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Archive for the tag “1950s”

Beatniks

BeatniksBeatniks by Toby Litt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this novel about wannabe beatniks in Bedford, England, perhaps because I too was a wannabe beatnik. The point here being that a wannabe beatnik is a wannabe wannabe, at two removes from the real thing. There were the Beats, a literary countercultural movement of the 1950s, and then there were their groupies, their hangers on, nicknamed “beatniks” by a journalist, by analogy with sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth, launched from the Soviet Union in 1957, the year in which Jack Kerouac‘s novel On the road was published. As sputnik orbited the earth, so did beatniks orbit the Beats.

The problem is that the characters in this book, Jack and Neal and Maggie and Mary are just about 40 years too late. Jack and Neal are not their real names, they have adopted the names of their heroes, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Jack, especially, is obsessive about being “cool” and “hip”, and sees them as angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. But in the rather middle-class surroundings of Bedford it is rather difficult to picture them as those who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz, to quote Allen Ginsberg‘s poem Howl. Ginsberg read his poem at a now-legendary poetry reading in San Francisco, which sparked off a poetry renaissance. So in the book Jack organises a poetry reading in the Bedford Public library, reading his own poetry, which even his admirer Mary has to admit is excruciatingly bad.

As Jack Kerouac’s character Sal Paradise goes on the road, hitch-hiking across America, so Jack and Company go on the road… to Brighton, where they stay with a dead poet’s uncle, and try to live up to Jack’s impossible ideals of hipness and coolness, and will not acknowledge anything that has happened in the world after about 1966. But there is also a sense in which they get the time-frame wrong. Jack tries to follow the scenario of On the road, but though it was published in 1957, it was about the Beats of the 1940s, not the 1950s, and by the mid-1960s it was almost all over, though it had a kind of revival, in a form that Jack could not accept, in the hippie movement of the 1960s.

To say much more about the story would reveal too much of the plot, except that in the end even Jack comes to realise that he has been trying to live an impossible dream, and the shattering of his illusions has shattering consequences for them all.

The basic problem, of course, is that to be obsessed with the ideal of “coolness” is the antithesis of cool, and the harder they try to adhere to it, the farther away it recedes. So Jack becomes a kind of Great Gatsby of the 1990s, trying to relive an imagined past.

I don’t think you have to be familiar with Beat Generation literature to enjoy this book, but it wouldn’t hurt to have read a couple of books by Jack Kerouac, and Ginsberg’s poem Howl. You can find some useful links here.

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So much for the “review” part of this, which I shared on Good Reads, but perhaps there is more to be said. I was turned on to Beat Generation literatrue by an Anglican monk, Brother Roger, of the Community of the Resurrection, when he read a paper at a student conference. The paper was Pilgrims of the Absolute, and if you click on the link, you can read it too.

Waiting for Godot, in Linbro Park

Waiting for Godot, in Linbro Park

As I said, I could identify with the with the characters in the book to some extent, because I too was a wannabe beatnik. There we were, practising waiting for Godot in Linbro Park, which we drove to in a beat up old car with a half-jack of white Malmsey under the front seat. Godot never came, of course, and we didn’t wait all that long either — just till the wine was finished. That’s part of being a wannabe — when you get bored with it you can pack up and go home. Actually the place where the picture was taken is now all built up, and is called Far East Bank, but back then it was just empty veld between Alexandra and Linbro Park.

In the book beatniks Jack refuses to travel to Brighton on the motorway, because it wasn’t built in 1966. Well, we didn’t travel on the N3 highway back when the photo was taken, for the simple reason that it hadn’t been built yet. Now runs across the hilside a couple of hundred metres past my right elbow in the picture. And, like Jack, I still don’t drive on the N3 even though it is there now, but for a somewhat different reason — they’ve started charging tolls on it, but that’s another story.

I suppose the difference between us and the characters in the book is that we were closer in time, if not in distance, to the people we sought to emulate, perhaps 3-5 years after, rather than 35 years later. And we were not quite so obsessive as the people in the book about living other people’s lives. We thought some of their ideas were good, and some not so good, some things we would like to emulate, and others not. Most of it needed to to be adapted to other times, other places, other circumstances.

The hippies, who followed the Beats about 10 years later, adapted their movement, so that it was not mere imitation They coined a phrase for it, “Do your own thing”. But the characters in the book were trying very hard to do someone else’s thing, and that, as I’ve already said, is the antithesis of “cool”.

There is a saying attributed to Dostoevsky, “Talk nonsense, but talk your own nonsense. It is better to go wrong in your own way than to go right in somebody else’s.”

 

The 1950s and today

Sixty years ago my father gave me a pocket diary that some business firm he dealt with had given him, and I began recording what I did each day. Well, some days.

Since then I’ve transcribed most of my old hard copy diaries into a database, and each day I look back to see what I was doing 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 years ago. Sixty years ago today I didn’t do much that was worth recording. But sixty years ago yesterday I went to the circus with Elizabeth Dods. She was 14 and I was 11, and she was crazy about horses, and used to come to ride ours. She eventually married Frank Hodgkinson (and her brother David married Frank’s sister Vanessa) and I lost touch with them.

1950sBut today someone posted this on Facebook which got me thinking about the 1950s again, and the differences between the 1950s and today.

And thinking about the differences between the 1950s and today, I think that graphic on the right is pretty accurate. The thing that was most inconceivable about today back then, the thing that never entered even our wildest dreams, was the personal computer, and the computing power now incorporated into cell phones.

Back then computers were enormously expensive machines that filled whole rooms. They operated with valves, because I think transistors were only developed in the late 1950s.

