desire to be 'free', travel, hitch-hike, girls in pale make up, polo necks, berets, scraggy beards, longish hair and frothy coffee. Hancock's 1960 film 'The Rebel' satirises them and the contemporary art world and some of his shows have Beatnik poets and coffee bars. This is after the mid 1950s Angry Young Men - Colin Wilson's 'The Outsider' (1956) is a key influence but by the time the Beatniks came in Colin was enjoying fine wines and buyting property in Cornwall.

The wonderful Adam Faith movie 'Beat Girl' (1960) has parties in Soho and Chelsea and raves in church crypts. The very young Oliver Reed can be seen in many scenes but at the time was so little known that he is billed in the casting list as 'plaid shirt.' In one scene Faith upbraids a bunch of crypt ravers who are swigging from a bottle of gin: "Booze is for squares, Daddy-O." This was before drugs became ubiquitous and Beatniks appear to have been a reasonably temperate bunch--their kicks came from snubbing authority, freedom, free love, coffee, ciggies and jiving...Pic of the deathless Oliver below in his famous shirt.

Bookish collectables associated with this wiggy crowd are few. There is a good, somewhat spurious paperback with a glossary of their language 'Through Beatnik Eyeballs' (Pedigree Books, London, 1961). This can sell for between £40 and £50 and turns up now and then. John Peel had a copy and quoted the following scarcely credible lines from it-' I've driven in from birdland in my chariot after a dark four and I'm here in the frolic pad to lay some gut bucket on you loose gooses before I shake my reins and head for dreamsville.' Royston Ellis wrote a series of poems around this time that have a distinctly Beatnik flavour including the attractive looking booklet 'Rave' (1960.) This can go for as much as £50 in the signed limited edition and a little less than £20 in the trade version. There is slight evidence of a revival of interest in our Beatnik heritage, more on this in a day or two daddy-o...

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