For well-known reasons, 2020 has seen less in the way of new books, films and TV than was expected for it. Like many people I’ve filled in some of the spare time by catching up on some older books, films and TV than I’d heard of some time earlier. I felt I should finally get around to the works of Jeff Nuttall, starting with the Omnibus edition of his novels An Aesthetic Of Obscenity released by Verbivoracious Press (who now appear to be defunct) and then finally the epic text of Bomb Culture, which also got repackaged a few years ago. These books raised some more questions and I went on to further Nuttalliana.
I first heard of Nuttall in connection with B.S.Johnson, as one of his novels was paired with Johnson’s posthumous work See The Old Lady Decently in a scathing review by Peter Ackroyd in 1975. There used to be a BSJ website which included a reproduction of the review, but it is no longer available so here is the relevant passage I have taken from the archive of The Spectator:
But this is at least one notch above Jeff Nuttall, whose Snipe’s Spinster must have turned yellow with age even as it was being written. Its first paragraph contains all of the detritus of a false culture: -Happenings, lightshows, electronic music, ’68 and ’69 busking and talking to local anarchist youth groups up and down the land. Edinburgh in 1970 for the Festival … The closure of the Arts Lab.” And the closure of everything else as well — life, imagination and intelligence being merely the first qualities to spring to mind. There are so many old-timers in the book saying “Man” and “motherfucker” that I would have sworn that the book was written by a faded and ageing hipster, but the photograph on the dust-jacket shows Mr Nuttall to be a rather ordinary, middle-aged man wearing a cheeky hat.
The novel would be a cute find for lovers of nostalgia, if only Mr Nuttall were an intelligent or an interesting writer. But the mindless recital of cheap values leads to tackiness — “The wayward and magical formulations described by real proletarian culture. Bob Dylan, who knew at that time just exactly what was ‘blowing in the wind’ . . .” and to a stale and derivative prose—”The anguish of despair became the vision of possibility.” When a writer is duped by commercial values and fashionable trends — there is a great deal in this book about something known as a ‘protest march’ — his imagination will seize up and his writing will atrophy. Snipe’s Spinster is a worthless and self-indulgent book, which might conceivably be helped by the occasional misprint but which can only be harmed by a blurb so foolish (“We feel this is an important book . . . for the possibilities it opens for the novel . . . Jeff Nuttall has given the novel a whole new voice to work with”) that I am forced to doubt if there is anyone left at Calder and Boyars who can read or write. But, then, trendiness has always been a fickle companion.
“A rather ordinary man wearing a cheeky hat”… there are worse things you can be called than that. Ackroyd’s sneering at STOLD was off-target – the substance was “we’ve seen this sort of thing before” – but you haven’t, and you won’t, because it was meant to be the start of a larger work that wasn’t finished, and didn’t get a round of editing either. Johnson never pretended to absolute novelty and there is no secrecy about the similarities between his other novels and earlier writers. So there’s not much reason to think Peter was playing Jeff fairly either.
What’s interesting about Jeff Nuttall? He was part of the bigger story of the 60s counterculture and alternative writers, though I don’t find that story so interesting as the detail of his struggle to produce DIY publications and productions back in the days when the channels available were extremely limited: not just printing, but also publicising, and getting the wider world aware of it at a time when TV “culture” programming was very limited and very selective. Then there are his observations of the world he was part of, both the creative worlds and the wider world of cheap popular culture he was standing aside from, expressed in Common Factors/Vulgar Factions and some of the novels. The latter overlaps with his evolving views and the final statements he made near the end of his life in Art And The Degradation Of Awareness, but the story isn’t the usual boring one of young-radical-becomes-old-reactionary. Although there is a lot of anger at how things have turned out, what has changed in Jeff is simply a clarification of what was important all along, and the anxious topicality that Ackroyd was quick to perceive wasn’t really what mattered. Or so it seems to me. If you need anxious topicality, you could also say Jeff was an early victim of “cancel culture” before it was named, getting in trouble with feminists in the 70s and 80s.
