Author of 1968's Bomb Culture
Monday January 12, 2004
Jeff Nuttall, who has died aged 70 was a catalyst, perpetrator and champion of rebellion and experiment in the arts and society. Bomb Culture, his 1968 chronicle of the emergence of internationalist counter-culture in Britain, remains a primary source and manifesto for the post-Hiroshima generation.
The vision of Jeff's youth was grounded in "a faith that, given liberation, the human spirit would predominate. I imagined some kind of stone age village. People would build their own houses imaginatively and live there sophisticatedly and in a literate way and they would live with their hands and their minds and they would not be dictated to by anybody selling them anything. People would have the opportunity of coming into their true self, which was generous and creative and permissive".
He was born in Clitheroe, Lancashire, but most of his childhood and teens were spent in Orcop near Herefordshire's Welsh border. His father was the village headmaster but the most formative years of Jeff's education were at Hereford and Bath art schools (1949-53). In 1954 he married Jane Louch, the painter who had taught him at Hereford, with whom he reared a daughter and three sons. They stayed more or less together for the next two decades.
From the late 1970s to 1984 Jeff drove around Britain, Australia and Portugal with Amanda Porter, as svelte as he was chubby, with whom he had another two boys. The rest of his life was shared with Jill Richards, a diminutive Welsh actor as hard-drinking and sharp-witted as himself.
From 1956-68 Jeff was a secondary school art master, and for the following 16 years he worked at art colleges, in Bradford, Leeds, and then as Liverpool polytechnic's head of fine art. But while bringing a transformative zest to those jobs, he was also getting on with his mission.
From 1964-67 he edited and circulated My Own Mag, a bran tub of anarchic texts and images, with William Burroughs lavishly featured in most issues. In 1966 International Times, the first London-based "underground" newspaper, was set up. Jeff contributed articles and cartoons to IT and other underground publications which emerged in its wake.
Central to the burgeoning oral verse, jazz poetry, happenings and performance art movements, he also played effervescent jazz piano and scalding cornet in the Red Allen-Roy Eldridge idioms, and sang infectiously genial vocals. The humours of Fats Waller were recreated in Jeff's persona, yet he struck some on a brief encounter as a show-off. For many more he was an outstandingly original artist also possessed of a gift for helping others appreciate their own potential.
Other precursors whose legacies he extended were the dadaists, surrealists and beats, Dylan Thomas, John Bratby and kitchen sink painting, McGill postcards, bebop and northern music hall. In 1967 he co-founded the People Show, an improvising theatre troupe with which Jeff travelled, wrote and acted for five years.
From the mid-1980s he took cameo roles in films and television. Throughout his days he made and exhibited hundreds of lyrical-threatful-polemical artworks.
He was the Guardian's incisive poetry critic (1979-81) and during the last 40 years he published some 40 books. There were poetry, plays, fiction, memoirs, essays, and verbal portraits of kindred spirits like Blackpool's star mid-20th century comedian Frank Randle (King Twist, 1978) and the free jazz virtuoso Lol Coxhill (The Bald Soprano, 1989). Jeff's Selected Poems has just appeared (Salt Publications).
In 1990 Jeff summarised his artistic approach: "I make a line out of a rhythmic figure. The previous figure suggests the subsequent one. The rhythmic figures owe much to Charlie Parker's saxophone phrasing." Thus a characteristic Nuttall poem opens:
So brightly blisters the great regurgitating ribbon of the Thames .
Two defining moments for Jeff - and for the future he considered crucial for human survival - were the beginnings of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the late 1950s, with its anti-H-bomb marches and the first grand scale cosmopolitan poet-meet that filled the Albert Hall in June 1965. Jeff felt confirmed in that "all our separate audiences came to one place at the same time, a frisson for us all to savour as there had been at the first Aldermaston, and the underground was suddenly there on the surface, in open ground with a following of thousands".
Nuttall and John Latham had planned a happening for that gig which encaked them both top-to-toe in blue paint, but this blocked their pores, and Latham passed out. A hot bath was needed fast but the only bath in the building was in Sir Malcolm Sargent's dressing-room. The dazed duo tumbled gratefully in, to be discovered, reviving, by a caretaker, who assumed that unimaginable beatnik outrages were being enacted beneath his eyes.
In Jonathon Green's Days In The Life: Voices From The English Underground (1988), Jeff recalled "a shift between 1966 and 1967 from poetry and art and jazz and anti-nuclear politics to just sex and drugs, the arrival of capitalism. The market saw that these revolutionaries could be put in a safe pen and given their consumer goods. What we misjudged was the power and complexity of the media, which dismantled the whole thing. It bought it up. And this happened in 67, just as it seemed that we'd won".
Nuttall lived to see that spirit rekindled 35 years later, with wise children again marching, speaking, and acting out their hearts and minds against the philistines, profiteers, and warmongers who go on ruling the west.
He died on a Sunday, leaving the Hen and Chicks pub in Abergavenny, where his trad band's lunchtime gig had been the highspot of his week for 10 years. At his soul's incarnation in Elysium it will surely come to pass, as Jeff once dreamed, that "Spifflicate water-buffalo drunk on rainbow fish will snore beside the oval father where he basks". For the rest of us, as long as "global politics" fester in lies and pea-brained Hollywooden mega-violence, it is bollocks to them, and long live Jeff Nuttall.
· Jeffrey Nuttall, polymath, born July 8 1933; died January 4 2004