On the 50th Anniversary edition of Jeff Nuttall’s BOMB CULTURE (Strange Attractor, 2018)
Jeff Nuttall was a one man power source and word oven generously catering for the pure and the possible. Burroughsian in design he was also Ginsbergian in aspect, his ‘first thought best thought’ approach to style and delivery ejaculating, often prematurely, over both page and reader. His work as writer, musician, theorist, scultptor, imaginer, director, summoner, teacher and even actor in everything from the initial happenings of The People Show and onto the decidedly non happenings of Chef and Kavanagh QC, were all in their own unique fashion, as crafted as they were anarchic. His approach to language, rutting it for all it was worth, left a great deal of golden effluent and tumescence smattered over all who come close enough to risk artistic and cultural engagement. This was ably demonstrated in the recent republication by Verbivoracious Press of five of his novellas and in this fiftieth anniversary reprint and near reimagining of BOMB CULTURE for a society hell bent on some form of implosion. Jeff Nuttall’s words and world view now seem more relevant than ever.
Voluptously published, packaged and delivered (the book is beautiful to both the touch and the nose) by Mark Pilkington and Jamie Sutcliffe and their increasingly seminal Strange Attractor Press, this crucial cornerstone of the counter culture emerges not just from the mists of death Nuttall is sadly secondered into, but also those curdling and smearing our own uncertainties. Edited, annotated, compiled, expanded, refined and diversified by Jay Jeff Jones and Douglas Field, two writers, journalists, lecturers and revivalists of the lost art of dynamic practise, it is their excitement and dedication that shines through, along with Sutcliffe’s beautiful design, almost as equally as Nuttall’s creativity, striking like the lightning of an activated and dedicated response through a pre and indeed post Floydian prism.
Jones and Field/Field and Jones have spent several years rebirthing Nuttall for a world that has neglected him, having previously consigned him to the same forgotten artistic siberias as BS Johnson (before the recent Jonathan Coe led revival), Paul Ableman, and playwrights such as Roger Howard and Barry Bermange. Douglas and Jay have tirelessly curated and restored each Nuttlet that has come into their possession back to its former glory, and in this edition allowed the definitive and authoritative voice of English experimentalism to have his full cum splattered say.
After a deliciously barbed, free flowing, even Be-Bop scented Foreword (in terms of its suitably dynamic crests and scope of interest) from Iain Sinclair, which is surely the first piece of writing to reference Asa Benveniste, Chris Torrance and Lenny Henry, Field and Jones lay out the reasons why Nuttall and Bomb Culture are particularly important along with the book’s particular means of becoming.
Commissioned by former head of Granada TV in its chrysalis fired pomp, Sydney Newman, Paladin Books needed titles that explored the developing culture in new ways; psychedelic or outrage powered updates to Richard Hoggart, perhaps, that reflected not only the powerful voices rattling around the TV studios of Manchester and Birmingham, but also those clearing their throats from the fog on both Tyne and Mersey as they started to call for the new Crimson King.
Set to task, Nuttall soared. And while starting out as a form of high pointed hackwork the exuberance of his prose found time and space to reassert itself within a so called acceptable form. After Nuttall’s fiery preface the five main sections of Pop, Protest, Art, Sick and Underground practically define modern western society as man has made and understood it, covering not only the ebbs and flows of the counter culture as previously titled and described by Theodore Roszak, (master CC theorist and writer of the greatest cinema centred cathar conspiracy novel ever, Flicker and the equally neglected play/happening, Pontifex ), but also the very impulses that force the sad collations of lust, ignomy and three year old cheese in our stomach, by which most of us can be identified. As Nuttall own guts rumbles he manages to get to the core of the rest of us, through a combination of artistry and flame fed poetics;
Bright Autumn day. A CND march going by, almost like hard, sunlight ghosts, a passing dream.
Something about Criton’s ideas angered me, big dumb rounds of plaster- silence, always silence.
BC, p 149
Trocchi lived in the hotel where I met Burroughs. We talked. A place. A weekend conference, even. Duplicating…Was he really hip enough to pamper the anxious child?
BC, p 223
These are notes that are gifted with gold.