I remember standing in our cow paddock one night, probably in 1952 or 1953, looking at the rising full moon and the stars, and a friend, Eddy Viles, said, “One day soon a rocket is going to the moon.”

That was conceivable. And before the 50s were out, by the time I was 16, the first artificial satellite was launched, Sputnik I. It caused such excitement that we used to rush out of prep at school to see it fly over. And within 12 years a rocket had reached the moon, and much of it was controlled by computers, but personal computers were still unimaginable.

De Havilland Comet

De Havilland Comet

One of the things that still amazes me is the development of passenger airliners. In 1952 we had jet airliners, and three times a week the De Havilland Comet I used to fly over our house from Palmietfonein, south of Johannesburg, to the still uncompleted Jan Smuts (now O.R. Tambo) airport in Kempton Park. The runways at the old Palmietfontein airport were long enough for the Comet to land, but not long enough for it to take off fully loaded, so it had to fly empty to Jan Smuts and load up there.

Less than fifty years before the Comet, the Wright brothers had not yet made the first powered flight in a heavier than air aircraft. Compare their machine with the Comet, and ask what someone fifty years earlier might have imagined.

More time has passed since the Comet I began regular flights between London and Johannesburg and today than passed between the the Wright brothers and the Comet I, and in the 60 years since the Comet I the changes in aircraft design have been minimal. A Boeing 747 is bigger, but the main design difference is that the engines are in nascelles under the wings rather than in the wings themselves. The biggest changes are inside, not seen in the external view — in the navigational equipment, which brings us again to computers. I think the Comet I still had an astrodome in the roof, for the navigator to take sightings of the stars, and that was in fact a fatal flaw, for metal fatigue in some of the joints caused some of the early Comets to crash.

But looking again at the Comet, I think that people born the early 1890s saw more change in their life time than any generation before or since.

Someone born in 1893 would have been 10 when the Wright brothers flew, might have been a fighter pilot in the First World War, would have been 60 when the Comet flew, and might have travelled on it as a passenger. They would have been 76 when men first stepped on the moon, and might have used a personal computer before their 90th birthday.

Growing up in Durban

I’ve just finished reading Barbara Trapido’s Frankie and Stankie — a semi-autobiographical account of growing up in Durban. A few days ago I wrote about it in Notes from underground: Evocation of a Durban childhood. That was after I’d just read the first few chapters.

I found it quite fascinating, and it made me put my project of reading Ulysses on hold, because it gripped me so much. There was so much that I could identify with, especially my own childhood up to the age of seven, and then the university parts in the early 1960s, because though I wasn’t on the Durban campus, but in Pietermaritzburg, it was the same university, and I knew some people from there.

Plus, as Trapido would say, some of the people were real people with real names, like Ken and Jean Hill, whom I did not know well, but I had met them a few times. And Francis Cull, whom she referred to as a 35-year-old Anglican priest, and who in my time, three years later, was doing English Honours in Pietermaritzburg, and seemed nearer to 70 than 60, as old as I am now, perhaps, except that I don’t feel as old as he seemed to me then.

There were some anachronisms, or at least so they seemed to me — she referred to the university as “uni”, an Australianism that came in long after the time. Perhaps people speak of it as the “uni” today, but in my — our– time it was always “varsity”. Another term I don’t remember using at that period is “airhead”, though the description is accurate enough. John Vorster did not become Minister of Justice until 1961, though the book suggests that he held that position in 1960, at the time of the Sharpeville massacre.

Her description of the freshers reception committee also rang true, though since I was somewhat older by the time I got to the University of Natal, I was in a position not to take it very seriously, unlike the 17-year-olds straight out of school. But I think she had them well sussed out, and the thing about freshers having to wear hair ribbons and bow ties was spot on, though in my day they were yellow and purple, which for various reasons entirely unrelated to fresher integration, I happened to like. On the Durban campus the Philistines were the engineers, while in Pietermaritzburg they were the agrics. I remember an agric friend once railing against “liberals” and how he hated them, and when I asked him why he replied, “Because they’re against integration”. It was just the opposite of the usual complaint — that liberals were against segregation — so I was quite gobsmacked (yes, that’s an anachronism too), but it turned out that he was talking about fresher integration, not racial integration.

I couldn’t identify quite so much with the high-school period of the late 1950s, perhaps because by then my family had moved to the Witwatersrand and we lived on a smallholding in Sunningdale, just outside Johannesburg, whose expansion into the surrounding countryside I viewed as an assault on my freedom. Plus (is that term catching or what?) I was at a boys’ boarding school, so fashion in clothing played a much smaller role in my life as a teenager than it did at a Durban girls’ day school. Nevertheless, there were enough parallels to make it interesting.

I suppose the book is what the Germans call a Bildungsroman, a novel about growing up, or a “coming of age” novel. And in that it succeeds. It may be fiction (or at least semi-fiction), but it is also a piece of social history, a memoir. Such was the segregated nature of South African society in those days that it is the memoir only of a Woozer [1] upbringing in the post-war era, the period 1945-1965. Trapido (whose husband was the well-known South African historian Stan Trapido) sets her story of growing up against a background of real historical events. She tells it as it really was; much of it is just as I remember it.

In my earlier post I noted that I had met Babara Trapido, and now I’m rather puzzled, having come to the end of the book, since that was nine years after she had left South Africa for good. So now I wonder just who it was that I met.

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[1] Woozer – a White Urban English-speaking South African (WUESA). The experience of other South African cultural groups might be quite different. For White Rural English-speaking South Africans of roughly that period, for example, the classic Bildungsroman is The power of one by Bruce Courtenay.

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