Islwyn Watkins Interviewed by David Moore

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Recollections of Jeff Nuttall, Bob Cobbing, My Own Mag, Writers’ Forum, Group H & STigma in early 1960s London

by David Moore

DM: Please would you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to meet Jeff Nuttall?

IW: I was born and educated in south Wales and, in September 1959, moved to High Barnet, then in Hertfordshire, to live and teach. Within a few days of moving there, hearing some rather beautiful jazz coming from the upstairs room of The Rising Sun, a local pub, I found my way to the room where a small jazz group was rehearsing. I was observed by an individual — who I began to talk to — and discovered that his name was Jeff Nuttall. We found that we not only had an interest in jazz but also that Jeff was a painter. That, within a few days of moving to Barnet, was my first contact with Jeff, a contact which grew and flourished over the years.

DM: You had gone to teach…

IW: Yes. I was teaching in a secondary school.

DM: Which school was that?

IW: It was called Ravenscroft School and it was one of the flagship schools of Hertfordshire — the hundredth school after the war or something like that — and it turned out that Jeff was actually teaching art in a school in Finchley, a few miles away. (Jeff Nuttall and Bob Cobbing taught at Alder School, East Finchley. — DM)

DM: You were, of course, teaching art yourself?

IW: I was teaching art myself, yes. So, from that chance meeting Jeff and I became quite close and we were both, I suppose one would say, anti-establishment — Jeff, perhaps, more than me. We worked in different idioms. Jeff worked in a figurative idiom — ‘out of surrealism-cum-expressionism-cum-whatever’ — whereas I was a fairly middle-of-the-road abstract painter at the time — but we hit it off pretty well. As time went by I made the acquaintance of Bob Cobbing who taught in the same school as Jeff. Bob had run for a number of years an organisation called Arts Together in north London and that comprised: Group H, which was, if you like, the visual and plastic arts side; Writers’ Forum, which was already involved in what these days we call ‘desktop publishing’ using comparatively simple technology; and there was also, I think, The London Film Coop where Bob did rather interesting experimental films and projected films by other people. This was in the early Sixties, which would have been the start of the underground movement internationally, really, and, I think, Bob was one of the founders of this, certainly in this country.

DM: What were your first impressions of Bob Cobbing?

IW: Rather a strong personality with a good beard and a very resonant voice and interested, as I’ve said, in a very wide range of things which, at the time, were somewhat alien to me, such as his visual poems and, later on, his sound poems which have now begun to appreciate to a great degree. But, certainly, with Jeff and Bob working together in the same school some quite interesting things were happening both within the school, either the art work or the writing that the children in the school were doing, and also, I think, some publishing. The school magazines were the difference.

DM: Did you visit them in their school?

IW: No, I didn’t visit the school for various reasons but it’s through Bob coming to Jeff’s — or we would meet in Finchley at Bob’s then home — that I got to know what they were doing and it was about this time, early Sixties, that Jeff, one day, produced his first issue of My Own Mag. Very simple issue. I think four sheets printed only one side of the page and stapled together. ‘My Own Mag a Super Absorbent Periodical Produced by Homo Sap Inc, 37 Salisbury Road…’ (which, in fact, was Jeff’s home). Jeff wouldn’t have had a duplicator, Roneo or Gestetner at home so he might have been producing the stencils at home and drawing and typing on the stencils but then printing them in, I presume, the school premises and, certainly, this is what he did later on when he was teaching some years later at the same school as I was.

DM: With the full approval of the school authorities?

IW: Well, he was using a very small amount of ink and I don’t think they worried. He probably replaced that himself. I’m not sure whether ‘full approval’ would be the correct expression but he certainly carried on doing it at Finchley and then, about 1963 / 64 — certainly by ’64 — he was teaching with me in Barnet and, at that time, he was using the Gestetner duplicator which the school secretary had to relinquish and all the duplicating went on in the art room with Jeff.

DM: When he showed you this first edition what did he say? Did you sense that he was rather pleased with it?

IW: Yes, I think he was because the one thing it wasn’t was tasteful and, if we say anything about Jeff, the whole of Jeff’s work could never be described as ‘tasteful’. I can vouch for that because, at a later period, three or four years later, I tried to produce a piece of artwork — a relief assemblage — in the style of Jeff Nuttall and whatever I did, whatever terrible colours I used, what terrible paints I used — like Woolworth’s gloss paint — everything I did in this piece turned out tasteful. Whereas Jeff could take the most tasteful material and produce something that was the opposite.