Beyond the statutes laid down by Copeland, Carter and Ives, the opening section, Pop opens with a rundown of America’s truly classic musical form; jazz, as both template for all that was to follow in terms of taste and endeavour, but also for the practise of all true forms of art. Nuttall was the Cornet player of choice for CND and the Aldermaston march and while his various bands throughout his life stayed true to his beloved form, all his work as writer, artist and actor in terms of the slightly unconventional reads and presence he essayed, in and on the banks of the mainstream clearly demonstrated this for anyone out to take notice. The People Show is nothing if not an extended series of extrapolations on the nature of performance and narrative, as can be seen in the two Performance collections of his stage scripts, and his dyslexic and sometimes laissez faire approach to grammar, punctuation and spelling is surely nothing else than a solo player’s intermittent stroking of bum notes, the casual groping of which often leads to a far greater seduction. Jazz is a journey of course and Bomb Culture displays this numerous takes on different types of odyssey through its commissioned insider’s view of the treks, trails and paths of the underground. Dante is here as well as London Transport. As indeed are the bars and bordellos for which the adventurous night was firts made. It goes without saying that in a career that took him from Abergavenny to Greenaway, Nuttall’s own journey was equally as inventive.
There are only a handful of artists that have breached the divide from the so called avant guard to the equally presumptive vanguard of populism, either as creator or performer. Like Jeff’s performances, Heathcote Williams’ acting work was a notable example (particulary when one takes in Wet Dream, Blue Juice and Wish You Were Here, let alone The Tempest), but Nuttall polished that singular stone to a glittering luminescence, imbuing each foray with a shimmer of the unexpected; an extra Pharaoh Saunders or Roland Kirk like trapped breath, forever circling the saxophone (or Cornet), while offering a quite different aspect of expression.
Pop houses the respect and admiration Nuttall possessed for Jazz’s prime Hipsters, from Jelly Roll Morton to Mezz Mezzrow to surrealistic scat singer Leo Watson. Fuelled by drugs that offered respite from the demands of the innovations Jazz placed on its practitioners, Nuttall saw words and ideas as a kind of narcotic, griming the pages and seeping through holes in the mind.
From the ramifications and jubilations of VE and VJ day respectively, to the summoning of a new order, the notion of what Pop is or isn’t is more wisely handled here than perhaps Camp was in Susan Sontag’s bright glove. Phrases such as;
The allies were using their popular culture as a way to exorcize their envy of a mythical Gestapo and we all joined in..
Is a heady provocation, a searing Coltrane or even Albert Ayler like note blown through a paper trumpet, scorching enough to ignite anyone’s idea of reformation. Perhaps it is Nuttall’s stance as an englishman or to be more precise, a Lancastrian that allows for more space around his linguistic detonations than say Burroughs travels on the Nova Express, or the Beckett of How It Is, but the platform this book allows him, grounds Nuttall’s playfulness with a new sense of authority. This handsome new edition from Strange Attractor is a larger, heavier prospect than its Paladin original, not just because of the equally attractive layout and design provided by Jamie Sutcliffe, and the elegantly arranged notes and glossaries from Jones and Field, but also because it seems to represent a semblance of Nuttall’s own physicality. A big man in all senses, Nuttall may have bloated around the trouserline, but his work was as svelte as Terrenc Stamp in his pomp, and each idea, observation and account delivers in the most definitive of ways all that those involved in the counter culture and those who study it would want to know.
My Own Mag, which was the wild mountain wind blowing around the Moses like stone tablets of Bomb Culture was Nuttall’s first hand rendered and mimeographed practical demonstration of the theories he details here. His work as a teacher started his artistic journey and continued, as true teaching has nothing to do with instruction and everything to do with introduction. From the Situationism of Alexander Trocchi, who acted as kind of mentor to Nuttall to his friend and frequent collaborators, such as the blue painted book sticking John Latham and the abstracted plosives of Bob Cobbing, each act described and accounted for charts a line between cultures primed by the innovation of constant change.
