by Michael Bartholomew
I met Jeff Nuttall round about 1960, when I was 18 years old. I lived in north London and was a member of the Barnet branch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Jeff was also a member. He was maybe 10 years older than I was. He had a wife and family, lived in Barnet, and worked as an art teacher in a secondary modern school in Finchley, north London. When I got to know him, I often used to babysit for his four children. Eventually, I spent quite a bit of time at his house and learned a great deal from him and his wife, Jane — who had been his teacher at art school.
Jeff’s house had the front room set aside as a studio, where he produced paintings and constructions that fell into no category known to me. He had exhibitions at a couple of local galleries and public libraries but sold little.
He also played the trumpet and led various bands in and around north London.
He spent a lot of time in central London at avant-garde galleries, poetry readings, and happenings of various sorts. He was associated with a venture called ‘The Arts Lab’ and led a troupe of actors called ‘The People Show.’ At some point during the early 60s he must have met Burroughs. I do not know who got them together.
Although Jeff was deeply immersed in the avant-garde, he had his roots deep in very particular aspects of English culture. First, he loved the English countryside and the English pastoral tradition in painting. I remember him turning me on to Samuel Palmer, for instance. This love persisted throughout his life, and it’s interesting that the last paintings he was doing, before his death a few years ago, were beautiful watercolours of the countryside along the Welsh / English border, where he was living. Secondly, he loved British popular culture as it manifested itself in things like the music hall and pre-rock popular music. He never really accommodated himself to rock, even though he was at his most active during the sixties. His first and last musical love was jazz of the 30s and 40s — although he would listen and enjoy almost anything. I think that he once collaborated with Mike Westbrook (pianist and bandleader of some superb, roaring, far-out bands) on a happening in St Pancras town hall that involved my brother making an entry down the aisle on a motorbike.
I can’t remember exactly when Jeff started My Own Mag. I’m pretty sure that it was a lone effort. He didn’t have a team of collators and staplers. I imagine that he worked on the material and then ran if off on the school duplicator after hours, on his own, or maybe with the help of some of the kids. (It was a fairly rough school, but Jeff was able to coax some remarkable bits of junk sculpture out of the kids.) The title of the magazine was a deliberate reference to the titles of the children’s comics and annuals that he’d grown up with. He relished the clash between the nostalgic, innocent resonances of the title and the scabrous material that the magazine contained.
I’d like to be able to say that I eagerly awaited every issue and that I read every word, but the fact is that much of what he was writing and publishing was completely beyond me. It was just one more of Jeff’s bizarre projects. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve kept none of the copies, although I must have received them all.
I went off to college in 1963, but stayed in touch with Jeff and his family. He sent me bundles of My Own Mag as they came off his machine and I distributed them to interested (and often uninterested) students. That’s how Peter Collier came to have some copies. I remember the cut-up and burnt issues. Jeff was then under the influence of Burroughs, and the strange appearance of MOM was a sort of homage.
There was a seminal poetry reading that filled the Albert Hall in, I think, 1964. Ginsberg was the star turn, but it assembled all the young British poets. Jeff was to make an appearance, with somebody else, in a happening of some sort that involved them appearing with their naked bodies completely painted, and stuck over with pages of books. They never made it to the stage, due to drunkenness and the effect of the paint on Jeff’s partner.
Everybody who knew Jeff fell under his spell. When he died, an enormously wide range of people, from all periods of his life, came out to his funeral — although I didn’t go. I imagine that someone somewhere will write a biography of him. And I believe that his daughter is writing something herself. There was a big wake for Jeff in London, and a CD of his fugitive poetry readings and jazz performances was produced.