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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Grove Press/Evergreen and European Literature

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Maarten van Gageldonk, Transatlantic Mediators: Grove Press, Evergreen Review and Postwar European Literature, 2016, 319pp, unpublished doctoral thesis

 

Transatlantic Mediators is the result of Maarten van Gageldonk’s research in the archives of Grove Press/Evergreen Review held at Syracuse University, New York, supplemented by wide-ranging reading and new interviews. This study is of Grove/Evergreen Review’s publication of foreign prose, poetry and drama from 1954 to 1973.

In 1951 American publisher Barney Rosset (1922-2012) took over the small, New York-based publishing house Grove Press and began to publish what would become a stream of highly influential literary, critical, sociological and biographical books. Rosset is widely considered the most important independent publisher of the post-war period. Van Gageldonk explains how the activities of Rosset, Grove Press and Evergreen Review were distinct yet often overlapping and in many respects inseparable. During the 1954-73 period Grove Press was on the cutting edge of avant-garde literature, publishing key texts by the Beats, French nouveau roman writers, European dramatists and other experimental and historically important writers

Van Gageldonk’s expertise in researching and evaluating periodical publications comes to the fore in his appreciation of Evergreen Review. Evergreen Review was founded in 1957 by Rosset to showcase Grove Press authors, as well as publish verse, prose and articles covering literary, artistic, social and political topics by non-house authors. It published excerpts of Grove volumes and introduced new writers in order to test reception. “Partly because of [its] eclecticism, the magazine was able to cater to a large and coherent group of young Americans, interested not only in cultural developments within the U.S., but also abroad. Evergreen Review’s ideal reader would have been in his or her early twenties, with a college education and left-leaning political views.”

Van Gageldonk uses statistical analysis to present a picture of how Evergreen Review changed over the years. He presents Evergreen Review’s sales and distribution figures to demonstrate its rise to the position of America’s most influential literary periodical and how it eventually lost its way. Once the censorship battles of the 1950s and 1960s were won, Evergreen Review was no longer the gatekeeper to clandestine avant-garde literature; it was just another counter-cultural publication. Evergreen Review changed format a number of times. When printing technology evolved, it became economic to publish on coated paper which allowed reproduction of photographs, first in half-tone then, later, in colour. The larger format, proliferation of advertisements and increased photographic illustration marked a gradual change in direction, highlighted by its retitling as Evergreen.  When the journal largely dropped poetry and translations of foreign-language texts – choosing instead to feature a mix of erotic stories, nude photography, radical social commentary and polemic – it came into competition with Playboy, a match it was unequal to. Evergreen ceased print publication in 1973.

Van Gageldonk considers Grove Press’s battles with various American censoring bodies over Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch, driven partly by idealism, partly by commercialism. Controversy over freedom-of-speech issues increased sales as well as earning Grove cultural cachet. In purely financial terms, Grove’s position on banned books was not quite justified by the costs of defending them against charges of obscenity – especially in the case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, where pirated editions by rival publishers would compete for sales once the ban was lifted. Works deemed illegal were not covered by American copyright law, so competing houses eyed the breaking of fresh ground with the intention of launching their own editions as soon as new markets opened.

The author discusses aspects of Grove/Evergreen Review’s output in terms of Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of cultural production and Ulf Hannerz’s conception of creolization of culture through adaptation and interpretation of cultural material. A good example of the latter is Van Gageldonk’s discussion of the publication of texts by Alfred Jarry in a 1960 issue of Evergreen Review dedicated to ‘Pataphysics. At the time, Jarry was a writer obscure to English readers, known mostly by reputation, and little of his work had been translated. The presentation of Jarry was in a highly mediated form: a small selection of his texts in translation with works by others connected to the ‘Pataphysics movement. The editing was highly influenced by figures active in the Collège de ‘Pataphysique, Paris. In this example of creolization, Jarry’s texts was detached from their historical and cultural context and presented as harbingers of Surrealism and Absurdism. The presentation of Jarry as a forerunner of the counter-culture resistance to social conformity and as a debunker of scientific rationalism made him attractive to Grove American readers familiar with the Beats. Thus a relatively underappreciated historical author became pressed into service of a publisher keen to buttress its artistic credibility.

