In his autobiography, Personal Copy, the journalist and broadcaster Ray Gosling describes a feeling of imminent change that was shared by many young people at the very end of the 1950s:
There was just this feeling… that we were important, that something was going to happen. How, and in what direction, we didn’t know. And we didn’t much care. It was a very, very, very odd feeling, but we felt it.
Gosling himself came from a frugal working-class background in the provincial English city of Northampton. In 1959, he dropped out of university and set up a youth centre in Leicester that was run autonomously by a committee of young people. The academic Richard Hoggart – the author of The Uses of Literacy, who was soon to become the founding director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at Birmingham University – was on his management committee. Although Gosling’s youth centre collapsed, he developed the argument for youth-led welfare provision in a pamphlet for the Fabian Society; and he went on to build a career as a writer and public speaker, offering an insider’s perspective on the emerging youth culture of the time. He became associated with the New Left, and began to mix in the more cosmopolitan culture of London’s coffee bars, making friends with Stuart Hall (then the editor of the New Left Review) and the novelist Colin MacInnes, whom he described as his ‘mentor’.
In this essay, I aim to capture some of the feeling of impending change that Gosling describes. I want to look at a key moment of transition in the history of modern youth culture in Britain, shortly before the more spectacular explosions of the 1960s. I will be focusing on a range of films, books and other publications that almost all appeared in the year 1959. These include the films Beat Girl, Expresso Bongo and The Lambeth Boys; Colin MacInnes’s novel Absolute Beginners (and its much later adaptation into film); and other writing by the cast I have already introduced, including Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall. Self-evidently, these are all representations of youth culture, or responses to it, rather than accurate documentary sources. Yet in very different ways, they also capture something of the changes – the sense that something was going to happen – that Gosling was seeking to identify.
Among other events, 1959 was the year of the second annual march organized by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the first to go from the nuclear base at Aldermaston to a closing rally in London’s Trafalgar Square. It was also the year of London’s first ‘Caribbean Carnival’, which subsequently became the Notting Hill Carnival, still Europe’s largest street festival. Meanwhile, the following year saw young people ‘rioting’ and fighting with police in the implausibly bucolic surroundings of the Beaulieu Jazz festival.
If these things might be taken as early indications of the counter-cultural developments of the 1960s, it’s important to see them in their wider context. As the historian Robert Hewison suggests, the cultural changes that had begun to appear around 1956 were rapidly gathering pace by the end of the decade: by 1960, he argues, various opposing forces were at a ‘point of balance’. The latter half of the 1950s had seen a release of the constraints and privations of wartime: food rationing didn’t end until 1954, and compulsory army service was not phased out until 1960. This was a period of full employment and growing affluence, not least among young people. The debacle of Suez marked a key break in Britain’s position as a world power, and was followed by the gradual withdrawal of the Empire; and yet, with increasing migration from the former colonies, the country was also becoming more multicultural and globally oriented. Within the arts and literature, Hewison suggests, there was a gradual break-up of the cultural consensus, and a growing challenge to the authority of what was becoming known as ‘the Establishment’.
Thus, 1959 also saw the release of the film version of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, the play that gave the ‘Angry Young Men’ their label; and the publication of the novels The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Room at the Top, which challenged conventional values from a more distinctively working-class, Northern perspective. Meanwhile, the Obscene Publications Act, passed in 1959, was followed by the trial of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, which marked a dramatic shift in the public representation of sex and sexuality. Lest we become carried away, it’s important to note that 1959 also saw the Conservatives achieve a third successive election victory, increasing their majority to 100 seats: the Labour Party was in disarray, and more fundamental political change did not emerge for some years to come. Yet this year also saw the founding of the influential New Left Review, formed from two earlier publications, which gave voice to more radical challenges to traditional Labour politics, not least among academics associated with what came to be called ‘Cultural Studies’.
