Nobody knows the future, but anyone who shits on The Establishment can say the worst is behind them.
Poet, publisher, teacher, painter… actor, musician, social commentator – Jeff Nuttall was a polymath and a pioneer, an anarchist sympathizer who grew up in the shadow of the atomic bomb, a jazz trumpeter who blew the changes of the 1960s. An outsider artist, he became a key figure in British counterculture. When he died in 2004, fellow poet Michael Horowitz, writing an obituary in the Guardian, described Nuttall as a “catalyst, perpetrator and champion of rebellion and experiment in the arts and society.”
He wrote over 40 books, acted in films (including the James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough), performed in theatre groups and jazz bands in dingy cellars and smoky bars, but Jeff Nuttall is probably best remembered for two things: his self-produced 60s mimeograph My Own Mag: A Super-Absorbant Periodical (where he published, alongside his own material, works by William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi among others) and his seminal 1968 feedback on post-war cultural angst Bomb Culture.
But I knew nothing about him when I went to see an exhibition of his works in March 2017.
Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground was an “art hoard” of image and word, supine under glass in a small annex of the gothic John Rylands Library in Manchester. Truth is, I only went on the promise of seeing an original Burroughs manuscript – but what I discovered was a multiform artist whose life and works were indelibly clawed by the screeching vultures of the times he lived in. “Art lives when values melt,” he once declared. “If you want to exist you must accept the flesh and the moment.”
Jeffrey Addison Nuttall was born in 1933 amidst the dark satanic mills of Clitheroe, Lancashire, but spent his formative years in Herefordshire, where his father worked as a headmaster. After studying at Hereford and Bath art schools, he followed his father’s footsteps into teaching – something he continued to do with a passion and verve throughout his life – but for Nuttall the artist, teaching was only one means of expression.
In the 1960s, conscious of the tumultuous social, political and cultural upheavals occurring on both sides of the Atlantic, Nuttall set out to help engender a global village of countercultural writers and artists – an international underground. Much concerned with the collective fears and neuroses of the atomic age, he found his allies in the Beat Generation writers; in the (then) controversial psychiatric theories of R.D. Laing; and with avant-garde movements such as Guy Debord’s Situationism, which argued that modern life, debased through consumerism, is both alienating and inauthentic.
Buoyed by the possibility of collaborating with such people and creating real social change, Nuttall began publishing My Own Mag, which ran for 16 issues between 1964 and 1967. Writing in Bomb Culture (1968), Nuttall described the magazine as an attempt to “make a paper exhibition in words, pages, spaces, holes, edges and images, which drew people in and forced a violent involvement with the unalterable facts.”
“The magazine, even in those first three pages, used nausea and flagrant scatology as a violent means of presentation. I wanted to make the fundamental condition of living unavoidable by nausea. You can’t pretend it’s not there if you’re throwing up as a result. My hope was that a pessimistic acceptance of life would counteract the optimistic refusal of unpleasantness, the optimistic refusal of life, the death wish, the bomb.”
With an ethos that would hold true for the many punk fanzines that followed in the 1970s, Nuttall elaborated on the magazines’ low production techniques and anti-commercial stance:
“I circulated the first Mag to twenty or so people who I thought might be interested. Better Books [a London bookshop] took the rest and sold them at a penny each. I determined then, and kept to it, that I would run the project as I had painted and played jazz, within the capacity of my earnings as a teacher, utterly independently, ultimately printing, editing, assembling, drawing, writing largely, and distributing the thing myself, always at a deliberate loss so as not to form a dependence of the smallest kind. I got replies from Ray Gosling, Anselm Hollo and William Burroughs.”
William Burroughs, who found it almost impossible to get his work published at this time (he was deep in the throes of his obsession with cut ups and working on Nova Express), was an enthusiastic contributor to many underground newspapers and magazines, including My Own Mag – where he often had his own supplement, Moving Times. In May 1964, he wrote to Allen Ginsburg in New York from Tangiers, urging him to get involved:
“This magazine put out by a friend in London J Nuttall an interesting and seemingly successful experiment in applying newspaper format and reader participation. This issue a sell out and many contributions received. Do send something… J. Nuttall should serve as an inspiration to all editors of little magazines. It takes him an average of two weeks to get out an issue.”
By its own terms, My Own Mag was a success and led to Nuttall’s involvement with numerous other projects and “happenings”, including Arnold Wesker’s Centre 42 (a “people’s art centre” based at the Roundhouse in London), Alexander Trocchi’s Sigma Project (a coalition of counterculture artists and thinkers), and the infamous 1965 International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall (where 8000 people gathered to watch poetry readings by, among others, Allen Ginsburg, Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti).
At the time, the manager of the Albert Hall was reported as saying “I don’t want that sort of filth here”, but Nuttall was elated: “London is in flames. The spirit of William Blake walks on the water of the Thames. Sigma has exploded into a giant rose. Come and drink the dew.” And yet only a year later, in an editorial in My Own Mag, Nuttall wrote:
“After trying to stir various bunches of people into concerted action I am coming to the conclusion that possibly the most hot-blooded insurrectionists hold their role of ‘opposition to a thoroughly secure establishment’ as more important than the overthrow of that establishment. After all, the salaries for steppenwolfs are quite high in some quarters. Up to this point subversion has been the aim of this magazine. Subversion is revolution by infiltration rather than confrontation. I give here a list of individuals, institutions, organizations, magazines which seem to me to be concerned with subversion rather than literature, art, pornography, underground movies, heroin or other quaint rural handicrafts… Nevertheless we all share the clear certainty that the present situation is suicidal. The only real obstructions, as I see it, are the ones so common amongst ourselves – solipsism, professional jealousy and junk. WITH CO-OPERATION WE COULD ALL ACTUALLY WIN. DO WE REALLY WANT TO WIN? ”
Given popularity and momentum, of course, countercultural movements, like revolutions, often implode or are corrupted by the very thing they seek to overthrow. Nuttall was clearly aware of this when he brought My Own Mag to a logical conclusion in1967, and in a formal letter opted out of Trocchi’s Sigma. But he wasn’t done yet. He continued to contribute to International Times, London’s first underground newspaper, and write and perform with theatre group the People Show. He also started writing the book that would become both a manifesto and an indictment of counter-cultural warfare: Bomb Culture.