I haven’t read any of his poetry and there’s very little in the way of footage of his performances so I can’t say much about those. I don’t think he is so very important in the story of “experimental fiction” simply because fiction wasn’t his bag, as he would say. He was trained as a visual artist and was also a jazz musician, and those are 2 more important aspects of his outlook than any views of what The Novel should be, if he had any. The best way in to this area is through the door Peter Ackroyd opened: a comparison with B.S.Johnson. We could start with the book that brought them together: All Bull, the collection of National Service memoirs, published in 1973.
Johnson’s long Introduction sets out his project in the collection:
The perspective of ten years is a good one from which to look back on eighteen years of conscription in peacetime; not sufficient for the distortion caused by real nostalgia, short enough for incidents to be remembered with a reasonable degree of sharpness, yet time for its effects to have begun to be noticed and isolated.
Here’s the characteristic Johnsonian concern for truth, and how it can be lost when put into established forms and moulded to convenient narratives. The idea that there is an authentic testimony to be made, perhaps obliquely, remains once the warnings and caveats have been given. Our editor also represents for us something he could not have appreciated, a sense of the different values and priorities between readers in the 21st century, and the 70s and the 50s he was writing about. “The systematic brutalising of men in basic training had to drive them to the limits, of course; and those limits could only be defined by the number of conscripts who, rather than continue with it, were driven to commit suicide…. too many conscripts have tales of them, even of the rest of the billet being given forty-eight hour leave passes ‘to get over it’ as a result.” But Johnson wraps up this topic in one paragraph and doubts that even if the MoD bothered to keep statistics they would be much different from those for young people in “any comparable institution”.
For Johnson, being called-up was a breach in his expectations for his life, as he was rejected after his medical. “[W]hen I was discharged so peremptorily from the RAF it had a profoundly disturbing effect on my life: the pattern I had expected had been radically disrupted, I now had to decide for myself what to do with those two years”. For Nuttall, he passed the medical and it was all to be part of a pattern he was set on. He had come out of 5 years at Art Schools, got married, and then set off to get his 2 year stint done before settling down to a steady career in education.
It was an urbane life being a student in the early fifties. No protest. No drugs. You could buy all the amphetamines over the counter but we didn’t bother. We could not afford to drink much. We read and talked and drank gallons of coffee and tea and then read and talked some more. We were all wretchedly in love.
…[W]hen I walked across Russell Square to the Army Medical Centre that warm mellow spring I walked into a curious archaic dream. It was like meeting an eccentric old man. It was all unreal and quaint and funny… Very few of us were able to take it seriously. So the commanding officer spent his days , seemingly, in a series of enraged confrontations with supercilious students. I was far too naïve at the time to see that this was a fine extension of the class war. I was a callow, introspective, vain, ambitious, obsessive little sod… My paintings were doing well. I had a show. I used to go, at the invitation of one of my patrons, to the Savile Club. Sitting drinking at the expense of a lot of charming and famous old queers, I was not a little surprised by their disgust at my diffidence about the Army: if I felt so bloody clever about the Army why didn’t I plead conscientious objector? Either I believed in it or I didn’t. What was I playing at?
We don’t have an exact date when Nuttall wrote this, but he would have certainly have been aware of US draft evasion during the Vietnam War. Current events will have amplified the memories of this challenge to his youthful “diffidence”, and the moral problem of the artist who sees himself above the system he operates within. This is sharpened when we encounter the reality of the Army Game at Catterick.
[I]t was all still funny… Then, about the third day, a little Scottish boy was late on parade… The sergeant exploded. It was no longer a voice guying itself, larded with all the old sergeant-major witticisms. It was a voice of purposeful violence. The boy was frogmarched off the square and we all stood rigid for fifteen minutes, shaken, waiting for the sergeant’s return. He came back alone.
That afternoon we saw the Scottish lad on his hands and knees clipping the mangy grass between the billets with two armed guards standing by. His face was swollen and his head was shaven and the Army wasn’t funny, suddenly.
The next day I got a letter from my wife. She had enclosed ten bob. I sat on the edge of my bed and started to cry. The other lads in the billet started to gawp. They were mostly slum lads from Glasgow, Liverpool and Dublin. Tears were taboo to them.
‘’E’s fuckin’ cryin’.’
