While the American beat movement was literary and political, the English version was one in which working and lower middle-class youth, in the main poorly educated and dissatisfied with their parents’ values and culture, for the first time (thanks to full employment and the social security revolution of the 1940s) were able to create a different lifestyle to that of mainstream Britain.
While a certain amount of lip-service was paid to painting and writing, very little creative work was executed in the short period of beatnik popularity.
In Torquay only the poetry of Michael A Williams and the few remaining canvases of Christopher Betteridge attest to any creative output in that area of the country. The beatnik lifestyle was mainly one of part-time work, the cheapest possible rented rooms, support from the National Assistance Board, and loafing about on beaches and in pubs. Of course, at the age of 20 this is a very attractive lifestyle, even at 25 it is just about tolerable, but if you are still involved by the time you are 30, then it is disastrous.
The photographs shown in this video are of a group of Torquay beatniks, mainly from the north of England, who lived in the town in the 1960s. At first, that is, from c. 1961, it was magical: life was exciting, it was fun, we were very young, and the possibilities seemed endless. The town itself was imbued with a romantic splendour which few other towns could match. We worked in hotels, on the beaches, on the buses, even sometimes in offices.
There was, however, a noticeable decline in this almost paradisiacal lifestyle from c. 1965 onwards. Indeed, the end of the beatnik period can be dated absolutely: to the ‘Wholly Communion’ poetry gig at The Albert Hall in London in the autumn of 1965.
Beatnik was dead, hippy was in, and the innocence and joy of being young (in our case in Torquay) was lost forever.
The major cause of this change was the arrival and quick proliferation of drugs. Firstly hashish and amphetamines, then heroin. The arrival of heroin was to prove disastrous for the beatniks of Torquay. A terrible holocaust swept through the town (as it still does) literally killing many of us. It is a holocaust which is un-noticed and unrecorded in the social history of our country, and certainly of Torquay. It needs to be spoken of. After 1965, apart from the occasional poetry reading, no literary or artistic work whatsoever was produced by the beatniks/hippies of Torquay.
Photographs of poetry readings in 1966, at The Palk Arms, St. Marychurch are included in the video. The story of the Torquay beatniks is centred on The Rising Sun Inn (now the Old Mill) at the top of Belgrave Road, and will be continued in the Torquay Beatniks Revisited video.