Drunk as long-gone songs
The life and riotous times of Jeff Nuttall
By Jay Jeff Jones
Jeff Nuttall emerged with the nascent London counterculture during the closing sulk of the angry young men and around the critical point of arrival in town of Alex Trocchi and William Burroughs.
Relying on the necessaries of a teacher’s salary Jeff supported his family whilst forming an extraordinary web of collaborators and influences. These included working with Trocchi on Project Sigma. After the 1965 Albert Hall poetry event Nuttall wrote, "London is in flames. The spirit of William Blake walks on the water of the Thames." Jean-Jacques Lebel, Ginsberg and Corso came and went and Nuttall thought that he had begun to write "real poetry at last".
"Certain aspects of my relationship with Trocchi make my skin crawl with embarrassment now as we survive as best we can in the wreckage of the revolution that had so few of its intended effects and so many anticipated ones Bill Butler, the poet and bookseller who killed himself said, What Trocchi wants from you Jeff, is half your salary. What you want from Trocchi is fame If there was a sour truth in his words why was I able to disregard it?"
What Jeff took from Burroughs can be gleaned in elements of his writing style and some quotes; "In New York, in the late forties, a nervous hypnotic man seemed to synthesise all the conjoining cultures in his unique personality" Jeff would give the beat writers the kind of celebratory scrutiny in Bomb Culture that they would next receive to any great extent about 30 years later as a lucrative literary franchise. He noticeably aligned himself with Burroughs as fellow desperado and many years later in a review of Ted Morgan’s Burroughs biography said, "this is what a literary outlaw does. Out of his destructive nature he seeks to save the world."
My Own Mag: a Super-Absorbent Periodical was a short-lived mimeographed magazine and counterpart to Ed Sanders Fuck You / a Magazine of the Arts. It was natural for Jeff then to participate in the creation of Britain‚’s first underground newspaper, International Times.
He presided over the UK’s best known merging of theatre and performance art, co-founding The People Show at the 1966 Notting Hill Gate Festival, using that title for the first time in a basement event at Better Books. Jeff was satisfied enough to tell Bernard Stone that he was going to "open a theatre that was underground of the Underground."
"There was no rehearsing, because the thing doesn’t exist without an audience." On many occasions the show happened in a location and at a time where the spectators had no idea that a "performance" was what they were witnessing; the Pranksters without the kool-aid acid or dayglow paint.
Having taken some cues from Kaprow and Rauschenberg, Jeff employed his expressionist collage and montage work, his partial cut-up approach to writing and put these notions onto the stage, looking for spontaneous magic or "dislocated juxtapositions" as he put it.
And then there was almost unavoidably Bomb Culture, offering a unified field theory of everything alternative and revolutionary in America and Britain since the end of WWII. In the absolute spirit of the times, Jeff located himself in the centre of events with a portmanteau of avant gardist polemic, international guidebook and advertisement for himself. It was less overtly the "new journalism" of Mailer, Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe and not nearly the self-mythologising of Jan Cremer. A bully of a book; pushy, cajoling and pleasingly idiosyncratic, it employed unspent munitions of Sigma and some viral spores of the Situationists in order to theorise the antics of a generation retaliating for cold war dread. The Outsider cum uberpoet riffing on the propellant of mods’ purple hearts; an egocentric subjective voice whether in writing, acting, painting, direct action or hijacking the media. It ends on a note of determination and optimism but also saying: "This book is primarily for squares."
Jeff was to spend the rest of life flinching as the measure as a writer and thinker was taken by the momentary success of Bomb Culture. His self administered antidote was the polemic novel, Snipe’s Spinster (1975) to which he summonsed the spirit guides of many Beat poets, Lenny Bruce, Jim Morrison
Although relishing controversy and dangerous companions, Jeff was one of the corrupting influences on modern youth singled out by the establishment press, putting his job in jeopardy.
When he moved north to Leeds Polytechnic he expected some immunity. Nonetheless he found himself welcomed within an extraordinary parish of artists, performers and writers, loosely spread across the fairly grim and rundown towns and villages of 1970’s West Yorkshire, with cheap-as-chipbutties properties in the textile industry graveyards of Halifax and Hebden Bridge. Collaborating with / providing mutual support to other adventurous theatre upstarts like Welfare State. John Bull Puncture Repair Kit and IOU, Jeff continued with People Show-like work, now licensed by state higher education and its need to be moving with the times. He still found himself getting into trouble and sometimes even arrested for confrontational and "obscene" performance art.
The circumstances seemed to encourage productivity as he picked up the pace with painting, collage and writing. Briefly he fronted a television programme about modern culture. His view was, "Art is the skill of examining the range of our perceptions by the making of artefacts. Often the last place you‚Äre likely to find the perceptions being extended is in the compartment marked ‚Äėart‚Ä which may have been frozen into stasis by devices like the Standards of Good Taste, Proven Criteria, the Maintaining of Tradition. In the drawer marked art there may well be no art at all."
