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Borne out of War: The British Beats

This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15 – the WAR issue.

For about ten years after World War II Britain was a grey place. When Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady were gallivanting around the United States, the UK was recovering from Nazi bombing raids. Kids played in bomb craters and air-raid shelters. You could still find shell casings among the rubble and there were wrecked German Messershmitts in the fields. The big kids got the best bits.

It wasn’t until the end of the fifties that things started to change, and kids who’d been too young to die in the trenches came of age. TVs arrived in suburban homes, bringing American culture to the British youth. Brit pop music was pretty tame at first – Petula Clark, Frankie Vaughan – but it had potential. Then Bill Haley came over leaving a trail of smashed up cinemas, and Gene Vincent records appeared in the shops.

Proto-Beatniks were first spotted on the Aldermaston March. They were called Bohemians. There was a revival of traditional jazz among art students and a few bearded denizens of Soho pubs. Then Skiffle came along and whatever it was spread to the suburbs. Lonnie Donnegan got on TV with songs like Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” (“John Henry” was on the B-side) and suddenly England had a whole new sub-culture.

The spillover from places like Ken Colyer’s Club and Eel Pie Island followed… scruffy, hairy young people with bedrolls would find their way down to Brighton either by hitchhiking or by the infamous Milk Train from Victoria. It usually happened at weekends. They’d sleep on the beach under the pier or in upturned fishing boats on the hard pebbles and meet up in the fish market to share bottles of stolen milk and Mars Bars. Some of the beatnik chicks were quite attractive in a Bohemian kind of way. French actress style. It wasn’t that difficult to entice them into your sleeping bag; one at a time, of course.

Drugs? There weren’t many around. You could get a buzz off Dr. Collis Browne’s Mixture but speed and pot were hard to find. Acid was still some way in the future.

Primitive music was played there on the pebbles. Some people, like Davy Graham and Martin Wyndham, Wizz Jones (shoulder-length curly hair and owlish glasses), Clive Palmer (quiet, gaunt, and haunted), would have banjos and guitars. Somebody might show up with a battered trumpet. Perhaps there would even be enough instruments to make an impromptu band! Bemused old folk and other passersby on the sea front above would gather to watch this curious cultural phenomenon. Teddy Boys – working class lads in pseudo-Edwardian suits – would shout rude things at the Beatniks. Things like “Do you ever wash?” or “Get a bleedin’ ’aircut!” and “Are you a boy or a girl?”

Teds wore drape jackets, drainpipe trousers, and suede shoes with big crepe soles. They liked Gene Vincent and Elvis. Then the Mods came along, a younger group, who liked the Kinks, Small Faces, The Who, and early Reggae. They showed up like a shoal of piranha fish in their Fred Perry Polo shirts and parkas, driving Lambrettas and noisy little Vespas covered with superfluous headlights. They got a lot of media attention which annoyed the Teds, who had somehow morphed into Rockers while nobody was watching. They traded in their suits for leather jackets, bought motorbikes and rode around shouting rude things at the Mods.

It may have been youthful high-spirits, or excess testosterone. Historians are still puzzling over it. Or maybe the various fashion styles and musical tastes just didn’t mix well. Anyway, fights broke out which quickly became running battles, and it wasn’t long before the Great British Press was all over it. Coppers got in some weekend overtime with their truncheons. Arrests were made. Newspapers were sold. The public was shocked.

The Beatniks, being peaceful folk for the most part, stayed out of it. Some simply went home to read their copies of On the Road. Some decided to hitchhike to India in search of spiritual enlightenment and cheap hash. They in turn evolved into Hippies. Most of these young people eventually got jobs, started families and settled down in front of the telly. Some have since joined the old folk on the seafront where they sit in Regency shelters, feeding sliced bread to gulls and discussing the youth of today.