Jazz, like the sea, moves in waves, and while its centrifugal forces are different, the art of improvisation and discovery exerts its own gravitational pull on both writer and reader. Bomb Culture explodes and explores the reactions to the visceral fear that the postwar generation felt about the H Bomb and its Nuclear mistress and shows how the detonation of one explosive device simply leads to a series of others. Once the first gun is fired the idea catches on, but in the shadow of Oppenheimer and Hiroshima, or for that matter, Passchendaele, the rivulets of destruction continue to engender craters of hopeful regeneration and creation. Bomb Culture, ordered as it is, allows for such occurances in the form of italicised sections of memoir and biography that contextualise the accounts he is giving while also readjusting and riffing the real. You feel the radioactivity shudder through each recollection, mutating response and the after effects nausea and jubilation that can accompany invention and familiarity seep easily into the pores.
Protest details the post H response taking us briskly from Doris Lessing (who it has to be said had her own issues with Nuttall’s approach to gender politics as it sought to define itself in the 1960s) to Arnold Wesker’s search for a truly socialist community of survivors in Centre 42, resistant to the equally corrosive effect of conservatism. Nuttall neither praises nor buries the former Chalk Farm Caeser but he certainly pisses on his boots with lines like;
Wesker is a microcosm for the pathetic errors of the left. Art terrifies him as it terrifies the establishment. It terrifies him because it takes place outside any anticipatable mores..
It is this roar of challenge along with the numerous others planted throughout this books like weeds in a seed bed, that remove Bomb Culture from its historic context and enhance its relevance even further. Supplant Wesker with any contemporary Artistic Director dedicated only to the promotion of celebrity and you have, in essence, the same argument. Closed worlds lead to a kind of blindness and for all his lickspittling difficulty, dapper hats and strange taste in shirts, Nuttall’s quests for fresh standards of action and assessment help to make him a shining examplar of guidance, wisdom and forebearance.
Like Heathcote Williams before and beside him, it is the diversity of product Nuttall created that adds to this book’s value. Both men were as accomplished painters and makers as they were writers and again and again the book sings with all of the impassioned fury and power such talent gives you. There is something special about practitioners that combine and master all forms that give them a more developed form of musicality, beyond the practise or playing of instruments. The best writing aims for this sensibility and influence. And it is that special purity that ensnares us, and allows for a sometimes challenging viewpoint and/or content to be considered, even if that stance is to be finally dismissed. Writers who came later, such as Stewart Home provided shattering examples of this approach and they are the children who have played with the grenade from which Nuttall extracted the pin. Sometimes the chronicler is more important than the tale being told, if they are accurate and exercise more than the ability to excoriate or condemn. This is evidenced as Nuttall deals with Dylan and his cohorts as he adds poetry in terms of poetic exactitude at all points and places. The prose is elegant and portly. It is wine and acid and heroin sucked through cigars.
Section three, Art moves us at a rapid pace back and forth from Giotto, to Picasso, to Baudelaire, to de Sade, who was seen as the ‘complete natural man.’ The resonances of these blood and pigment primed detonators sounds loudly from the page. The ease of connections that Nuttall makes are what are most profound and striking;
Simultaneously Cezanne painted the images which embodied Nietzche’s ideas..
The slide between states is exhilarating and not one an Academic may take quite so suddenly, certainly not without a greater sense of contextulisation. As Nuttall casts examples of Pop and Protest up for examination so he stirs the sounds and colours of the people and practitioners detailed here. He reveals to what extent the culture we have revered and placed in a case is in fact in Roszak’s definition a counter culture, reflecting back only the ideas that seek to change and challenge the norm rather than simply contain them.
For Appollinaire, de Sade was the misunderstood innocent, the ebullient brat who had carried the anal -erotic extravagance of infantile folklore into his adult life and been jailed for it..
- P 78
Most of us bound by variations of that particular conundrum, which is a reasonably neat way of describing most libidinal urges, may well escape the clanging of the door, but not I think, the chiming of that particular bell. Nuttall’s own struggles and breakdown refered to by Field and Jones as the result of being pulled two ways between ‘family love’ and ‘sex love’ with his wife and girlfriend at the time exemplify this, as does Nuttall’s collaborator Richard Wilcocks whose statement that
Jeff, always phallocentric, constructs meanings from a decidedly masculine point of view..