DM: Were you surprised when he produced this?

IW: No, I don’t think I was because I knew that he wrote and I had read one or two manuscript novels that he had written at an earlier date before he came to live in Barnet so I knew his literary side and poetic side was there and his method of production, as I say, really enabled him to fly in the face of commercial, tasteful products.

DM: I gather he wrote Mr Watkins Got Drunk & Had to be Carried Home?

IW: Yes.

DM: Was that before then or did it come later?

IW: That was published about 1964, I think. It all came about — and quite a lot of later issues of My Own Mag — through his contact with William Burroughs, the American writer who used a technique called ‘cut-up’ to produce his texts and, certainly, this was the idea behind Mr Watkins Got Drunk & Had to be Carried Home. The context of that was Jeff and his wife Jane decided to hold a party at their house in Salisbury Road and invited a range of people — Group H members, Writers’ Forum members and other people — to attend the party but they had to bring with them a text which described the party and what went on in the party so that it was a forecast of what happened. As well as this he tape-recorded the actual party and the idea was that all these accounts would be cut up and reassembled to produce an analogy to the party but not a logical description of it. As well as taking my forecast of the events of the party along to the house that night I took with me four or five accounts written by pupils I was involved with at the time in school who were remedial education pupils and they, in fact, wrote accounts of the party featuring, of course, me, and one of those accounts was Mr Watkins Got Drunk & Had to be Carried Home. It didn’t actually happen.

DM: It didn’t?

IW: No, I walked home and, if I got drunk, it wasn’t very very very drunk, so the children would have been rather disappointed, but, eventually, after a lot of work by Jeff, who had called himself, I think, ‘the scissor man’ for that publication, it was actually produced and published by Writers’ Forum.

DM: My understanding is that Jeff sent a copy of the first My Own Mag to William Burroughs and that he became involved from then on. Is that what you understood?

IW: Well, certainly by what appears to be Issue Three, I think, William Burroughs features on the cover — My Own Mag ‘Moving with the Times Special Tangier Edition’. Well, of course, William Burroughs was in Tangier, probably at that time, and it mentions William Burroughs. May have been Issue Four… Looking at the price, because Jeff produced these very cheaply on duplicating paper, Issue One was a penny. Issue Two would have been a penny. Issue Three was a penny but the William Burroughs Issue was certainly four-pence-halfpenny because, obviously, the cost of buying reams of duplicating paper must have meant that he had to put the price up but, I would say, that it is something like Issue Four that William Burroughs was first involved himself and there are, later on, letters from William Burroughs that are published in the magazine.

DM: Did you meet William Burroughs?

IW: No, I didn’t, no. In a way, although, on one level, I was quite closely involved with Jeff, he did have a social cultural life which meant that he spent a lot of time in London proper and met all sorts of people who were just names to me, but he had a terrific circle of friends and acquaintances, a lot of whom, in fact, contributed to My Own Mag. I think the initial My Own Mags were Jeff’s own work but, later on, he had contributions from all sorts of people.

DM: Did you know any of the other contributors?

IW: Some I knew, some I didn’t, and in this one here, which is still one penny, we have: Anselm Hollo, who I think was quite well-known; Ray Gosling, who still broadcasts on BBC; Keith Musgrove I knew. So there were a few in that one that I knew quite well. Keith Musgrove was part of the whole thing for quite a long time.

DM: And you contributed yourself?

IW: I contributed to a few of them. I think two, maybe three of the Mags. The last one I contributed to was when I was in the States in ’65 / ’66 and, I think, two or three Mags were published while I was in the States and, I think, the last one just after I got back and Jeff sent me copies in the States which is why I managed to get a copy of every issue.

DM: How were you approached to write for it?

IW: Um, I think it very informally. It just happened. Because I did the occasional bit of poetry which I took along to one of the Writers’ Forum poetry evenings which were held at Bob Cobbing’s but there were so many high-powered poets there that I felt reluctant to read in front of them but then some things that I wrote very much on the kind of cut-up principle, I suspect, were found in some of My Own Mags and, at that time, I was very interested in the idea of ‘found’ poetry. Nothing I wrote or invented myself but things I would find written on walls or whatever. One of these, which is, in fact, published in Mr Watkins Got Drunk & Had to be Carried Home, if I remember rightly, is a very simple poem which goes: ‘Bedded in Betws, brecwast in Bangor and a naked Bowen’s red-tipped breasts in Bethesda’. Now, ‘the naked Bowen’s red-tipped breasts in Bethesda’ was a graffiti I found on a toilet wall in Bethesda, wonderfully rich in image. Far better than I could have invented. So I just added the ‘bedded’ and ‘Brecwast’ and then ‘in Bethesda’ at the end and so, because of that, I was producing things that, I suppose, it just became natural that they went into My Own Mag at some time.