‘Fuck me, ey, come and look ‘ere. ‘E’s fuckin’ cryin’.’
They were delighted and amazed. They gathered round chortling. One of them ruined the layout of his bed by collapsing with laughter. And quickly the Army became funny again, a different sort of funny, very very funny. Mad. Violent. Tragic. Hilarious. They saw my sobs had turned to giggles. Somebody said, ‘You’re fuckin’ puddled, you’, and I, I had become a different person. Quite different. For ever.
A different person from the callow, supercilious, diffident art student who treated the bad things of the world as objects of amused detachment. Instead, an awareness that tenderness can seem harmless and amusing in a world where the beatings in the barrack room had to be accepted without comment. Avoiding the trap of becoming like “the milky-faced, ex-LSE NS officer whose communist integrity lasted about six weeks in the officers’ mess” whilst staying apart from the values of the other Sergeants.
The Army changed me immeasurably. I got to know the urban working-class intimately by being forced to live with them. They shattered my middle-class fastidiousness and the intolerance that goes with it. I became capable of extreme callousness.
I acquired a will-power and with it the knowledge that there is very little a determined man cannot do, the belief that there is nothing a determined man cannot do. I learned that energy and ability will stretch much further than idleness and fear normally allow it to.
Most of all, I learned that life is a desperate, terrible, magnificent joke. You can distinguish ex-National Servicemen by this sense…. Mad, ironic, left-wing male chauvinist pigs.
The distinction drawn between knowledge and belief in the second paragraph shows he had not lost the intellectual concern for fine detail, and with it he can see the difference between very little and nothing. I’ve quoted a lot from this essay because it’s harder to get hold of, but says a lot more than some of his longer works. The closing section situates him perfectly:
In my room on the top floor of the mess I could watch thunderstorms advancing right across the county. I used to sit in an open window with a crate of beer and my clothes drenched, roaring with delight at every flash of lightning. I painted a lot and my painting registered the changes in myself. All the mystery went out of it, all the subtlety, and a kind of brutal exultant quality came in. My vision has since then has oscillated between that brutalism and the subtle mysticism returning.
The other sergeants used to invade my room every so often to stand perplexed and sceptical before ‘Schoolie’s mad fuckin’ pictures’. When I was demobbed they bought me ten quid’s worth of paint as a farewell present. It was very difficult making a speech afterwards. There they were, the drunken brutalised old fascists and there I was, more deeply moved than ever in my life.
His Army years are almost completely omitted from the book that gave Nuttall his greatest success, Bomb Culture (1968). The real subject of the text is the subject himself: Jeff and his view from above the mess, watching the lightning and creating his own art in response. The potted histories of jazz, youth culture and the 20th century avant-garde are variously tendentious or irrelevant to the thematic core, which is simply about the experience of being a contender who feels the time is now but his own time may have already passed.
I explained my position. I agreed that there was common ground – we all wanted to wake people up. We agreed on an exhibition, an environment exhibition. We agreed to pool ideas in a book which we could show around. We planned the exhibition for the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields where several pacifist events had taken place and we made a date to meet there. Then we went and got drunk – one of those too quick adolescent piss-ups. The schoolboys got hysterical and rolled on the floor. I got avuncular and giggly. Criton sat cold sober with his grin correctly fixed in place across his face. Rocking sickly on the bus home I felt some nightmare naivety pinning me down in adolescence. Condemned for life to play and plan with kids while manhood remained somewhere out there to the eternal north, unattainable even by the hardest pessimism.
The context of this meeting with pacifists and artists is to find a way forward after the apparent failure of the initial surge of the CND movement. Modern readers may wonder why anyone would hope for an “environment exhibition” to have an impact that could “wake people up” when mass marches and pronouncements from great cultural figures had already failed. But that would be judging by the standards of our news media – in those days a controversial art show could be expected to make an impression (and the Sensation exhibition made headlines and drew angry responses 40 years later). The relevance of the avant-garde is presumably more in the effect that shows by Picasso and Epstein had when they first unveiled shocking works.
