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...


Anonymous said...

"after a dark four" is that 4 pints of Guinness?

Royston Elis said...

Well, well! In your next review you might like to mention JIVING TO GYP - my first sequence of poems - published by Scorpion Press in 1959 and then the TV show LIVING FOR KICKS that resulted in me being tagged in the press as "The King of the Beatniks." I performed my poetry to rock music backing using musicians such as Cliff Richard's Shadows, Jimmy Page (when he was with the Redcats) and in June 1960 four Liverpudlian lads who wanted to call themselves Beetles for their planned appearances with me in London (which never happened as they went to Hamburg instead having decided, on my advice, to spell their name BEATLES since they liked the Beats of the USA and I was a Beat poet). BTW my 1961 book THE BIG BEAT SCENE is being republished in April 2010 by Music Mentor Books and the Golden Jubilee signed limited folio edition of my poem GONE MAN SQUARED (which originally appeared in 1959 in BEAT magazine) is being published soon by Tamarack Press in the USA.
Beat regards
Royston Ellis

Zoe said...

I stumbled upon this site when looking for cecil beatons images of Nancy Mitford, what an odd coincidence that your most recent entry is on the topic of beatniks as i was looking for books on the subject a few days ago and couldn't find any modern books on the topic, which is a pity. adding to my blog roll!

Edwin Moore said...

Love the beatnik eyeballs cover! 1961 - ah Larkin was so right, the world was to change forever in 1963.

I have a copy of Krokodil from 1974 and it has a caricature of an ape-like humanoid in a poloneck surrounded by flies. The Communists really, really hated beatniks, and went on hating them long after they became extinct.

Anonymous said...

Oliver Reed was a real fox in Beatnik era

scrbblr said...

Gillian Hills -- star of "Beat Girl" -- may have a curious connection to the world of publishing. I worked on several New York-based magazines art-directed by Gillian's onetime husband, the late Derek Burton (smooth and likable when sober but a nasty drunk), and recall Gillian coming by the office to visit him. This was in the early '80s; she was still quite startlingly beautiful. I was informed at the time by one of the other editors that Gillian had spent her girlhood in Africa, that she'd been an actress and something of a U.K. sex symbol, and that she'd switched careers and had gone into publishing, where she'd pioneered -- indeed, invented, so my perhaps unreliable colleague claimed -- the die-cut paperback cover that reveals another cover beneath. (Wiki, I see, says she gave up acting and became an illustrator but mentions nothing about that particular innovation.)

naomi said...

intersting, i worked with derek burton also at gallery and twilight zone. we must have worked together.

Anonymous said...

How about Alex Troochi?
Colin Wilson had a bit of the beatnik in him.
Even Alan Sillitoe, (or is that pushing it!)
Wolf Mankovitz?
British Beats...

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