“The effect of culture has never been so direct and widespread as it is amongst the international class of disaffiliated young people, the provotariat [sic]. Consequently, art itself has seldom been closer to its violent and orgiastic roots,” Nuttall writes in the introduction. Sensing “a shift between 1966 and 1967 from poetry and art and jazz and anti-nuclear politics to just sex and drugs, the arrival of capitalism,” Bomb Culture delineates five central strands of post-war rebellion: Pop, Protest, Art, Sick and The Underground.
Pop discusses the rise of youth in popular culture, of two-fingered teenagers railing against their parents, of jazz hipsters, teddy boys, mods and rockers, Elvis, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, James Dean and Marlon Brando – all restlessly seeking something other than a casual acceptance of the bequeathed world of their forebears:
“The people who had not yet reached puberty at the time of the bomb were incapable of conceiving of life with a future… Dad was a liar. He lied about the war and he lied about sex. He lied about the bomb and he lied about the future. He lived his life on an elaborate system of pretence that had been going on for hundreds of years. The so-called ‘generation gap’ started then and has been increasing ever since.”
Protest turns its gaze on political dissonance, agitation and civil disobedience; on the protest song; on Black Power and the American Civil Rights Movement; on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and its ultimate failure to instigate any real change:
“What remains of the anti-bomb movement? The Committee still exists and is still active but activities cling to traditional patterns, march, banner, sit-down, which are known to be safe and ineffective… The eyes of the demonstrators no longer look at the public with defiance and hurt but at one another in a slimy masochism of mutual congratulation.”
Art digs up flowers from the past – the Romantics, Surrealists and Anarchists; the syphilitic ramblings of de Sade and Nietzsche; the drunken poetry of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine; James Joyce, Cezanne and Picasso – and replants them in the present:
“The destination, as far as art is concerned, is the journey itself. Art keeps the thing moving. The only true disaster is the end of the journey, the end of man and his development… If we get out and on, it will be by art, as always… Art is knit to society by religion. If religion becomes non-religion, corrupt, then art, in order to remain art, must divide itself off from society.”
Sick diagnoses a repressed sexual violence, a moral shame, abuse and paradox in wider society as exemplified by Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, the drugs subculture, the horrific child murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, and the psychoanalysis of R.D. Laing:
“Left with this situation we could, as Burroughs advocated, dismantle the destruction machine, disassemble society. This being the situation, our very sickness and humiliation was a virus which we could spread. We could spread it by inflaming it and acting it out publicly, whereby squares could either recognize it in us and themselves and cure it, cure this terrible destructiveness, or they could contract it, have it spread within and amongst them until they were incapable of human communication, punctuality, honesty, until all sense of property, identity and morality was dissolved.”
In the final section, The Underground, Nuttall further decries the many failures of his contemporaries – but in addressing them, calls for a future unity of hope, purpose and protest:
“This book is primarily for squares, for the mums and dads who pretend the future is secure, for the politicians who can only stop the disintegration of their society by banning the bomb, for the Beatles fan who never listened to Elvis, for the ageing ted who never listened to Muddy Waters, for the Ivy League hipster who never heard of Bird, for the flower child who never read Ginsburg… for the anti-Vietnik who never thinks about the bomb, for the micro-skirted art student who was never raped by Picasso, for the finger-popping ad-men and the colour-supplement intellectuals, for the pseudo-Leavisites in the Universities and the USAF folk-groups. At different points throughout, the first person plural refers to ‘We, the human beings’, ‘We, of the post war generations’, ‘We, of the anti-bomb movement’, and finally ‘We, of the Underground.’”
Bomb Culture caused something of a stir when it was published in 1968, the year of mounting protests against the Vietnam War, the Paris student demonstrations and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Reviewing the book for The Times newspaper, television playwright Dennis Potter wrote: “Bomb Culture is an abscess that lances itself. An extreme book, unreasonable but not irrational… Abrasive, contemptuous, attitudinising, ignorant and yet brilliant… A book which you must read, as soon as possible.”
Two years later, debating the puzzling attitudes and behaviour of the youth of the day, the House of Commons cited Bomb Culture as a primary source of information since it clearly stated that a “generation that has grown up under the ever-present threat of nuclear extinction could hardly be expected to think or behave as if it had a future ahead of it.”
Jeff Nuttall wanted to make the world a safer place for his children, and fought the good fight until his death in 2004. Bomb Culture is currently out of print, and even a second-hand copy will set you back a tidy sum. But in the current political climate, with powerful sociopaths in North Korea and the US lining up to press the big red button, this extraordinary book is worth seeking out – as pertinent today as it ever was.
In the final analysis, the last words come from Nuttall himself as he signs off at the end of Bomb Culture:
“Let’s not wait for those cripples in the administration to hand out money or land, and let’s not wait for them to grant us the future that they owe us. They won’t. They can’t. Let’s start thinking in terms of permanence now and build our own damn future.”