What did Nuttall mean by “Bomb Culture”? It seems that even at the time readers were invited to take “Bomb” in two senses: “the Bomb” as the menace to the world since 1945, and “bomb” as a verb, as part of an imperative to destroy the culture surrounding and deformed by the presence of this device.
But what was the change that was introduced in to the world in August 1945? The mechanized mass destruction of civilians was part of World War Two from its first day; plenty of towns and villages were levelled by artillery in earlier conflicts. The Avro Lancaster appears in commemorative flypasts with the Spitfires, but only one of them was used to defend British cities, the other was mainly for burning German ones. I think the importance of The Dambusters in British culture is that gives a traditional story about the ingenuity of Barnes Wallis the harmless old inventor (who spent a lot of time thinking about ways to blow things up, but never mind), and the heroism of the pilots on their special mission, and the cleverness in targeting the raid against an inanimate economic target rather than a residential district. Nobody wants a film about the hundreds of flights that flattened sections of Hamburg or Berlin, but they were the main business of the Lancaster, not the Ruhr dams.
The new thing that the bomb brings is that it makes War From The Air exactly what it was feared to become from the first Zeppelin raids on London: instant and devastating and unstoppable. It does the job too effectively, achieving in one shot all those mass raids that the defenders could strike back at. Added to the other great innovations of 1944 – jet engines and ballistic missiles – the new danger was that the complete breakdown could be inflicted remotely at low risk, maybe not even any human flyers involved at all. A new horror wasn’t invented in 1945, but one that seemed containable or comprehensible up until then finally achieved the full potential advertised for it.
The Bomb symbolised for Nuttall the sense of dislocation and acceleration that were the characteristic of life at the time. All institutions are temporary, they could be disintegrated at any time. But what gives the sense of that instability? Two things: firstly, the expansion of the visual media and communication in general, revealing the reality of the blasting and bombing and the menaces all around fragile lives. Secondly it was because the post-war generation have seen behind the curtain, they knew too much about how this world works and the men in charge of it. Being put through the process of National Service and being classed and graded on the conveyors taking human objects in to assigned occupations showed what their lives were worth to society and how good it was at assessing them.
An anti-gestalt became prevalent amongst young people, an instinct to leave nothing complete, to half-close doors, to half-finish letters, to do three-quarters of the washing up, to leave the cinema partway through the film, for an act completed is an identity established, and an identity is a relationship to be acknowledged, and no identity outside ourselves and our implicit instincts was to be trusted. Who cares to finish the building when all the ground is quicksand. Work may sometimes pass the time – no more.
Or maybe they just had too much pocket money. Nuttall was far too keen on flimsy theories of collective consciousness, which don’t have much to offer than their brief fashionability. His understanding of William Burroughs takes it from the man himself that his works should be understood as attempts to create a breach in individual rational thought to allow the entry of the cosmic mind that perceives the order in apparent chaos. But then wouldn’t the absolute rupture of nuclear destruction be the highest moment of universal mind? I don’t think these ideas meant more to Nuttall than simply topics to chatter about in the company of the great men of the movement… who turn out to be less than luminous in practice.
In the morning Alex overdosed. I began to get the pattern of his habit. It was, basically, a kind of worrying towards self-perfection. Thus he had lasted longer than most. He came down to the meeting late. By the time he sat down Ronnie, Joe and Beba had gone off on the piss again. Another pattern. These people dreaded meeting one another. Deeply they dreaded it.
All the busy nothingness of meetings and conferences and conventions and at the heart of it a paranoid clique. For a different, younger view of the matter, see the Oz magazine editor Richard Neville’s passing reference near the start of Playpower:
In Bomb Culture Jeff Nuttall compassionately, if inaccurately, chronicles the rise and fall of British Conscientious Objection, with its beery, bearded, Jelly Roll Morton atmosphere; where characters lurch about ‘ill with anxiety about the bomb’, dizzily establishing Golders Green Committees for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons. Looking back on the battling Mods and Rockers of the early sixties (‘every London hospital was crowded to overflowing with motor cycle casualties’) Nuttall is convinced that the violence of this essentially hedonistic lifestyle was the consequence of living with the prospect of a nuclear holocaust.
