Arts & Culture / International / Politics / The Reading Room / Vol. 2 No. 1-2

Jeff Nuttall’s Bomb Culture Revisited: Art, Politics, and the Underground 1

Nanette Carter, Cantilevered #40 (Teetering)

Image Credit: Nanette Carter, Cantilevered #40 (Teetering), 2018, oils on Mylar, 1′ x 1′ 9.75″, Courtesy of the artist

Jeff Nuttall (1933-2004) was a British artist, poet, critic, actor, and musician. The author of almost forty books, Nuttall was involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) from the late 1950s, and then played a major role in the British counter-cultural scene. During the 1960s, Nuttall edited My Own Mag: A Superb Absorbent Periodical, a seminal underground little magazine, which published work by British avant-garde writers, among them B.S. Johnson, but also US authors, including William Burroughs. Bomb Culture, Nuttall’s idiosyncratic account of the underground scene was first published in 1968, and it remained out of print until the publication of the 50th anniversary edition in 2018.

In early 1967, the British artist Jeff Nuttall put together issue 15 of his mimeographed magazine My Own Mag and attached an editorial statement to the copies he distributed. This declared—to no one’s surprise—that the magazine’s purpose had always been subversion.2 He concluded the editorial with a list of contact addresses for mostly well-known, underground/Beat artists and writers, among them Lawrence Ferlinghetti and William Burroughs. This was the cream of his impressive address book and the people that he presumed were more concerned with the revolution than merely with “literature, art, pornography, unnerground [sic] movies, heroin or other quaint rural handicrafts.” He ended with the plea, “WITH CO-OPERATION WE COULD ALL ACTUALLY WIN. DO WE REALLY WANT TO WIN?”3 A tone of desperation was hard to ignore.

Nuttall’s call for co-operation manifested frequently in his willingness to collaborate with fellow travellers, with whom he created extensive transatlantic networks through his My Own Mag editorship, which was based in England and involved in numerous cultural projects. From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, he made appearances in a profusion of social, political, and cultural events; from playing the cornet in the “Aldermaston Jazz Band” during protests calling for nuclear disarmament, to working with a diverse range of artists, among them the poets Michael Horovitz and Bob Cobbing in his Writers Forum group, as well as a brief stint lecturing at the London Anti-University in l968. It was a period when, as he outlines in Bomb Culture, “all things coming under my senses quivered with a crazy potential.” The threat of the H-bomb loomed large; its imagined mushroom cloud darkening the possibility of any real future. It was, he recalled, “a perpetual noon of decisions, every action crucial being possibly final,” a period that demanded a rupture with the past, as well as the future: “Art lives when values melt.” Or, as he further declared: “if you want to exist you must accept the flesh and the moment.” Throughout the 1960s Nuttall’s verve and output were prodigious, whether performing music, writing, or producing graphic and plastic art, where the malleable material extended to human bodies in his performance shows. His energy was infectious as he searched restlessly for outlets to express his dreams, disillusionments, and scatological impishness to anyone who would listen. Nuttall’s insatiable hunger to create spilled across genres, uprooting the distinctions between art and poetry, music and sculpture. “I paint poems, sing sculptures, draw novels,” he explained.4

In Bomb Culture, a seminal account of the international underground scene, Nuttall identified the three strains of Pop, Protest, and Art, which had produced the formula for alternative culture out of youthful libido, nuclear-phobic desperation, and the shock tactics of the avant-garde. Before Bomb Culture hit the shops, Nuttall sent one of his occasional letters to the International Times. Launched in 1966, loosely based on New York’s Village Voice–and better known as IT–this was London’s, and indeed Europe’s, first alternative newspaper. Nuttall’s illustrated strips (initially titled “Clifton de Berry” and then changed to “Seedy Bee”), among the earliest examples of underground comix, were a regular feature of the early issues. In his letter, Nuttall claimed that something besides psychedelic distraction was urgently needed, especially as an insurrection was (he hoped) looming:

We’ve bled acid, pot and anything else of all it had to offer. It was a new and exciting well, and it’s now dry…Can we now for Christ’s sake seriously hope that this long drawn out hangover from the admittedly raving summer of ’67 is good and over, that Jim [Haynes]5 and the Anti-U and the Digger communities will sling out the parasites and dossers, that ideas will begin to pick up and actually swing again… With a bit of luck the streets will be in flames by Christmas. What the hell are we going to build, and how?6

As he later made clear, Nuttall had little truck with Allen Ginsberg’s proto-hippy pronouncements about the redemptive qualities of love. In Bomb Culture, he quotes Ginsberg’s declaration that “only the satisfaction of their [young people’s] Desire—love, the body, the orgy: the satisfaction of a peaceful natural community where they can circulate and explore Persons, cities, and the nature of the planet—the satisfaction of encouraged self-awareness, and the satiety and cessation of desire, anger, grasping, craving.” Nuttall’s response was unequivocal: “no one pointed out to Ginsberg that the quick and only way to that peace beyond ‘desire, anger, grasping, craving,’ is to cut your own throat, that anyone who has no appetite for life on human terms, desires merely life on cosmic terms, desires death.” If Ginsberg proposed retreat from the Moloch-driven greed of contemporary society, Nuttall insisted that he remain, his corpulent frame enveloping the world around him as he seized society “by the scruff of the neck,” as he emphatically declared in Bomb Culture. Despite his criticism of Ginsberg’s desire to drop out, Nuttall was careful to clarify his own position in editorials printed in My Own Mag: “belive [sic] it not: I LIKE IT HERE.”