Grove’s stake in the success of the Theatre of the Absurd is clear if one studies its publishing list. In 1954 Grove published the English translation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a gamble on an author little-known to Anglophones. Despite huge success in Paris, the play had not been performed in English due to concerns over possible infringement of obscenity and blasphemy laws. Van Gageldonk observes that Grove went on to corner the American market for European Absurdist drama, including in its list Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, Harold Pinter and Václav Havel. Van Gageldonk explains the involvement Grove had in arranging productions and how the commercial rewards and – particularly – critical responses to debut stage productions in New York could make or break dramatists in America. “Comparing Ionesco and Adamov’s impact on the theatrical field first of all highlights the absolute dominance still held by the older New York drama critics, a position at the time still little eroded by a younger generation. When the three key New York drama critics walked out of Ping Pong, they reduced Adamov’s chances within the field to nil.” He points out how successful early productions of Ionesco established him as a major dramatist for American audiences while Adamov sank into obscurity.

In other chapters Van Gageldonk assesses Grove’s publication of literature from Russia, Eastern Bloc nations and Germany – a useful complement to the attention already given by other academics to Grove’s important ties to the French avant-garde. Even when dealing with highly theoretical matters in the methodological introduction, Van Gageldonk’s prose is clear and precise. Discussing Rosset, Grove, Evergreen Review and Rosset’s most important editors, Richard Seaver and Donald Allen, Van Gageldonk’s text is enjoyable and engaging, conveying the social and literary milieu as well as the substance of his subject. Transatlantic Mediators is an approachable, thoroughly researched and informative study of the contribution Grove/Evergreen Review made to literature in the mid-Twentieth Century. Let us hope it reaches a wider audience in the future.

Scientology books reviewed

“I have faith. You are a member of a religion. He is part of a cult.

“Every participant in a discussion about the Church of Scientology reveals a position by using the nouns ‘religion’ and ‘cult’. The former is accorded a degree of respect and recognition (socially, morally and legally); the latter is regarded with suspicion and hostility. However, nominating a group as ‘religion’ or ‘cult’ does not – a priori– establish the veracity of its core beliefs. So what is Scientology?

“Scientology is a religion/cult/philosophy which offers an all-American blend of self-help, psychological counselling, health improvement and Masonic-style careerism (especially in the acting world), based on ‘scientific research’ by science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard (1911-1986). Scientological methods have been claimed to reduce stress, reveal past lives, end drug addiction, cure mental illness and heal physical illness. Caught off-guard by the huge success of his self-help manualDianetics (1950), Hubbard decided to start the Church of Scientology as an organisation to oversee the ‘auditing’ of subjects (a talking therapy utilising an ‘e-meter’ similar to a lie-detector) in order to control and monetise it. Scientology’s hostility to psychiatry, which Scientologists consider responsible for worldwide murder and degradation, is partly because Scientology was founded not in opposition to psychiatry but in competition with it, using concepts and techniques pioneered by psychiatry. Professional scientists were unimpressed by Dianetics. One of them described it not as science fiction but ‘fictional science’…”

Read the full article on SPIKED, 1 March 2013 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/13395#.Vd96MfldU5k

William S. Burroughs: Letters, vol. 2

“Volume 1 of William Burroughs’s letters took readers from 1945 to 1959, following his frequent changes of location from New York to Texas, Mexico City, Tangiers and Paris, as he turned his hand to junk pushing, cannabis growing, pea farming, psychopharmacological investigation and – finally – writing. Burroughs skipped bail and left Mexico for good after accidentally shooting his wife dead, leaving their son Billy to be raised by his grandparents in Florida. During this early period, letters were a vital conduit for Burroughs’s political and intellectual ideas and for the continuation of friendships, principally with Allen Ginsberg.

In Volume 2 we pick up the story with Burroughs living in Paris, just having sent off the proofs of Naked Lunch to the printers…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 30 March 2012 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/12298#.Vd94GPldU5k

Iain Sinclair: American Smoke

“The observant will notice that the dustcover for the new Iain Sinclair book is (when fully revealed) a fold-out map of North America. American Smoke is part travelogue of North America, part memoir of Sinclair’s engagements with the Beats, part pyschogeography familiar to long-time Sinclair readers. The map shows destinations documented in the book: Lawrence, Lowell, Vancouver, Los  Angeles. To be strictly accurate, it should have had another map on the reverse – one of the UK.  Much of the narrative recalls events that took place in England: in St Leonards and Hastings on the South Coast, in the London home of socialite Panna Grady, in Croydon. But being strictly accurate wouldn’t be Beat and wouldn’t be Sinclair…”

Read the full article on EBSN website, March 2014 here:

http://ebsn.eu/scholarship/ebsn-reviews/iain-sinclairs-american-smoke-journeys-to-the-end-of-the-light-reviewed-by-alexander-adams/