The poets blamed the Bomb, but people don’t care about dying if the whole world’s going to die with them. Duffle coats and CND badges symbolised a new generational identity. For the young, being sad about the Bomb was fun.
The best of the theoretical side of Bomb Culture is the chapter on “sick humour”. He connects this with the earlier humour of the Western Front, and of course this resonates with him as he has been in that culture in his old Army barracks – but Nuttall doesn’t mention that here, as he wants to mix with a younger crowd who don’t share that experience and will only question why he took part in it.
How were we to live with the thought of that horror so clearly in our minds, whilst knowing that our indignation had proved impotent? Obviously an affectlessness had to be cultivated. Morality, pain and compassion, the whole business of identifying with other people and thus sharing and helping their discomfiture, had to be dissolved in humour, as it had been dissolved by the soldiers at Ypres blithely bawling ‘Where’s Tommy Atkins? ‘Angin’ on the wire. ‘Angin’ on the wire…’ Our means of doing this was the sick joke.
Lenny Bruce is the grandmaster, “a sexually obsessed cabaret comedian with the diabolic charm, the improvisatory genius, the perfect delivery and the heroin habit of an archetypal hipster”. But he gets put in a list of other singular geniuses culminating in Burroughs. These men may have access to a cosmic mind, but their work is trademarked to specific individuals. I think that’s as seriously as Nuttall took the idea.
As the 60s came to an end, there was no alternative but the 70s. Now we’re halfway: back where we started.
As novelists, the crucial difference between Nuttall and Johnson is that the former was also a visual artist and musician. The House Party and several of the shorter works that had limited print runs mix his cartooning style with the text, which is fragmentary and not in any sort of dialogue with form. Johnson played with the arrangement of letters on the page (the “breast cancer” section in See The Old Lady Decently) and putting holes in the page, but the words were paramount. Johnson’s theoretical problems were immersed in the paradoxes of language-as-picturing and how this notion could ever be cashed out, a topic central to a lot of modern philosophy he probably hadn’t read or heard about. Nuttall is not in those debates at all. Music is not sound recordings and paintings are not photographs, they are worlds that the artist has made as they are, and any connections with the world we inhabit are suggestions to be discussed, not one-to-one relationships of elements in each domain.
In the Introduction to The House Party he tells us that “the early seventies saw a wind-down of a period of incredibly dense change and development in art” – a time in which aspiring innovators like himself began to feel left out in the cold. A chill wind that was blowing through that review by Peter Ackroyd. He names Finnegans Wake along with Picasso’s Guernica and Schoenberg’s Moses Und Aaron as “a monument past which subsequent innovators have failed to go”. So he has no interest at all in the question of whether “experimental fiction” can revivify the conventional fiction market – it’s not a concern at all. Nevertheless, one of these novels did get published by a comparatively mainstream press.
My work has always been preoccupied with the visionary potential of sexual hysteria. Certain poems in Songs Sacred And Secular are clear statements of a determination to find beauty and transcendence (not to mention art, and form, a new language, and humour) in the areas of experience from which one most readily recoils – particularly those of bodily nausea and sexual pain (not the sadistic kind – the moral kind). The burden of The House Party is stated fairly clearly in the final paragraphs. It is, I suppose, a perverse and aggressive form of pantheism, the worshipful adherence to a painful situation in the belief that such a situation is likely to be more illuminatory, and fulfilling, than the mere pursuit of happiness.
The mere pursuit of happiness should not take anyone in to the pages of The House Party or The Gold Hole, which are both thoroughly unpleasant works and the hesitant tone in which Nuttall theorises about them suggests he hasn’t convinced himself. Perhaps these works were an occupational therapy to deal with a painful situation in his own life. The House Party is a chaotic rampage around some decrepit British post-Imperial establishment stereotypes having an orgy, with even the characters getting no joy from it. The Gold Hole is a very nasty business about a child-killer who may or may not be a red-haired stranger known to a couple who are making themselves miserable in south London. Not included in the Omnibus is the rather better What Happened To Jackson, which has a sketchy plot about outwardly-respectable office workers being secretly involved as both producers and consumers of amateur porn films in Leeds. It’s a grim saga of exploitative relationships but at least it’s over much quicker.