DM: As the magazine progressed can you remember whether it took up quite a bit of Jeff’s time?

IW: Yes, but, then, Jeff always seemed to be working one way or another. He might have been drinking a pint of beer in a pub but he would have either been working in terms of discussing with people things that mattered like nuclear disarmament or the anti-apartheid movement. All of these things worked together at that time and we were all part of it. Some people involved were artists and others weren’t. One of the people, in fact, who marched with us on marches and used to baby-sit for Jeff and his wife is now a very respectable MP in Parliament — a Labour MP, I must say. So, you know, all sorts of people came our way.

DM: How do you feel that My Own Mag relates to Jeff’s wider creative work?

IW: I think, stylistically, it relates very closely. The graphics, the imagery, that he uses — both the verbal but also the drawn — relates very much to his work in the field of sculpture and painting. It’s very much part of the same person and the throwaway nature of My Own Mag — i.e. printed on duplicating paper, sometimes, like the one I’m holding at the moment, the front page has been burnt, charred at the bottom. Another one will be torn. One would be cut-up. There is one which looks as though someone has urinated over it. I hope he hasn’t, but maybe…

But all of these things are ephemeral and his work at the time, his sculpture work, was very ephemeral. One of the things I much regret is that, in exhibitions we had — and, through Bob Cobbing, Group H showed very often in the libraries in north Finchley and east Finchley — his work would go into a Group H exhibition and it would be priced at ‘two thousand five hundred pounds’ or ‘ten shillings’. At the time I was living in a series of bed-sitters and works that he produced — and which are no longer with us because of their ephemeral nature — if I had the space I would have bought. I would have had to pay the ten shillings not the two thousand pounds — but I would have bought them and stored them and, I think, they would have been, today, very important evidence of what he was doing.

DM: In many ways it’s amazing that these magazines have survived at all.

IW: Yes, but, of course, how many have survived? I was lucky to be working close to Jeff in the first half of the Sixties. I had a copy of every one and realised their importance because, I think, they were amongst the first underground publications. ‘Desktop publishing’, in those days, was not normal. You printed off things in school programmes for events in school and things like that. But how many people were producing cyclostyled, mimeographed, duplicated — literary works? Bob Cobbing had been doing that. Very often the material he produced, if it was in the form of a booklet, would, in fact, have been done by lithography by a commercial printer, but, to actually work, if you like, on your own desk producing this stuff I think was a very important part of publishing for the underground. By the late Sixties, early Seventies, of course, everybody had access to photolithography and so magazines which, I suppose, were underground magazines, like Oz, the Richard Neville one, that was produced by the offset process. You could do wonderful things — psychedelic kind of colour changes and so on — with it which, of course, you couldn’t do on the old Roneo or Gestetner. But I still think these were important and, of course, I saved them but how many of these went out to people and were thrown away?

DM: Do you know how many were produced in the first place?

IW: No. It would be very difficult to say. Paper came in reams of five hundred. I doubt if he would have produced five hundred of any one copy. I presume a hundred or so would have been a maximum and they would be sent out to friends, so, I suppose, sold to acquaintances. I don’t know. I don’t think I ever paid for any of mine.

DM: I believe some of them were sold in Better Books?

IW: Well, that is quite likely because Bob Cobbing by 1963, maybe by ’62, was managing the paperback bookshop of Better Books in Charing Cross Road and he sold there a lot of underground material, anti-establishment material. But, of course, Better Books, at that time, also became the focus for a number of other things because, in 1964, Jeff, together with Bruce Lacey, John Latham, David Trace, I think Keith Musgrove, a Greek architect who also contributed to My Own Mag called Criton Tomazos and myself collaborated on an installation in the basement of Better Books. This was called STigma.

DM: This is illustrated in My Own Mag.