Nuttall’s political aesthetic can be grasped from “Sick,” a section included in Bomb Culture as the Underground’s fourth strand of influence; quite possibly the mixture’s catalyst. In the 60s, “sick” was a category of humour, usually for the type of stand-up comedian exemplified best by Lenny Bruce. Nuttall’s usage was broader, making connections between extreme, assaultive expressions in art and literature and society’s actual manifestations of mental and psychic illness; especially its most notorious British homicides, the Moors Murders, where five children were abducted and murdered by a couple in the North of England between 1963 and 1965. In his analysis, the line between art and reality had become uncertainly fine. The sTigma exhibition in London, which Nuttall created along with eight other artists in the basement of Better Books in 1965, was intended to be (at least for him) “an indictment of society.”7 They had considered intensifying the experience, already sinister and repulsive, by releasing live snakes and rats. “It was supposed to be a shocker, to drive people out of their minds.”8

Heavily influenced by the Marquis de Sade, Georges Bataille, Antonin Artaud and William Burroughs, Nuttall’s work explores and develops what he called in Bomb Culture “the aesthetic of obscenity” as a way to “force people to accept life and live it”—an outlook that he is careful to distinguish from the “obscenity” of The Naked Lunch, which was “intended as a device for obliterating life as it had ever been known.” Nuttall’s distinction between his work and that of his collaborator, Burroughs, is crucial. In contrast to Burroughs’ nihilism, Nuttall writes that “if the worst comes to the worst, I’ll settle for it,” adding “I think this is a fundamental difference between me and Trocchi and the psychedelic thing:”

Certainly the situation is changing. Certainly I hurl my unwieldly weight against the established order of things to change and improve it. Certainly I shall continue to do this all my life. But there’s a catch. Not only do I want to change it. I also want to preserve it in the first place… I have every wish to change the world but no wish to escape it…I BELONG.9

As Nuttall repeats throughout the pages of Bomb Culture, his aim is to transform, not destroy the world around him using an armoury of poems, novels, social criticism and art. These are not idle threats. “Art,” Nuttall explains, “is not a small remote compartment of human experience; rather it is “a vital activity, a communication to a all…”

Works Cited
1 This article is adapted from the introduction to Jeff Nuttall’s Bomb Culture, published by Strange Attractor Press (2018): https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/bomb-culture & http://strangeattractor.co.uk/shoppe/bomb-culture-50th-anniversary-edition/
2 In one issue, Nuttall explained that My Own Mag was “an attempt to explore the subliminal level of consciousness and destroy the contrived systemization of consciousness in which we are trapped by guying the very techniques of juxtaposition and auto-suggestion whereby we are preserved in our progressively narrowing selves by newspapers, advertisers, propagandists and other sundry head shrinkers.” Eric Mottram, Algebra of Need (London: Marion Boyars, 1977), p.118. In a description of the activities of Bernard Marsalek and the New York Black Mask Group in Bomb Culture, Nuttall quotes their use of “Mad Love” as a subversive weapon that is “the absolute enemy of bourgeoise culture” and includes a manifesto that completely rejects: “the political, theological, literary, philosophical and academic assumptions which hinge our society to the withered refrigerator of civilization”. Nuttall’s “subversive” sympathies are patently clear.
3 Jeff Nuttall, “Editorial Bit,” My Own Mag, 15 (April 1966), no pagination: http://cdn.realitystudio.org/images/bibliographic_bunker/jeff_nuttall/my_own_mag/my_own_mag.15.01.editorial.1.jpg
4 Jeff Nuttall, “The People,” International Times 9 (February 27-March 12, 1967), p. 10.
5 Jim Haynes (1933-) is an expatriate US countercultural figure who co-founded the magazines International Times (IT) in 1969 and Suck in 1969.
6 Jeff Nuttall, International Times, 38 (August 1968) p.18.
7 sTigma was a collaborative effort, albeit driven by Nuttall and Criton Tomazos. Different artists planned out sections of the Better Books basement, including Bruce Lacey, Keith Musgrove, Heather Richardson, Islwyn Watkins, John Latham, Dave Trace and Phil Cohen. Dick Wilcocks, “sTigma– a kick at soporifics”, Peace News, (March 12, 1965), p.10.
8 Green, Days in the Life, p. 60.
9 Jeff Nuttall, “Editorial Bit,” My Own Mag, 15 (April 1966), no pagination:
http://cdn.realitystudio.org/images/bibliographic_bunker/jeff_nuttall/my_own_mag/pdf/my_own_mag.15.pdf

Author: Jay Jeff Jones
Jay Jeff Jones is a journalist, playwright, and magazine editor who has worked in San Francisco, London, British Columbia, and Manchester. He was a friend of Nuttall’s and published his work in the literary quarterly New Yorkshire Writing.

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