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The Beat Hotel & Shakespeare and Company

November 16, 2017 Leave a comment

This short film was assembled from recently rediscovered footage I shot in 2006, showing the legendary Beat Hotel in Rue Gît-le-Cœur in the Paris Latin Quarter, and the nearby equally legendary bohemian bookshop Shakespeare and Company.

In the 1950s the hotel was home to Beat luminaries William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Burroughs completed his novel Naked Lunch here, and in conjunction with the artist Brion Gysin, he discovered the consciousness-altering dreamachine and the cut-up literary technique, used in subsequent novels, including Soft Machine and Nova Express.

The original Shakespeare and Company was founded by Sylvia Beach in the 1920s, and writers such as Hemingway, Pound, Fitzgerald, Joyce and Beckett gathered there. It featured in the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris, but it was shut down during the Nazi occupation in 1941. The bookshop, in its current location, was founded by George Whitman, an expat American of literary leanings, who at the time of filming was still alive and active at the age of ninety-two. Back in the ’50s he knew Henry Miller and Anais Nin, as well as Samuel Beckett and, of course, the Beat writers.

George Whitman died in 2011, just after his ninety-eight birthday, and the bookshop is now run by his daughter, named after Sylvia Beach. As for the Beat Hotel, in its present incarnation – as the Relais Hotel du Vieux Paris – you can stay for around 150 Euros per night, and if you ask they might give you Burroughs’ old room.

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The Beat Writers and the Psychedelic Movement

March 16, 2017 1 comment
Allen-Ginsberg-and-William-S-Burroughs cropped

Allen Ginsberg & William Burroughs in later years.

 

This article was adapted from my talk at Breaking Convention 2015, held in London at Greenwich University. It has now been published by the excellent Oak Tree Review, which investigates the many branches of psychedelic culture throughout history, specialising in its manifestations in art and literature.


 

In their activities and writings in the late 1940s and ’50s the Beat writers – principally Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg – prefigured and influenced the Psychedelic Movement, which came into flowering a generation later. When those epoch-making cultural changes got underway in the ’60s, the Beats were naturally looked upon as mentor figures and elder statesmen, and Timothy Leary, who was of the same age group as them, was happy to recruit and induct them into the cause – through his Harvard program. This produced some unexpected and volatile results – Tim Leary got more than he bargained for – and the end product as regards the three major Beat writers was one spectacular success, one mixed case, and one spectacular failure.

It all started in New York in 1943, within the Columbia university scene where the Beats first hooked up. At the time Jack Kerouac was in his early twenties, and already saw himself as a writer. Bill Burroughs was older, in his late twenties, and was known as a raconteur and intellectual, and became a mentor figure to the group. Allen Ginsberg was the kid, still a teenager, and just enrolled at Columbia. There were other key people in the group, such as Lucien Carr, another student, and everybody became fictionalised in Kerouac’s novels – most notably On the Road.

At around this same time Burroughs first tried morphine and became an addict, so the events of his first novel Junkie run roughly concurrently to On the Road. In both books, which are strongly autobiographical, there are many references to recreational drug use, and they open a marvellous window onto pre-psychedelic bohemian life – exactly the kind of scene which would develop eventually into the hippie scene.

Read more on: The Oak Tree Review

The Beat Writers and the Psychedelic Movement

January 11, 2016 4 comments

My Breaking Convention talk from July 2015 is now up on Vimeo.

In their writings and lifestyle experiments, the Beat writers Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg were very much the precursors of the psychedelic movement – in particular with regard to their employment of drugs for recreational and psychonautic purposes. They were pioneering users of ayahuasca, mescaline, psilocybin and LSD; and when Timothy Leary began his Harvard work he naturally tried to induct the three as elder statesmen figures. The results were somewhat volatile and unexpected, with one resounding success, another a mix of good and bad, and another a resounding failure. Nevertheless the Beats remain highly influential figures and today’s psychedelic culture would not be the same without them.

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