Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Beat Generation

Ah yes, the Beat Generation. Sounds so much like the past now, if it sounds like anything at all. Back then when the Rock’n’Roll fifties rolled into the Beatle sixties all we had here were the Angry Young Men. Men, you notice. Women had yet to be invented. John Wain, Kingsley Amis, John Braine, Stan Barstow, John Osborne, Colin Wilson. Angry, not really, not that much. Did they defy literary convention, compositional practice, plot line or form? No. Did they have good tales to tell, ones the young could relate to? That they did. But as a group they lasted hardly any time at all before moving on to other things. Their music was the pre-war jazz beloved of Philip Larkin. Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington. They were working class. They liked beer. They’d never heard of Buddha.

I read them. Hurry On Down, Lucky Jim, The Outsider, Strike the Father Dead. Well left of centre and with loads to enjoy but nothing that set the mind ablaze. It took the American Beats to do that.

Jack Kerouac in his List of Essentials gives some guidance as to how the business of writing ought to go. “Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy.” “Accept loss forever,” “Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind.” “Blow as deep as you want to blow.” “Be in love with yr life.” “Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in heaven.” You put Charlie Parker on the player, you find your records by Lester Young and you play them. The be-bop rocks and you follow where it goes. Out of the other end comes On The Road, Howl, Go, Gasoline, The Dharma Bums. These works were not just ideas on wheels but directories of where to look and what to read and how to live in this mad, naked, hysterical world.

When I turned around, over here, with Kingsley Amis already shifting to the right at a rate of knots and John Wain on a literary scholarship in the hillside heart of careful Wales there was not a single original beat in sight. We didn’t do that. Hang out where the music was, our minds expanded, the truth just there to pick up and touch. We didn’t have a Charlie Parker nor a Birdland. Instead we had Alexis Korner and Blues Incorporated, Klooks Kleek and the Marquee on Wardour Street. In Cardiff we had Top Rank and the Moon Club. The writers mixing with the musicians and the whole creative foam rising in a glorious unstoppable tide. No, we actually didn’t do any of that.

The nearest to a UK Beat Generation had to be the poet Chris Torrance and some of the writers in his circle – the haiku master Bill Wyatt, the mad saxophonist Barry Edgar Pilcher and at a distance the super cool Lee Harwood, the endless publisher Dave Cunliffe and that inheritor of Ginsberg’s breath pattern verse form, ex-pat George Dowden.

Torrance at least lived the life. Reached for answers like Gary Snyder, wrote in a Pound and Olsen inspired open field and moved himself out of Carshalton and then Bristol to a cottage in the back of everywhere at the head of the Vale of Neath. Cross two fields to get to him. Woollen hatted, infinity coming out of his typer.

Ann Charters’ The Portable Beat Reader (Penguin Books) is the best single volume beat intro there is. 650 pages that takes in the whole movement, includes slices from all the classics (and in some cases, Ginsberg’s Howl, the whole thing), work from fellow travellers like Diane DiPrima, Frank O’Hara and John Weiners, Tales of Beatnik Glory from Charles Bukowski, Brion Gysin, Ken Kesey, Ed Sanders, Michael McClure and others, classic commentary from Norman Mailer (The White Negro), Alan Watts (Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen) and John Cellon Holmes (The Game of the Name), material from the man who got inspired to glory by the whole deal (Bob Dylan) and, most importantly of all, hard core mainstream material from Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and more.

No Torrance, he’s a genuine outsider.

Beat inspired I’m at the player now hunting out my Charlie Parker. Anthropology. I'll add a bit of Mingus. Then some Monk. Transcendental. Just how Kerouac said writing should be.


Anonymous said...

‎'Men, you notice. Women had yet to be invented.' I'd have to challenge that. Numerous examples potentially, but perhaps I'd settle for the female writers of their time who were critically and very popularly acclaimed in their time, and who touched on ground-breaking and often controversial material: Drabble, Mortimer, Reid Banks and, of course, the mighty Lessing. - Kathryn Gray

Anonymous said...

But an interesting piece! - Kathryn Gray

Anonymous said...

Kingsley Amis's essay 'Who Needs No Introduction' is very good about Kerouac. Hits the nail on the head, I think. He tells of the time he met Kerouac at a public lecture - which I've just found a contemporary account of, here: - James Morgan