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Jeff Nuttall

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‚Ä™re 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."

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