WHAT WAS A BEAT GIRL? NOTHING TO DO WITH THE BEATLES but she exerted a powerful infuence on those of us whose teenage selves were formed by the legacy of the 1950s and the coming of the decade that swung. Those of us, that is, who wanted more than bubblegum pop music and the bland interactions of our peers who had bought into the stereotypes of mainstream culture.
A beat girl was different. She was the ultimate in cool, a mix of American beatnik and French left-bank intellectual, a lover of poetry and jazz, a free spirit who hung out in coffee bars discussing existentialism and the meaning of life with men who wore polo-necked jumpers and quoted Jack Kerouac and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Of course, appealing and challenging though she may be, she was another stereotype. But oh, how we longed to be her, as we walked to school in our gym-slips and velour hats, chafing under the demands of Latin homework and maths tests. We railed against the constraints of parental discipline and attitudes, which valued boring materialism and stifling respectability and prevented us from exploring the brave new world of freedom and nonconformity. There was the older generation, our mums and dads, embracing the new affluence which they achieved for themselves and for us through wartime toil and sacrifice. And there we were, flinging back in their faces their fitted carpets, cocktail cabinets and three piece suites in the search for true bohemianism.
Did we schoolgirls from the suburbs ever have a hope of becoming beat girls? Not much hope at all – but in the course of trying we learnt a lot, risked a lot, stumbled and fell but got back on our feet. Most of us. And even though we developed our own brand of conformity, from Habitat to Ikea, taking in shag pile rugs, stripped pine floors, chicken bricks, Le Creuset, fondue sets (come on, own up) we have kept faith with the best bits of that old sensibility through the years which led to us becoming real grown-up girls.