Jeff Nuttall: Bomb Culture

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Writer, teacher, artist, publisher, musician and agitator for the counter culture, Jeff Nuttall (1933-2004) was a large figure in the British pop culture landscape during the 1960s and 1970s. He knew most of the leading figures in the underground scene of the era and acted as a link in the form of organiser, publisher, promoter and communicator. As someone with a high profile, Nuttall was in the ideal position to promote the counter culture – though what he put forward was his own version of the counter culture. Nuttall had his own preoccupations and blind spots and the underground culture he promulgated was very much in his own image. Bomb Culture – first published in 1968 – became the handbook for British readers in search of an explanation of the ideas driving the radical Sixties led by the post-Hiroshima generation. Widely reviewed and popular, Bomb Culture was seen at the time as representative of the zeitgeist. The new edition contains a foreword by Iain Sinclair and an introduction by Douglas Field and Jay Jeff Jones. Biographical notes allow younger readers to orientate themselves with less familiar names from 1968. There are also some added photographs.

Nuttall covers the well-established link between the origins of jazz as brothel music from New Orleans and the power of jazz music as a potent expression of political liberation and sexual defiance. Nuttall mentions the liberation movements of the period but is clearly less engaged by these movements. Sexual liberation is viewed in terms of accessibility to sexual gratification rather than to the widening of the social horizons for women. Consciousness liberation took the form of consumption of psychedelic and hallucinogenic drugs. Rock music (especially acid rock) is considered as an extension of the psychoactive effects of drugs. Nuttall is knowledgeable about pop music and writes with confidence about the counter culture credentials of rock and roll. Bomb Culture’s perspective is of particular interest because it was written from 1967 to 1968 and was published in 1968, placing its creation right at the centre of activity it describes.

While Nuttall’s perspective was British – laced with references to the Second World War and post-war austerity – his view of the scene was refracted through the lens of American culture – jazz, film, poetry, and underground activist journalism. Nuttall sees the cultural upheaval in Britain as a response to the failure of the CND and Aldermaston Marches of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He condemns much British Socialist writing as a compromise, seeking to ingratiate writers with the existing structure of the Labour Party as the main leftist opposition to the establishment. His claims are scattershot and his pragmatic counter-position is not forthcoming. For Nuttall the more underground, the freer from compromise production becomes. The International Times and his own fanzine (or “little magazine”, according to your definition) My Own Mag are freer. The manifest failure of the mass youth-led protests against the Cold War bomb culture led to the wider, more pervasive social movement of the counter culture. While British protesters took their lead from anti-Vietnam War protests and American pop culture, Nuttall sees a direct line from the anti-Cold War culture of the 1950s and early 1960s.

Nuttall took a more militant – even violent – position than the hippy outlook headed by Allen Ginsberg and the San Francisco scene. He is decidedly opposed to the pacifism of the hippies. He sees the violence of protestors in London’s Grosvenor Square against the American Embassy at the height of the Vietnam War as an enervating corrective to the violence being perpetrated against the Vietnamese. Likewise, there is adulation for student bomb makers and narcotic manufacturers. Yet how much of this is not simply the petulant anger of malcontents directed against the status quo? Is not the violent response the extension of violence the responders seeks to curtail? For Nuttall, bomb culture has a double meaning – the hegemony of the military-industrial complex that the nuclear bomb created and the bomb culture of youthful resistance to that system. Nuttall sees violence as an explicable and inevitable response to potential violence of a military system. He discusses the aimless violence of the teenage thrill kill and the gang fights of the Mods and Rockers. (The Teddy boys appropriated the upper-class fashion revival by the Edwardian age that Savile Row tailors, who had planned to market it to the middle class. Instead of the style becoming a profitable product for tailors to reach the middle classes, the working class adopted it as a badge of decadent defiance.)

Another line is the pseudo-Nietzschean amoralism of the Moors murderers as an example of libertinism. The defiance of sexual and social mores logically leads to the defiance of the ethical principles of the sanctity of life. In one startling observation, Nuttall talked of the crowd at the trial witnessing the process less in indignation than in envy.

Nuttall puts forward the psychoanalytic theory of the day, cribbed from popular publications.

Schizophrenia was ill-defined. At best it meant, means, someone who was isolated and therefore not adjusted to the patterns of society.

This conformed to the social-repressive view of R.D. Laing and others, who saw schizophrenia and serious conditions not as a problem of an individual being unable to map reality on to the mental landscape of the subject but of society stigmatising the non-conformist individual. In this view society and family (and the medical profession which sought to apply the principles of those institutions) were systems of repression. Any system that restrains (no matter how it also nurtures, supports and protects) is an artificial development which seeks to divert the potentially disruptive force of individualism. The psychoanalytic profession – rather than seeking to actualise the potential of people – was attempting to neuter people in the service of the pharmaceutical industry, educational system and social structures that were themselves beholden to insane priorities and values. In short, the insane were responding to the insanity of their alienated social reality rather than to any internal deficiency. In this respect Nuttall puts the counterculture case in its clearest form, associating Laing’s ideas with Ginsberg’s Howl – a poem noting the madness of great minds faced by the painful reality of society.

Nuttall diverts into Surrealism and Dadaism as attempts at liberation of art. His art history is unconventional – more Norman Mailer than Ernst Gombrich. Yet, even when he is elaborating ideas that would not find a place in any conventional study, he remains thought provoking.

The destination, as far as art is concerned, is the journey itself. Art keeps the thing moving. The only true disaster is the end of the journey, the end of man and his development.

Nuttall knew many of the Beat Generation, particularly William Burroughs. They lived in London at the same time and Nuttall published Burroughs’s writings. The British Beats are described in a series of amusing anecdotes.

Nuttall does not weave his observations into an integrated thesis. His observations form a torrent of history, pop culture criticism, fashion and music. (Television and radio hardly comes up and American movies are referenced in passing and in terms of iconic actors rather than any discussion of particular films.) Political theory, philosophy and revolutionary activism concepts are almost entirely omitted. The book includes many lengthy quotes – poems, newspaper extracts and popular science papers. Nuttall has limitations as a creative writer and a populariser of other people’s ideas. He was a reckless writer: casual with facts, lazy in style and clumsy with logic. Yet he was by no means a cynical blagger. He had an original and wayward mind; his Bomb Culture remains not only a personal view of a tumultuous period but also an enjoyable record of the era seen from the inside.

Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture, Strange Attractor Press (MIT distr.), 2019, paperback, 306pp., £14.99, ISBN 978 190 7222702

 

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my books and art here: www.alexanderadams.art

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