The American publisher of Trigram, poet and co-founder of Zero magazine, Asa Benveniste found his way to a final expatriation in Hebden Bridge. One of Trigram’s Nuttall collections was Objects (1976) and displayed verse increasingly informed by autobiographical demeanours and moments.
"We were drunk as long-gone songs on the black flags.
In the closet dark, the earth dark, gratitude.
Saturday night came stalking down the wild park gilded like an oratorio."
Saturday at Slavo‚’s
His work was now less cutting-up and closer to the long voice lines, the jazz rhythms and ego-eye of Ginsberg. Mostly then a sequence exploring the carnage of relationships & sex, humanness pulled apart and vigorously interrogated.
1975 was the third year of the Ilkley Literary Festival. A quarter century on and literary / arts festivals have spread like an earnest societal nutrition. Back then Ilkley’s fest was self-inventing and shoehorned into the Pump Rooms. The entrance hall became a souk for mendicant small press publishers, underground magazine editors and crackpot poets. On hand with Jeff were Michael Horovitz and New Departures, Michael Butterworth and me with the latest Wordworks and Heathcote Williams peddling Open Head Press confections straight up from the bohovian gulag of Ladbroke Grove.
Nuttall relished this combustion of spirits and egos and made his observations in The Patriarchs (1978). In this vague fictionalised novelette a Hughes-like poet sermonises dour verse to an adoring festival audience of "local academics and spinsters". In alternate chapters the protagonist ranges around the Calder Valley landscape and tutors at Lumb Bank, the original Arvon Foundation writing course centre at Heptonstall.
By this time I had lived in Heptonstall for several years and had been appointed editor of a small magazine forgettably titled New Yorkshire Writing by its publisher, the Yorkshire Arts Association.
Jeff provided a review for NYW of Ted Hughes potent and peculiar new work, Gaudette (1977), overwriting his caricature of Hughes in The Patriarchs, he’s mostly positive, "Hughes best, spacious, bewildered, wonderstruck and well-made‚"
In 1978 Ken Smith organised a poetry event to mark the end of his Creative Writing residence at Leeds University. The readers included Eric Mottram, Basil Bunting, Tom Pickard, Tom Raworth and Jeff. After the morning session the poets and a few of the sparse audience refreshed in a suitably dingy wine bar. Jeff took me to one side and said he had something just completed he’d like me to consider for the magazine.
Dream Piece, an intense burst of first-person prose was published soon after in NYW No. 6. Gothicly illustrated by one of Jeff’s puissant, Bellmer-like drawings it describes a ghost-ridden affair, a carnal and emotional entrancement by the libidinous "Miranda", a theme to be expanded in the novelette Muscle.
Within a week of publication the newspapers were phoning. At an otherwise dull council meeting in Rotherham a motion was proposed to withdraw funding of the Arts Association. Ratepayers’ money was being used to sponsor pornography. Councillor Ron Hughes said, "I’ve only seen such stuff on lavatory walls, but more expertly done."
Within days, two more councils made similar threats and the pathetic potential of "Last Exit t’West Riding" excited the attentions of Yorkshire Television and The Guardian. The furore picked up momentum as Paul Buck’s Curtains, another YAA funded and more transgressive magazine was rushed to print.
"I have written filth, rotten, sordid, aggressive filth punk razor stuff twenty years before its time. This is nothing compared to that," was Jeff’s idea of a conciliatory comment to the reporters.
I saw Jeff occasionally over the years, as he moved on and moved around; to Todmorden, Liverpool, Colne. He tried out points of exile in Australia and Portugal, yet always rambled back to Hebden Bridge. Now he replaced his teaching income with a film-acting career, often portly authority symbols like judges, earls and landlords. "Acting is such a vain profession; almost everyone is thin, which leaves room for me."
The first role was a club owner in Scandal and arched through Friar Tuck, a Bond villain and the presiding justice in the Shipman trial. More enjoyably for him was work in Peter Greenaway’s Baby of Macon (1993) and Mike Figgis The Browning Version. Figgis had appeared in an early People Show.
As a point of interest Jeff first appeared on screen in Yoko Ono’s film Bottoms.
At the revived Hebden Bridge Arts Festival in 1995 we arranged an evening with Jeff, Al Beech and few surviving conspirators from the 1970s performance art scene. The venue booked out and I agreed to give the introductions. Looking at my notes I realised that there was nothing really to say. Everyone in the room knew Jeff but I still I proved useful, as the step up to the stage was more than he could manage by himself.
One of the booze reduced old gang in the front row heckled, "I’m looking forward to this." Jeff snapped back, "You can’t look forward to death." Later, in the dim cellar winebar with half a dozen old friends he mourned the riotous life that used to be.
Roger Hutchinson sought Jeff out for an interview that closed his 1991 book High Sixties. He found a man fairly content in his creative self but scathing of how things had fared since Bomb Culturalisation. "I’m almost sixty now and I’m glad that I shall die within the next ten years, because I really do not want to see what’s going to happen. And I shall never know such optimism again."