IW: I think it is in one of the later issues, yes. This happened before I went to the States in ’65. So it may have been early ’65 and this consisted of a rather harrowing, I suppose, ‘conception, birth, life, death’ labyrinth in the basement of Better Books.

DM: Was Jeff Nuttall the kind of lead figure in all this?

IW: Yes. Whilst he was talking at that time with people like William Burroughs, he was also talking with Alexander Trocchi, and he, in fact, published, I think, a magazine called Sigma and I think the STigma came out of that title. Now the concept began in discussions through the Group H, really. Criton Tomazos, being an architect, had come up with a concept for a very large — perhaps an outdoor — structure, which would have been, sixty, eighty foot high or more, but the same labyrinthine quality to it. I think the meetings we had at this time — informal meetings — eventually, through Bob, materialised in the STigma production in Better Books.

DM: There was quite a lot of interest, wasn’t there, in this? Wasn’t there a BBC broadcast?

IW: Yes. Somewhere in my archive I have a tape off-air. A reel-to-reel tape in which a broadcaster went through the STigma environment, installation, and, totally unflappable, described his experiences as though he was describing the Trooping of the Colour or something like that. There was no football crowd excitement or anything like that. It was just on a very even level and quite amazing because, even though one worked on the installation, you still felt a bit shattered when you came out of it. But the interest was wide. There is a visitors’ book in one of the Jeff Nuttall archives and this includes such personalities as Mick Jagger and various actors and film stars who actually went through and experienced it but it was, I think, at the time, an event that, in terms of art history, was very very important and, in fact, at the time, although it was recorded by the BBC, it didn’t hit the establishment press in terms of its art content. It might have hit the establishment press in other terms but, of course, recently in ‘The Art of the Sixties’ it is talked about and so that period of My Own Mag, STigma, Group H, and so on, is, at last, being recognised for what it was. The first half of the Sixties was a very exciting time in north London.

DM: So you feel, very much, that these activities have been unappreciated in art historical terms?

IW: Yes — and by the Establishment. I know that Mrs Thatcher, in the early Sixties a Conservative councillor for the borough of Finchley, was not at all happy with what was going on in the libraries and, if freedom of speech and expression hadn’t been allowed and, if she had her way, it wouldn’t have been allowed, then these events wouldn’t have happened.

DM: Did she ever meet Jeff, do you think?

IW: She certainly met Bob Cobbing and, maybe, she did meet Jeff as well. There is an apocryphal story — no, it isn’t apocryphal, I think it’s quite true — that she visited one of the exhibitions in north Finchley library and Jeff had one of his ephemeral pieces of sculpture which was, basically, a rather moth-eaten umbrella, one or two other things added to it, and coated with a bitumen paint, hanging above Mrs Thatcher and she was ranting on about the ‘disgusting’ exhibition and, I’m told, that a little bit of bitumen, which hadn’t hardened, dripped off and fell into her coiffure. I wasn’t there but this is the story.

DM: There seems to be quite a bit of discussion about the order of the first eight copies of My Own Mag.The first one might have been numbered but the others weren’t. Do you have any thoughts on that?

IW: It’s very difficult. Because you’re now talking about — how many years ago? — forty years ago. I would only be tempted to order them by their complexity, the sophistication of the production process and by the price. Certainly, a penny — a ‘penny dreadful’ — was cheap at the time, wasn’t it ? But, the first issue of all, was four pages printed one side only and, later on, you had very complicated procedures. There is one copy here which uses several colours of paper — and this is one of the interesting things about Jeff. I think he found duplicating paper interesting because it is the same colour as toilet paper — pink, pale blue, you know.

DM: You think that is what appealed to him about it?

IW: Yes, because there are places where he says things like ‘a super-absorbent periodical’ and ‘soft to the touch’ which is, of course, pure Andrex / Kleenex advertising — ‘soft, luscious’. But in the copy here he is using about four or five different colours of paper and, in fact, production is complicated because only one sheet is a whole sheet — or two sheets which are the back sheets of the production. The rest of it is cut up into small sections so you’ve got three leaves at the front, three leaves to the right; one, two, three, four, what’s that, that’s twelve, twenty-four small sheets of paper stapled to the main thing. So it is very complicated. But, again, it is used with the cut-up idea because you can read from one to the other so that’s the William Burroughs thing. This issue features Ray Gosling again, B.S. Johnson, another name from the Sixties, Anselm Hollo, William Burroughs and, down the bottom here, I see, Islwyn Watkins. I don’t know what I contributed yet. I’d have to go through it and see.