Of course, by no means all these changes were directly related to young people. Nevertheless, it’s possible as this point to detect the early emergence of a distinctive form of cosmopolitan youth culture, at least in London. It was by no means the first youth culture, of course – and indeed in many respects it defined itself in opposition to a previous, much more working-class youth cultural ‘tribe’, the Teddy Boys. It was also by no means homogeneous or coherent. Rather, what we see here is the overlap between a number of contemporaneous developments. In addition to the wider changes Hewison identifies, there was London’s existing bohemian culture, which began to spread beyond the drinking dens of Soho and Chelsea; the commercial music business, which sought to capitalize on the growing affluence of young people, with a succession of youthful rock-and-roll performers; the influence of mass immigration, particularly from the West Indies, in response to British government recruitment campaigns; and the concerns of a group of leftist intellectuals and commentators (such as Hoggart and Hall), who felt a growing need to understand the ‘youth question’, and thereby to engage young people more actively in politics. All these elements will recur in the stories and debates that follow.
Looking yonder: the beat generation
The label that was most frequently attached to these new cultural movements was that of ‘beat’ or ‘beatnik’. The term itself was imported from the United States, along with some of the work of the ‘Beat Generation’ authors. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published in Britain in 1958, while William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch appeared the following year; and, perhaps more significantly, the same year saw a collection entitled Protest: The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men (edited by Gene Feldman and Max Gartenberg), which included Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and other US writers alongside British ‘angries’ like John Wain, Kingsley Amis, John Osborne and Colin Wilson – with whom, by any measure, they had little in common. Furthermore, as we’ll see, one of the fundamental issues at stake in the emerging debates about youth culture was to do with ‘Americanisation’; and so before moving on to the specific context of London, England, it’s important to address this transatlantic connection.
The notion of a ‘Beat Generation’ dates back to 1948, and apparently arose in a conversation between Kerouac and the novelist John Clellon Holmes (although the term itself is sometimes attributed to the street hustler – and later writer – Herbert Hunke). ‘Beat’ seems to imply a kind of exhaustion or weariness with the demands of the conventional world; but it also implicitly refers to the rhythmic beat of jazz (rather than rock-and-roll); and to a religious or mystical sense of the ‘beatific’ (as many of the beats flirted, and in some cases fully engaged, with Buddhism). While Kerouac himself seems to have tired of the label, it was energetically taken up by the poet Allen Ginsberg, who effectively became the beats’ leading publicist and entrepreneur.
Accounts of the beats tend to focus heavily on the trinity of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. Others – not least the very few women and African-American writers associated with the movement – tend to be relegated to the sidelines. These three writers are remarkably different in many respects, and hardly amount to a literary movement, let alone a ‘generation’. Nevertheless, they shared a sense of alienation from what they saw as the shallowness, conformity and materialism of US consumer culture. Although Ginsberg later came to align himself with the counter-culture, the beats were far from explicitly political: they believed that revolutionary change would follow from personal liberation, and by dropping out of mainstream society. This escape took various forms, from the vagabond travelling of Kerouac through to the oblivion of alcoholism and heroin addiction, as well as the introspection of religious meditation. There is a strange mixture here of bohemian hedonism and ascetic spirituality: the beats sought a kind of authenticity in the skid rows and flophouses of the urban underclass, but also in the spontaneity of Buddhism, with its belief in the impermanence of human existence. In many respects, there was a considerable continuity between the individualism of the beats and that of the society they appeared to be rejecting. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that the beats both prefigured and influenced the counter-culture of the later 1960s – although only Ginsberg made the transition into a fully-fledged hippie (Kerouac was significantly more scathing about what followed, and became steadily more conservative, not to mention more inebriated, as the decade progressed).
The beats were ridiculed by most leading representatives of mainstream literary culture at the time. Critics sought to puncture their image of themselves as revolutionaries, accusing them of empty posturing: the beat style, they argued, was merely conformist in its own way. However, more recent accounts of the beat writers seem to share the breathless mythologizing that was apparent in many of their pronouncements at the time. A great deal has been written about their lives, but much less about their work: a few celebrated stories are told and re-told (Kerouac typing On the Road on a long roll of paper, Burroughs accidentally shooting his wife), yet there are very few detailed critical analyses of beat writing itself. David Sterritt usefully challenges the claim that their writing was all about spontaneous improvisation, and that this was something they shared with jazz; and he also points to their dubious attitudes towards Jews and African-Americans. Nevertheless, much contemporary writing about the beats is merely celebratory: a more measured, critical account is sorely needed.
