The beat of a different tune

Writer Iain Sinclair tells Richard Smirke why a little-known figure from Clitheroe was at the heart of 1960s counterculture

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Jeffrey Nuttall is far from a household name, but in his own idiosyncratic and cheerily rebellious way the Clitheroe-born polymath made a lasting contribution to popular culture.

Best known for his 1968 book Bomb Culture, which documented the countyerculture figures including the Beat Generation in searing, vivid detail, the prodigious writer, publisher, poet, painter, performance artist, actor, jazz pianist, teacher, critic and sculptor – who died in 2004 aged 70 – embodied the provocative DIY spirit at the heart of the post-war underground movement and every manifestation of alternative culture that has followed.

“Jeff really covered the spectrum in the sense that you can do anything and do everything.”

“People don’t really appreciate the quantity of what he did, partly because he did so many things,” says fellow beat iconoclast and cult author Iain Sinclair, who first encountered Nuttall in the 1960s giving a reading at London’s Roundhouse alongside several Liverpool poets. “He stood apart even then. His whole take was very different,” recalls the Cardiff-born poet and writer.

The two men became close friends, exchanging ideas as they forged identities and careers in the then close-knit and thriving British underground scene centred on, but not limited to, London in the mid to late 1960s.

Artefacts from the period, including copies of Nuttall’s influential self-published magazine My Own Mag, alongside other anarchic beat publications, mimeographed newspapers and manuscripts from underground luminaries such as William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are on display at Manchester’s John Rylands Library in an exhibition dedicated to Nuttall and the international avant-garde. It shines a light on one of the forgotten names of the countercultural revolution.

“Jeff was very much a mentor of that scene. He was self-sufficient. He made performance art, put out magazines. He wrote novels. He appeared in TV comedies with Lenny Henry. He really covered the spectrum in the sense that you can do anything and do everything. I don’t think those kind of huge figures exist in the same way now,” says Sinclair ahead of a Manchester Literature Festival talk about British counterculture alongside Barry Miles, editor of legendary 1960s underground newspaper International Times and whose Indica gallery and bookshop was a cornerstone of the community (it’s where John Lennon first met Yoko Ono).

One topic sure to be raised at the talk is the lasting legacy of a once radical scene that was quickly assimilated by big business, crossing over into mainstream society.

“The legacy of value for me was the idea of independence,” says Sinclair, the 73-year-old London-based writer. “That you don’t have to go through established channels. You don’t have to spend your life knocking on the doors of publishers or film companies. You can work on a local level, do your own thing and are open to voices from Europe, America and the world at large. At the time, there were many European and American poets who were in dialogue with what was going on in England and it created a very lively set-up that manifested itself through independent bookshops. There aren’t many of those left now.jrl16040142rgb

“But for a good few years all of that cooked very nicely, until really the Thatcher era began to pull the rug out from underneath and made things a lot tougher. Property values rose. It was harder to get those sort of premises. Corporate publishing got bigger and squeezed [independents] out and the whole thing gradually faded. Now if it comes back it’s in a totally different form, by way of the internet.”

Sinclair’s own counterculture awakening occurred in the early 1960s when he moved to London to study film. He subsequently enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin, where he founded his own small press and struck up a correspondence with feted American author William Burroughs. In 1967 he returned to London to document the Dialectics of Liberation Congress – a now famous gathering of forward thinking poets, radicals, intellectuals, activists and academics, including Allen Ginsberg, Julian Beck and RD Laing.

Sinclair self-published his first poetry collection (Back Garden Poems) and produced a documentary (Ah! Sunflower) and book (The Kodak Mantra Diaries) about the emergent fringe culture. His career has since encompassed a prodigious mix of experimental prose, fiction and non-fiction. Highlights include: 1975’s punk poetry collection Lud Heat; essay collection Lights Out for the Territory (1997); the prize-winning 1991 novel Downriver (a savage and satirical account of Thatcher’s Britain), and London Orbital – an evocative
600-page rumination on walking the M25 that has become a key text in the field of psychogeography. Chief among his recent works are the beat-inspired American Smoke (2013) and Ghost Milk (2011), a ferocious attack on the London 2012 Olympic Games.

“With enormous cultural enterprises like the Olympics, because of blanket coverage by the media, it seems to be a positive thing because you get individual triumphs. But in fact it has left the landscape of London with a great white elephant and enormously expensive tower blocks in place of social housing. All of the local amenities have been cleared away bit by bit. The only positive is waking people up to how this is going,” laments Sinclair, who has sporadically worked as a labourer, gardener and book dealer to fund his literary career.

It was these experiences, coupled with the liberal, establishment-challenging ethos of the 1960s counterculture movement, that shaped his own political beliefs.

“I wasn’t initially very political at all. It was just a convenient thing that I moved into a rundown part of London where there were communal houses and you were able to live fairly cheaply. As time went on and I began to understand the industrial realities because I was working loading and unloading containers out in Stratford, where the Olympic site is now, I became more politicised in my thinking.

“The situation is very bleak now. Politicians have become like game show figures. They are either clownish, self-serving or corrupt. So nobody has much faith in them. We see those political figures as simply being public relations figures for banks who have pretty much screwed everybody and got away with it, which is why someone like Jeremy Corbyn emerges and gets a following, simply because he appears to be an anti-politician.”

As for his own future, Sinclair jokingly quotes Marlene Dietrich in the 1958 film Touch of Evil, when she tells Orson Welles character: “Your future’s all used up.”

“There’s not a lot of future left for me,” he flatly states, adding that his forthcoming book, The Last London, marks the culmination of his near lifelong obsession with writing about his adopted home. “My fascination with writing about London has reached a point where I don’t think it can go any further. This is the end.”

Nevertheless, the 1960s counterculture spirit that inspired Sinclair and millions of others around the world lives on, both on a personal level and throughout contemporary fashion, music, film, art, literature, theatre, advertising and even the multi-trillion dollar technology industry.

“It definitely is still inside me. It doesn’t go away. It informs everything I do,” enthuses Sinclair. “The closer I get to it, the more I enjoy the book I’m writing at the moment. Because there comes a point where you think: ‘I don’t want to pursue the old arguments in the same old way. I want to get back to something fiercer and wilder that was there to begin with and isn’t there anymore.’ I’m trying to make sure that it re-emerges for one last burst.”

Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground is at John Rylands Library, Manchester until 5 March. Barry Miles and Iain Sinclair In Conversation is at John Rylands Library on 12 October as part of Manchester Literature Festival ( Big Issue North is proud to be media partner to the festival 

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