My Own Mag:
Jeff Nuttall and the British Underground Scene

The research library at the Henry Moore Institute is currently host to a small display of materials relating to Jeff Nuttall (1933-2004). Nuttall worked as an Art Lecturer at Leeds Polytechnic from 1970 to 1981, an era of experimentation recently commemorated in James Charnley’s Creative License: From Leeds College of Art to Leeds Polytechnic 1963-1973. By the time he came to Leeds, Nuttall had established himself as a fixture of the countercultural scene. A poet, artist and publisher, he was also a friend of John Latham (the subject of the Institutes’ main exhibition), with whom he occasionally travelled. According to legend, Nuttall and Latham prepared a performance for the Albert Hall’s famed 1965 International Poetry Incarnation, painting themselves blue for the occasion. The performance was cancelled at short notice when, his pores blocked with paint, Latham fainted in the wings.

Alongside books by Nuttall and one of his late 1970s ceramic sculptures, the centrepieces of the Institute’s display are six issues of Nuttall’s mimeographed magazine, My Own Mag (1963-1966). Stamped with flamboyant hallmarks of Nuttall’s stewardship, the magazine is best known for providing an outlet for William S. Burroughs’ most experimental writing. Thanks to the enthusiasts Jed Birmingham and Robert Bank, all 17 issues of My Own Mag can be downloaded as PDFs from the Burroughs fan site, RealityStudio. Viewing framed copies of the magazine on the walls of the HMI highlights Nuttall’s interventions in the printing process, meaning that no individual copy of My Own Mag (or PDF thereof) can claim to be definitive.

As a case in point, the text by Nuttall on the cover of the March 1964 issue (‘In the beginning God created Heaven and a shelter proof against debris and radiation should exist in houses ready for the earth’) is illegible due to the lower portion of the cover having been incinerated. This is evidence of a wilful disregard for the sanctity of the written word, paralleled in Latham’s sculptures formed of desecrated books. Nuttall’s sardonic treatment of the nuclear threat is a mainstay of My Own Mag, viscerally expressed in the screaming figure scrawled over the cover of the November 1964 issue, labelled ‘My Own Mag Fall Out Shelter’ and ‘special post election issue’ (or rather, ‘post erection issue’, the ‘r’ crossed out and replaced with an ‘l’).

The substantial support that My Own Mag gave to the more esoteric flowerings of post-war literature is represented by the August 1965 ‘Dutch Schultz Special’, a tribute to the American mobster shot in 1935. His delirious death-bed monologue, as recorded by a police stenographer, became a source of fascination to William Burroughs. The issue showcases Burroughs’ ‘The Dead Star’, an ambitious text in three columns on grid paper that challenges linear narrative by encouraging readings in multiple directions and varying combinations. Nuttall’s ability to keep pace with Burroughs’ most uncompromising textual layouts is especially impressive considering that the task was beyond Burroughs’ publishers at the time.

Nuttall’s enthusiastic embrace of experimentation earned My Own Mag a place at the forefront of the underground, as demonstrated by the April 1966. Here, a Nuttall screed titled ‘Editorial Bit’ is stapled over the cover, whilst visible at the edges is an international it-list of the hip, Beat and avant-garde scene circa 1966. Names (and addresses) include Ted Berrigan, William Burroughs, Bob Cobbing, Ira Cohen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Michael Horowitz and Timothy Leary (and those are just selections from the ‘A-L’ portion visible in the display). Nuttall’s front-cover polemic signs off after several pages with a three-word plea for his readers to make use of these contact details: ‘for fuxake fraternise’.

This emphasis on the importance of communication and collaboration makes apparent how small the underground still was in the period immediately prior to the hippie explosion. Reflecting on the period in later life, Nuttall damningly identified ‘a shift between ’66 and ’67 from poetry and art and jazz and anti-nuclear politics to just sex and drugs, legalise pot’. My Own Mag is testament to an earlier spirit of anti-authoritarian resistance, channelling the anger and dread of the atomic age into playful and anarchic rebellion. An extensive exhibition devoted to Nuttall is planned for the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library in Autumn 2016.

My Own Mag: Jeff Nuttall and the British Underground Scene is at the Henry Moore Institute Research Library, Leeds, until 30 May 2016.

Image of copies of My Own Mag courtesy of the Henry Moore Institute.

Thom Robinson is a writer and academic based in Leeds.