DM: Presumably Jeff was responsible, largely, for the look of the magazine?

IW: Oh, absolutely, totally, totally, yes, and that is why, as I say, there is one issue which looks as though it’s been urinated on and this was deliberate. As I remember, he did not urinate on it. He used a watercolour or some mixture other than urine.

DM: Can you remember this going on?

IW: I can remember that particular one being done. Yes. I wasn’t present, perhaps, at the whole thing but I would have been around the periphery at the time because, certainly, the printing would have been done at school and, then, the assembly, probably, done at home or after school hours. Anyway, this one is ‘admission sixpence’ so that means that’s a later one and it actually says here ‘First of November 1964’ so we have a date on that one and that has John Latham as a contributor, and Allen Ginsberg, American underground poet. Let’s see who else. Probably William Borroughs again. So, you know, quite a lot of very important people contributed.

DM: You can’t remember Jeff setting fire to any of the copies?

IW: The charred ones I can’t remember. I wasn’t present when he did those but they were only partially charred rather than completely charred.

DM: They do mean, essentially, that you’ve lost a certain amount of the text. That wouldn’t have mattered?

IW: No, well, see, if you think of life — life’s like that. You don’t get everything complete. You get little bits coming in and, then, I suppose, if you really worried about it, then you would have to be creative and fill in the blanks yourself.

DM: It’s a little bit like ‘Destruction in Art’, isn’t it?

IW: Well, of course, that came when I got back from the States in ’66 and early ’67. ‘Destruction in Art’ became one of the themes that, again, was seen in exhibitions in London, again now being appreciated, and I think the first ‘Destruction in Art’ exhibition in London was held in the basement of Better Books with Bob Cobbing. By then I had left London and I was working in Birmingham full-time and I didn’t get down to a number of these exhibitions and performances. I was lucky enough to visit Bob in Better Books sometime after the ‘Destruction in Art’ symposium and exhibition and found a work by the German artist Werner Schreib who burned things as his way of producing his works of art. I found a small work of his there, signed on the back by him, which was left to rot in the basement and so I was able to collect that which, in a way, is another element that should have been destroyed but, now preserved, is a bit of a paradox.

DM: Can you think of anyone else who was so playful and imaginative in the way in which they used the text — in the case of My Own Mag it is typed text — in relation to images or as part of the whole?

IW: Not really. I talked about Oz, which was the Australian-based underground magazine — Australians in this country, Australian émigrés — that had all this wonderful technology that it used. Although even that looks rather primitive now but, because it was produced by a commercial printer, it could not have the same ‘hands-on’ feeling that this has.

DM: Jeff typed it all himself?

IW: Jeff would have done everything himself unless he used collage in one or two of them, which he did and that would have been from another source. The nearest thing to it that I know of, I think, was B.S. Johnson who contributed to these, did produce a book in the Sixties, or maybe early Seventies, where the pages were cut and you could read them in whatever order you wished and that was commercially printed. Don’t have a copy of that which is a pity, in a way, but I really can’t think of anyone that worked like this but, of course, if you think of the world, and the States, particularly at that time, there may have been other people producing material like this — but what has happened to it? Because of my position at the time, my relationship to Jeff at the time, I was able to have a complete run of these magazines.

DM: And you felt, at the time, it was important to have a set?

IW: Yes. I thought that Jeff was an important artist. We worked in a very different way although we also had concerns in common. Other people in other parts of the world might have been producing these but, of course, I don’t have the evidence. It’s unlikely that one person in the world was producing this kind of material.

DM: You were aware that, at the time, these magazines were having an impact? People were talking about them?

IW: Yes, yes. I think I said, he sent me some issues to the States and he sent not just one for me but ones I could distribute there and so they, then, had their own influence in the States. So, yes. Responses were very varied. You can imagine.

DM: And do you know people who were outraged by them?

IW: There were always people who were outraged by what Jeff did because he didn’t pull his punches. You know that yourself. Taste and decorum were foreign words to Jeff.

DM: And these are highly-prized possessions of yours now?

IW: Yes. I’m very pleased to have them. Eventually, I hope they will go into the collection of… (Tape runs out).

Interview by David Moore recorded in Brecon, Wales, 8th March 2007. Published by RealityStudio on 13 April 2007. © 2007 Islwyn Watkins & David Moore.

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