By contrast, the term ‘beatnik’ was a label imposed from outside, having been coined by the journalist Herb Caen in 1958. It was intended to be a satirical conflation of ‘beat’ with ‘Sputnik’, the Soviet space satellite that seemed to embody the hopes and fears of the nuclear age. Subsequent media representations – including the parodic advertisements featured in the illustrated version of this essay – combined to create a familiar stereotype. Thus, beat men sported goatee beards, striped sailor shirts or black turtlenecks, sandals and berets, and wore dark sunglasses, even indoors and at night. Beat women wore tight black sweaters or smocks, black tights or cropped jeans, and went barefoot; and their ghostly white complexion was accentuated by heavy black mascara. Beatniks had their own lingo, largely derived from the ‘jive talk’ of jazz musicians. They recited poetry and played the bongo drums, while drinking espresso coffee, smoking marijuana and discussing existentialism late into the night. In many respects, the beatniks were the precursors of our modern-day ‘hipsters’ – and indeed that term was often used to describe them. They were certainly just as vulnerable to parody.
Of course, this was a stereotype – albeit one that was arguably just as inaccurate as the beats’ own generalizations about the consumerism and conformity they claimed to be opposing. These images were recycled in numerous beat-themed movies, and while some – such as The Beat Generation (1959) and The Beatniks (1960) – can be considered ‘exploitation films’, others involved the beat writers themselves – notably Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy (1959), and an adaptation of Kerouac’s The Subterraneans (1960). Perhaps the most famous beatnik of all was the character of Maynard G. Krebs in the popular TV sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-63) – although it would be remiss not to mention Shaggy in the cartoon Scooby Doo (even if he didn’t appear until 1969). Popular comedians, especially Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, also played heavily on the beatnik persona, albeit in a semi-parodic manner. And there were countless beat jokes and cartoons, which largely reinforced the stereotype of beats as lazy, incoherent, self-consciously cool and phony.
While such popular media images might have seemed a long way from the revolutionary literary aspirations of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, these authors also undoubtedly courted media attention on their own behalf. The ‘beat generation’ was to a large extent a media creation, and the difference between the beat and the beatnik (or between reality and representation) was not always easy to discern. While such images might have been intended to be satirical – or even, as in some of the films, to serve as a kind of moral warning to the young – that is not to say that they were always read in the same light by young people themselves.
The beats and the angries
It’s doubtful whether many British writers would have identified as ‘beats’. Among the possible exceptions are Alexander Trocchi, who hailed from Glasgow but lived in Paris and then New York in the early 1960s, and whose semi-autobiographical account of his heroin addiction Cain’s Book (1960) was quite at odds with other literary trends in the UK at the time. Another might be Michael Horowitz, who founded the poetry journal New Departures in 1959 while a student at Oxford, and later invited Ginsberg to London for the first International Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall in 1965 – although he is of a slightly younger generation. However, none of the other writers I’ll be referring to here even mentions the American beats; and there are many aspects of the beat ‘ideology’ (if that’s the right term) that do not easily transfer to the UK – such as their religiosity, or their infatuation with the open road.
As I’ve noted, parallels were sometimes made between the beats and the ‘Angry Young Men’, a label that began to be used in the UK in the mid-1950s. Like the beats, the ‘angries’ were primarily a literary phenomenon, and most of their key members were well into their twenties when they emerged (the playwright John Osborne was 26 when his play Look Back in Anger was first staged in London). The label ‘Angry Young Men’ was applied to a wide range of writers, who arguably never saw themselves as a ‘movement’: there are considerable differences, for example, between Kingsley Amis’s comic novel Lucky Jim (1954) and the working-class social realism of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), let alone Colin Wilson’s erratic exploration of literary existentialism, The Outsider (1956). The angries appeared to give voice to a resentment against the repression and hypocrisy of conventional middle-class morality that (they claimed) was widely shared among young people. Yet despite their claims to speak on behalf of young people, it’s hard to see either the beats or the Angry Young Men as instances of ‘youth culture’. For this, we will need to look elsewhere.