While this may cause Jeff’s work and reputation some trouble today, the flag it waves does I think have to be taken if not to half mast, then certainly in some form of historical context. Existential chic was a by product of French intellectualism which was obviously popular at the time, and the fashion lined societal releases of the 1960’s would have only served to enhance whatever preconceptions Nuttall had as a man of great appetites. There will always be interesting studies on heterosexual and for that matter homosexual male writers treatments and depictions of women, still echoing today in someone like David Hare’s insistence on his supposed ease at capturing the female sensibility, while only truly placing a Fahri styled dress over his own, or a shifty glance back to Harold Pinter’s fondness for black stockings, but perhaps Nuttall’s vaginal book covers and forays into pornographic illustration some of which are gloriously printed here, (along with some essential IT related photographs from Graham Keen) do serve to push the boat out a little further than a Friday night in Amsterdam or the Kaiserkeller.
SICK is the section of the book people have the most trouble with, as it holds no truck or bars with what is acceptable, but its more to do with the truths it poses than the problems its prose offers.
‘The failure of the anti bomb movement in 1962 left us stranded in the unbearable..’
is the opening gambit and calls for the need for abandon, hinted at by Spike Milligan in The Goon Show and patented, bled on and wasted by Lenny Bruce, modern culture’s first true Martyr, even if his way to the altar was to some extent self inflicted. The demotion of the moral sense in favour of sensationalism as seen by the underground artists depicted here and in section five, Underground, is what we currently live in and understand, but there are greater and more erudite forms of shock available to us should we choose to accept what is truly possible. Ballard’s seismic Crash came later of course, but Burroughs was ever present, pursing ‘God’s face in the flashbulb of orgasm’ in or around the next anus. What Nuttall does is outline what Ginsberg called the ‘Obscene Magnificence’ of outsider art in all of its grubby glory. When it hangs on the gallery wall we can place it within our frame, but sometimes it is out there in the street, wanking at the window while watching us all with intent.
When a world and its society is riven, what other choices do we have, other than to accept that extremity can in some cases provide a solution? Once that H bomb ripped through the sky it tore a new alphabet of expression for all of us. We suffer the fallout continuously, and while our flesh may not warp under any other pressure than that of time itself, the true effect can be felt and detected in all of us at every waking moment, whether we choose to observe it or not. That simple profundity reeks from these elegantly packaged and vitally important pages. It is one of the reasons perhaps that Nuttall grew a little wary of having to be continuously associated and defined by them, fearing perhaps that it dated and placed him on a cultural shelf when what he really wanted to do was to continue to rampage through as many rooms as possible. But that hardly matters now. Many artists who create a signature if slightly unrepresentative work in a more general sense, from The Rite of Spring to Citizen Kane and The Caretaker seek to better the legend. Some do and go on to write The Homecoming, and No Man’s Land, or to make Chimes at Midnight. Nuttall produced over forty books of plays, novels, poems and polemics, along with his vast array of artworks and music, but each piece became and becomes in reflection, an extension of this book. They form the continuing riffs and diversifications that the book includes. They are the body that death has shoplifted and in its place the display shelf is newly christened with stars.
In sympathy with the primal explosion Jeff Nuttall warned of, his own aftershocks echo down a long, dark and dangerous corridor. His words and acts barrelled through, knocking the paint from the walls and chipping the tits of the goddess’ statue. He charged and chortled while spitting food and beer across jewels. As you re-engage with a voice that you may not have heard of, or forgot to listen to for a while, you will feel yourself heading along the same strained vibrations that Nuttall was attendant to. He was moving through time in a wonderfully progressive way, as both journalist and disciple and in so doing, breaking all walls and windows to grab hold of new landscapes and achieve spectacular light. Along the way, he found wounds that he dabbed and poked with his finger. His pen probed and wrote in them, ink sperming away into blood. In separating the flesh, Nuttall saw the bright bone within us. He gave us new cultures and in Bomb Culture, he examined the need for the blast and the scars that it left us. It is as written: The Underground once examined becomes the next paradise.
David Erdos November 25th 2018