Snipe’s Spinster does indeed look back on the passing-away world of the late 60s from 1971. Opening at random reveals this typical line:
”What buggered the revolution of ’68 then? They started talking and they started to bicker and they finished up playing that old Trots and Commies game whereby you waste so much venom on your own nearest cousins you’ve got none left for the pigs.”
Snipe is pretty much Nuttall himself, and his “spinster” is an inner demon of caution, as shown on the cartoonish cover design, advising hesitation and withdrawal. The counterculture by now is falling apart with sell-outs moving on to mainstream careers or declining into drink and drugs (“I don’t know why Tippet is here unless he’s going to sell the inside story to Rolling Stone under a fake name.“) All that’s left are a lot of idiots with no ideas worth listening to.
So the peaceniks became flower children and the flower children became hippies and the hippies scorned all book knowledge and all individual invention. I recall the empty-faced man who told me that all people getting up alone to perform in public were fascists. Was Buster Keaton a fascist? Yes, Buster Keaton was a fascist. Was Lennie Bruce a fascist? Yes, Lennie Bruce was a fascist. Was Basil Brush a fascist. Yes, Basil Brush…
There’s some awful stuff about Snipe’s loathing for the new Women’s Lib movement. He seems to be a non-ironic left-wing male chauvinist pig, though his line is that it’s all a lot of middle-class nonsense. “Those whose husbands are truly idle, who therefore believe that the entire male population is realising itself and getting its rocks off on the shop floor at the expense of the poor raddled wives, have whispered in Lindy’s downy ear… Lindy, who lives in a council flat in Leith, should know better.”
Although there are a lot of negative appraisals of the figureheads of the late 60s, Snipe is still positive about some new developments in pop culture, although it’s all been in decline since the heights of Dylan.
”Okay. So Bowie’s permitted to say something. The kids will take art from Bowie. Why?”
”Well – it’s mebbe because he’s sae pretty while he’s at it.”
There is a flimsy plot, around Snipe’s attempt to find the location that The Man (President Nixon) will arrive at for his visit to Britain, so that some sort of incident can be staged… in his own mind, quite likely. Lou Reed and David Bowie could have made a better job of it all even when they were high.
Outside of the counterculture there was also a popular culture that filled cheap newspapers and magazines and films and TV. Nuttall took a thematic and not condescending look at aspects of it all in Common Factors/Vulgar Factions (1977), packed with photos of trash and kitsch and the ordinary punters who consumed it all.
The British are a literate people. In terms of visual perception it would not be true to say that they were undeveloped. Rather they have been overwhelmed with the printed and the written word. TV has extended the media for the dissemination of information but has failed to have any obvious effect on the buildings and houses of which our cities are composed.
This is unsentimental portrait of the nation. Skinheads and other teen gangs are in here, and the violence around football.
Four weeks ago their Manchester counterparts wrecked the shopping centre of Halifax. Last week, in a battle of flung stones and bottles in Leeds, they shattered bus windows, badly scarring respectable citizens. Paris trembles in recollection. They are the crude first flowering of a need to shatter the confining structures of class and neighbourhood without betraying class loyalty. They use the football team as the royal representatives of the community, beyond reproach and therefore granting the same licence to their armed supporters. Thus the supporters can give full vent to the frustration built up in the carefully streamed school, in the closely knit family, in the closely knit neighbourhood. They can give vent to the most outrageous violence. Release is claimed by upholding the idea of the community, thus escaping the actual community without betraying it.
There is a lot in here about 70s comedians, and the very different acts they did in the clubs and on TV (“Mike Reid can take the twitches and stutters of the brain-damaged pill-head as his stage style” – wonder if he did that on Runaround), as well the regional variations in what material was acceptable. There are also a quote of a racist routine featured on The Comedians by “a comedian who never reappeared”, delivered “spat out from a face drawn into the staring, taut, near-bilious expression a drunken man possesses just before he completely loses his temper.”
All that research was used again in Muscle (1982), another shorter work not included in the Omnibus. Here we see Nuttall making a rapprochement with feminism – it is Jeff again narrating it, although he is ventriloquising a Yorkshire club comic.
