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Jeff Nuttall Obituary

Jeff Nuttall; born July 8,1933, died January 4, 2004.

When Jeff Nuttall collapsed leaving the pub where his trad jazz band had played a lunchtime residency for a decade, it was a gloriously fitting end for a man whose entire life had been a Happening. Whether it was as co-founder of influential British performance art troupe The People Show, or as the author of Bomb Culture, one of the seminal texts of its era, Nuttall was at the forefront of a very English take on counter-cultural activity.

Rather than mind-expanding psychedelic trips, his activities revolved around northern art schools and life seen through the bottom of a glass. Latterly as a poet and bit-part TV actor, including a perfectly cast Friar Tuck in Robin Hood, and in films such as The World Is Not Enough and Scandal, he married free creative expression with the basic need to earn a crust.

Pick up any book about the 1960s, and Nuttall is invariably in the thick of all the liberating chaos that ran amok in the arts labs of the day. He was there at every significant protest and event, from the 1950s CND marches to the famed 1965 Royal Albert Hall poetry reading organised by Michael Horovitz.

Born in Clitheroe, Lancashire, in 1933, Nuttall spent his teens in the village of Orcop, close to the Welsh border, where his father was the local headmaster. By the time he made his way through art schools in Hereford and Bath, his appetite for life was already made apparent by his marriage to Jane Louch, a teacher at Hereford. In their 20 years together they raised a daughter and three sons.

After National Service in the 1950s he played trumpet in Soho's Cottage Club, emulating and personifying his generation's about to be focussed restlessness epitomised by Jimmy Porter's anti-hero in John Osborne's Look Back In Anger. Yet, even while working as a secondary school art master, by the time he met sound poet Bob Cobbing in 1962, he'd moved some way from such bourgeois formalisations as the then dominant trend of Royal Court social realism. It was Cobbing who first turned him on to writing poetry, and by 1964 his teacher's salary was funding My Own Mag, in which text and image ran wild in between singing the praises of William Burroughs.

By 1966, Nuttall was contributing to the underground bible, International Times, or IT, whose first editor was Glasgow-born playwright and poet, Tom McGrath. In the same year, The People Show was born out of a desire by Nuttall for his scripts to be performed at a cobbled together event at the Notting Hill Gate Festival. Jazz composer Mike Westbrook came on board, and the group moved its activities into the Charing Cross Road basement of Better Books, then under Cobbing's management. Eventually, The People Show took up residence in the Drury Lane Arts Lab run by founder of Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, Jim Haynes.

The show and the many ad hoc groups they begat, such as The John Bull Puncture Repair Kit and The New Fol De Rols, naturally found their way to a far looser Edinburgh Fringe than the one that exists today. As he recalls in Performance Art - Memoirs, Nuttall and co moved on to Rose Street, "the red light district of Edinburgh", as part of a theatre conference. They improvised a grotesque narrative of domestic disharmony around The Abbotsford and other hostelries not always impressed by their interlopers. Other events took place in the then still hippified Traverse, still in its old Grassmarket home. One piece, Walter, upset both theatre management, which at that time included the late Nicholas Fairburn, and the critics. Anarchy wasn't to everybody's taste.

Nuttall discovered this first hand in 1968, when the publication of Bomb Culture seemed to mark the end of an era that in some parts of the world was only just igniting. The book argued living for and in the moment was the natural reaction of a generation who'd grown up in fear of nuclear war. It damned some of the times' inherent silliness. If he'd turned on, tuned in and dropped out, some suggested, he might have understood it more.

For all his leanings towards the experimental, Nuttall was by nature a social animal, and understood the power of populism, as demonstrated in King Twist, his biographical homage to northern club comic Frank Randle, a contemporary of George Formby. He also published several novels among his 40 books, also penning a study of Coxhill, The Bald Soprano.

Somewhere in the midst, Nuttall taught, first at Bradford Art School, then lecturing in Leeds before becoming head of Fine Arts at Liverpool Polytechnic, now John Moores University. Such was his standing among his peers that in 1975 Nuttall became chair of the National Poetry Society, and was the Poets Conference nominee for Poet Laureate. He spent several years with Amanda Porter, who bore him another two sons, before settling for the last 17 years with actress Jill Richards.

His Selected Poems was published at the very end of last year, and can now be viewed as an accidental swansong and taking stock of almost half a century's worth of garrulous provocation by a pivotal figure, whose artistry and social grace defined a more innocent age of poetry and jazz.

A parting counterblast aimed at the philistines intent on destroying culture came in 2001 with Art And The Degradation Of Awareness. Its expose of the capitalist commodification of contemporary art and culture had the same lacerating intention; to make things happen.

The Herald, January 19th 2004

ends

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