The Observer reports on an economic migrant of the 60s: the beatnik, on the move in search of unearned money
A beatnik squat in London’s Drury Lane. Photograph: George Harris/Associated New/Rex
of Britain are on the move this weekend, exchanging their summer quarters on the beaches and on the cliff tops for “winter pads” in the towns. It adds up to an unparalleled migration – an exodus of hundreds of youngsters, sickened by society, tramping northwards in search of enough unearned money to keep them alive until next spring. They will live on acquaintances and gather in groups of up to 50 for days-long “scenes” that will be interrupted only by police searching for drugs.
For the beatniks, the best half of the year is over. The holidaymakers have gone home. Life now begins in earnest for the jean-clad, long-haired youngsters who make a career out of doing nothing.
“Woodbine” Chris Donne, 18, ex-public school boy turned beatnik is heading for the “university circuit” – among the students there is always a free bed and meal. Donne and his beat companion, “Lord Jim” Browne, 19, will move from town to town. Most beatniks, though, will gather together in small wintertime groups, taking a cheap flat or room between them. Winter is the time of the scene gatherings that will be shaking areas like Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and London. They are an economic aid to survival. Lord Jim explains: “You always get the Chelsea birds along – the ones with money.” Where the beatnik goes is dictated by the need to find people who will pay his way. “Some holidaymakers think we’re filthy bastards, but others are all right. Find a crowd of them getting drunk; one will always give you money just to look flash. Lorry drivers are good, too.” Young girls, though, contribute most to keeping beatniks in foods and cigarettes. “Learn how to make up to a woman and you can always get your food.”
The beatnik likes to move. His companion is a sleeping bag and a spare shirt. Paradise is a derelict house. Woodbine says: “After a time you get an instinct for finding them.” The police are one of the beatniks’ two recognised enemies. “They are always threatening you with vagrancy or begging. At scenes they come in looking for drugs.” The other enemy is the Rocker: “They’re always looking for a fight.”
The backgrounds of Lord Jim and Woodbine are fairly typical. Jim was an apprentice who “got fed up”. He went on the road two years ago and claims to have covered hundreds of thousands of miles. Woodbine failed some exams and was “whiling away the summer” when Jim appeared.
All beatniks have deliberately opted out of society and its responsibilities. “One day you wake up and realise you don’t want anything out of society, so why the hell should you put anything into it?” asks one. “There is a brotherhood about it. You’d share your last crust of bread. Would you get that in society?”
This is an edited extract
Miss Beatnik, 1959. (Photo courtesy of the Beat Museum)
In July of 1959, a 17-year-old native Brooklynite named Angel was crowned "Miss Beatnik" by a crowd at the Gaslight Coffee House, a title also known as "The First Lady of MacDougal Street." According to the Village Voice, "The contest had been staged to clear the beatnik name, which had been sullied a few days earlier when, according to the coffeeshop cognoscenti, a girl from the Copa kicking squad was given the palm at a 10th Street bar."
As for Angel, who accepted her title barefoot, she told the paper she was "deeply concerned about the way the public views the beatniks... I wish people would try to understand what the so-called beat generation is, and maybe they will realize we have something to offer society. We are considered anti-social, but we are not!" The Brooklyn College student did not exactly consider herself a beatnik, however—she told the paper she was more of hipster. What did she consider a hipster? "An artist and an intellectual, and I smoke Viceroy and I think for myself."
Corbis notes that beatniks at the time had "attained the status of a tourist attraction... many a visitor to New York would rather see a real-life beatnik than the Statue of Liberty," kind of like today's hipsters?
You can see another photo of Angel (who is now a psychoanalyst, mother, and grandmother) right here, alongside her judges. Though we think John Oliver would be cool with this "pageant."