Me, Terry Bunn, a half-pickled club comic with a liver like an anchovy, standing in a window in Leeds wondering how to conduct my life without a sense of staleness, how to earn a living with my stock-in-trade dispelled. A jaundiced viewpoint’s only merit is its likely truth. If you lose that you can’t crack with conviction.
Although published in the early 80s, there are plenty of clues that this is mid 70s. Terry is 42, so we’d be in 1975 if he was the same age as Jeff, which he certainly is because we get a gag about National Service and Terry’s inner monologue notes “sort out the men from the boys, that one”. He also repeats a fair bit of Snipe’s old material about feminism, but now with more respect for the newer wave of women’s groups. The book’s epigraph is a quote from Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell.
The plot takes in all the violence around the Northern club circuit: racist beatings, and the cynical managers who turn a blind eye whilst insisting on their liberal values. Also the influence of TV money is mentioned, and Terry might have a chance to get some of it if a Comedians-style show is created… or the feminist drama group might be the novelty that is needed now. There is also some Robbe-Grillet style business about mysterious strangers turning up in different places, but that’s almost the conventional structure for a Nuttall novel. This particular fiction stands to Common Factors as Snipe’s Spinster stands to Bomb Culture.
These stories about clashes with feminists reflect problems in Nuttall’s own career. In his valedictory statement Art And The Degradation Of Awareness (2001) he tells it that he lost his academic career for being an unreconstructed old git. This is a work of great bile, but there is a special artistry to it as Nuttall runs a great risk of voiding all the positions achieved earlier in his career when condemning them in the world that moved around him.
First of all there is his contempt for “the rock’n’roll dome”, the trashy culture that emerged out of rock music with its depthless obsession with instant sensation and rejection of formal discipline.
The inevitability of the marketable, star-maudit embodied by Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love and Richie Edwards [sic] with his hacked up arms displayed to the NME could be avoided if the star realised that a bit of musical training would be far more subversive as Mammon certainly knows and fears.
But wasn’t the power and promise of jazz supposed to lie in the breach of formal structures, spontaneity, and libidinal release? Sid Vicious was “enacting an imposed market role whilst believing himself to be a class warrior” – I’m not sure he did, but I don’t find his life and words any less compelling than the creatures scuttling in the pages of The Gold Hole, who I am supposed to get some transcendence from. “The delusion of genius in entertainers of modest talents and skills” is one of the evils he identifies in pop culture after 1970, but there were plenty of people identifying it previously, who weren’t concerned to be part of the movement.
Charles Saatchi, the Young British Artists, and various 80s luminaries who have faded now, as well as a big list of pop and rock stars come in for a hammering in these pages. Green Gartside of Scritti Politti is remembered as a terrible arts student in the 70s who went off to write an article for International Times about what was wrong with a department where he never attempted to flourish. Just one example of the ungrateful younger generations of an ungrateful culture that doesn’t care for art and artists anymore. There is just as much contempt for the professional critics with “total bankruptcy in areas of aesthetic perception” and “a kind of teeny-bopper trivialisation of creative brilliance”. The “vengeful disdain” for the artist – the real artist, making difficult, unfashionable work – is the real poison.
No-one need feel anymore that something is going on that they don’t understand and about which they were not consulted. This change is readily embraced because it fits in with society’s vengeful rejection of the egghead and capitalism’s claim to ethical credibility on egalitarian grounds.
What remained constant was fidelity to the image of the individual artist, with their own authentic vision – if they are sourcing it from a cosmic consciousness, they still give it their own mark. Being strange and difficult, and not simply looking to marketing data, is the defining stance.
Of course leaving academia set Nuttall free to do more rewarding work, such as bit-part acting roles. He was in a Bond film, and in the early 90s he turned up in the BBC version of A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell), as the old antique dealer George Evan of Hadbury Antiques.
The Rock’N’Roll Dome has struggled over the years to pose a challenge to real power, but it couldn’t even stop The Man taking its song about the Bomb Culture generation. He’s going out of power now anyway.
8 thoughts on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”
2 years later a biography of Nuttall has been published. Interesting mix of Amazon reviews, including both 5-star and 1-star: