The colourful world of Jeff Nuttall (1933-2004)

Dr Janette Martin writes:

Since January 2016, when I started work at the John Rylands Library, I have looked after the Jeff Nuttall Papers. It has been an adventure. Nuttall, for those who have not yet met him, was a Lancashire-born artist and poet, jazz musician, critic, social commentator, novelist, actor and influential teacher. A larger than life character who played a key role in a worldwide network of radical, avant-garde artists and writers who challenged mainstream culture in the 1960s and 1970s. As part of my curatorial duties I had the pleasure of working with Douglas Field and Jay Jeff Jones on a major exhibition Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground which can be seen at The John Rylands Library until 5 March 2017.

The Jeff Nuttall papers largely date from the 1960s and 1970s, a period when Nuttall lay at the heart of an international network or writers, thinkers, artists and activists. The papers comprise manuscripts of literary and artistic value many of which were subsequently published in mimeographed magazines and a large sequence of letters. A key component of the underground movement were cheaply produced and easily circulated ephemeral magazines. Nuttall’s My Own Mag (1963-66) being just one example. Such publications deliberately pushed the boundaries of taste and provoked the censors with strong language, drug references and sexual content.

Recently acquired copies of My Own Mag, University of Manchester

But it is the correspondence files in the Nuttall Papers which I find most fascinating. Letters between friends and collaborators reveal charming details and idiosyncrasies. Many have their own literary qualities, with writers self-consciously asserting their intellectual prowess or role in the movement. Other letters reveal tensions, petty rivalries or plain curiosity. I will give two examples. The first is an undated letter from Harold Norse (1916-2009) written to Jeff Nuttall sometime in 1968. Its sets out, rather beautifully, the intellectual and cultural climate:

So I nodded my head, which Lucie-Smith interpreted as agreement with Jeff Nuttall, but actually was beating time to a tune by that great modern poet, Dylan – – Bob Dylan: “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is” … & my mind went back to the Cabaret Voltaire (1916) where Hugo Ball chanted nonsense syllables, & the Odéon where Tzara, at the end of the world, picked out poems from a hat … and knew where it was at.

[Ref: JNP/138, Jeff Nuttall Papers, The University of Manchester]

Manifesto for the Grey Generation, Dick Wilcock Collection, University of Manchester

The second, a letter from Mary Beach, one of the few female writers to establish a place in the early underground movement, makes me smile. In an undated letter sent from San Francisco around 1967, Beach playfully asks how to pronounce his name, is it “Newtall? Nut-tall? Nuttle? Everybody here has a different way?”[Ref : JNP/1/33 Jeff Nuttall Papers, The University of Manchester]

Since ‘Off Beat’ opened in September 2016 it has acted as a magnet attracting other Nuttall material and strengthening our underground collection. The first addition was the Dick Wilcocks Collection which includes, among other things, further editions of My Own Mag (issues 9-17), A copy of George Son of My Own Mag (April 1971); a copy of Carl Weissner’s Manifesto of the Grey Generation (August 1966) ten letters from Nuttall and two typescript Nuttall poems. I was fascinated to see a small number of photographs documenting the notorious sTigma installation in the basement of the Better Books store in 1965. Secondly we have purchased 4 editions of My Own Mag (pictured above) from Barry Miles (b.1943), author and participant of the sixties London underground scene.

Our ambition is to eventually acquire a full set of My Own Mags. In the slide show below, you can see the covers of the editions we do have. Do get in touch if you can help us plug the gaps! Finally watch this space early next year for details of a modest Jeff Nuttall Sound Archive project.

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1 comment on “The colourful world of Jeff Nuttall (1933-2004)

  1. Dear John,

    I don’t know if you are aware of this, but I have an article on Jeff Nuttall in the current issue of Beat Scene Magazine, available in the Humanities Collection at John Rylands Main Library.

    I was working as a casual at the library when the magazine came out, which was, to the say the least, a surreal experience.

    I wrote the piece after seeing the exhibition on Deansgate last year and would love to know what you think of it.

    Yours sincerely,

    Leon Horton

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