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Jeff Nuttall and the William S. Burroughs Connection

Bruce Wilkinson writes:

Described in his Guardian obituary by Mike Horovitz as a ‘catalyst, perpetrator and champion of rebellion and experiment in the arts and society’, Jeff Nuttall was an anarchist who believed that the avant-garde shouldn’t be restricted either by the authorities or social mores. Nuttall is now probably best remembered for Bomb Culture (MacGibbon & Kee, 1968), his account of the British underground’s development. Out of print for many years, it has recently been re-issued in a new expanded edition (edited by Jay Jeff Jones and Douglas Field through the Strange Attractor Press), maintaining its power to surprise and inspire.

Image courtesy of Christine Bank

Nuttall authored over 40 books on a wide range of subjects from saucy seaside postcards and performance art to a biography of the comedian Frank Randle. An excellent musician, he also acted in numerous TV shows and films, even appearing as a ‘baddie’ in the James Bond movie ‘The World is Not Enough’ (1999). Nuttall wrote experimental verse while highlighting the medium through his press columns, becoming chair of the National Poetry Society in the 1970s. Arguably, though, his biggest cultural contribution was as an artist and lecturer, spreading influence across different generations and between diverse elements of the avant-garde.

When Dave Cunliffe moved to London in the late-1950s he encountered several key figures, the poet Lee Harwood introducing him to Nuttall over a pint or seven. Although Nuttall lived in southern England he was born just a few miles from Cunliffe in Clitheroe and he retained a pride in his northern working-class roots and an interest in the area’s occult’s influences, the Pendle Witches also hailing from that district of Lancashire. Cunliffe and Nuttall attended several Committee of 100 protests together, C100 being the more radical alternative to CND. An archived letter from Cunliffe (sadly we don’t know to whom but certainly an American) refers to his presence with Nuttall at a demonstration at a US Air Force base where they performed an exorcism to rid it of evil spirits (and presumably nuclear weapons).

Committee of 100 flyer. Image courtesy of Christine Bank.
Committee of 100 flyer. Image courtesy of Christine Bank.

By day Nuttall taught at a secondary school but spent his evenings playing jazz cornet and constructing art made from found objects, using lingerie to form humanoid sculptures, alluding to the kinkier elements of sex. This developed into happenings morphing into performance art with Group H, the Drury Lane Arts Lab, sTigma and the People’s Show. He co-founded and contributed cartoons to the alternative newspaper International Times (IT) and worked with Bob Cobbing at the Writer’s Forum, becoming an artistic node, facilitating the work of others in Britain and overseas. As a slightly older beer drinker (with girth to match) he denounced the impact of drugs on the counterculture. Nuttall’s influence on the 1960s has often been overlooked, perhaps because he stood apart from the hipper elements of the underground but which gave Bomb Culture its unique perspective of the era.

Both Cunliffe and Nuttall are connected to the US author William S. Burroughs. Published in 1963, Poetmeat issue 2 included an extract from Burroughs’ Naked Lunch which came to the editor Cunliffe via the negotiation of Harwood. This wasn’t unusual, passages appeared in various literary and poetry magazines on both sides of the Atlantic featuring work from different editions which were revised several times over its first few years of publication. Also in 1963 Nuttall developed his own periodical My Own Mag (MOM), a mixed-media art exhibition in journal form, experimenting with his own work while codifying the avant-garde transmissions he was sharing with writers and artists like dom sylvester houédard, Carl Weissner and Alexander Trocchi. On meeting Nuttall in a London pub, Burroughs agreed to contribute his literary experiments to MOM. The American had been working on cut-ups with Brion Gysin since the late-1950s, elements of the occult believed to guide the process, but Burroughs was now looking for ways to broaden this technique.

According to the Barry Miles biography, William S. Burroughs: A Life (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014): ‘Early in 1964, he applied a new technique known as ‘grids’… The texts were typed out and cut up in the normal way. The resulting manuscript was then divided into a grid of anything between nine and 36 squares… These squares could then be visited in a random order and words or phrases taken from them and typed out on a fresh sheet of paper… another way of creating unexpected juxtapositions.’

The excellent Reality Studio website has scans of the entire set of MOM in which the grid experiments can be seen here.

It’s also worth noting that MOM 10, published in December 1964, includes a cartoon collaboration between Cunliffe and Nuttall entitled: ‘The 32nd Put Down of Two Literary Gentlemen’. Perhaps more intriguingly my research highlights that Nuttall offered Cunliffe and his by then co-editor Tina Morris some of Burroughs’ material which he couldn’t fit into MOM. In Jeff Nuttall’s archive (also held at John Rylands Library) a letter from Cunliffe to Nuttall (probably dated October 1964) confirms his refusal of Burroughs’ ‘Time/Space Experiment’ on the grounds of not having enough room in Poetmeat. Besides turning down work from an internationally famous author, what’s most surprising about the missive is that it is the only one from BB Books in Nuttall’s archive not signed both by Cunliffe and Morris – who has no memory of the offer indicating that she wasn’t told about the Burroughs material. This is very unusual because in my interviews Dave insisted that Tina had at least equal editorial input and often more than that. Cunliffe made two later trips to London to meet Burroughs but on both occasions the American was too intoxicated to make much sense.

When Nuttall moved north (via Norwich) he lectured at Bradford School of Art, influencing colleague John Foxx and other members of what became the radical theatre group Welfare State (International). WSI had much the same anarchic energy and Dadaist spirit as the People Show and was one of the first to introduce community parades into its repertoire – now commonplace. From there Nuttall tutored at Leeds Polytechnic, teaching the likes of Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside who remembers him as ‘…wonderfully entertaining, rude and often very drunk’ in David Wilkinson’s Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain (Palgrave, 2016). Band members of The Three Johns and The Mekons also attended the same Yorkshire institution as art students, describing Nuttall as ‘inspirational’ in music press interviews.

In fact it’s possible that Nuttall had already influenced the punk aesthetic. Barry Miles in his book London Calling (Atlantic, 2010) recollects the window displays of Malcolm McLaren’s King’s Road boutique ‘Sex’ reminding him of Nuttall’s fetish designs for the 1965 Better Books sTigma installation. It was the creations of McLaren and Vivienne Westwood which set the blueprint for what would become British punk fashion (bondage, rubber, self-piercing etc.) which very much reflected Nuttall’s 1960s métier.

Jeff Nuttall certainly divides opinion – an audience member at a recent University of Westminster conference described him as ‘probably the most horrible person I ever met’ while at a Hebden Bridge Bomb Culture re-launch one of his Bradford students described him as ‘wonderful’ (despite her stories of him peeing in a sink during a lecture and spending most of his time in the pub). Nuttall’s contribution to various cultural strands deserves re-appraisal and his part within the avant-garde highlighted as part of this process but at the very least he left us the best account of the British underground by someone crucial to its formation.

1 comment on “Jeff Nuttall and the William S. Burroughs Connection

  1. Great article.

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