Today we relaunch a book by Jeff Nuttall, artist, poet, jazz musician, critic, social commentator, novelist, theatrical innovator, actor and teacher.
The book is Oscar Christ and the Immaculate Conception, first published by Writers Forum in September 1968, when the title of the book did have considerable power to shock.
For those who don't know about Jeff, I quote Tim Emlyn Jones from THE INDEPENDENT, January 2004:
"His contribution to contemporary culture will come to be seen to be far greater than many may have suspected up to now. In an earlier time. his boisterous passion for truth and love of outrage would not have disallowed the recognition of his deep seriousness. It is in the difficulties as well as in the pleasures of this man's art that its worth may be found".
There are difficulties: there are for me. They lie not so much in understanding what he is saying, which is clear though often unexpected, but in the manner of it: what, in other artists, I might call sexism.I am not saying it isn't sexist, just that I hesitate to say it; and for a reason. I don't want to go near dismissing the work because of its many fine qualities. Jeff's understanding of the processes running in us and in our society was so acute that I do not want to reject quickly what upsets me.
Upsetting people was part of what he was about sometimes - for instance, his unannounced theatrical events.
Latterly, he frequently upset me, one to one, with some of his forcefully-expressed opinions on modern art practice. But, even there, there is more to be said, there was always more in what he was saying that was perceptive and useful to oneself in among the condemnations of that which I really don't think needed condemning.
I would point to Eric Mottram and Bob Cobbing as examples of perceptive, intelligent and, to the end, mentally-flexible people who after years of being in the van sometimes didn't see the quality in new approaches beyond their immediate praxis and theoretical environment.
I think, in the case of Bob, of some of the discussions he and I had as we drew up the lists of invitees for On Word and debated the names that we did not have in common.
What I retain from that engagement is that Bob did learn and also did teach me, just as surely as he taught many of us here.
People have latched on to Mottram's difficulties, late in his life, with some contemporary formal innovations. But what is important to me is not any failure to see immediately what his poetic peers were up to: it is that he questioned himself over why it was that others, whose judgements had informed his were now at variance with him, and that he worked at it and debated and learned.
So someone like Jeff, in his output, experiences and presents difficulties.
Mottram called him a genius, but that has limited use. It needs to be noted though. We need to think what he meant by that; and I have had a go - you can find that on the Nuttall website http://www.jeff-nuttall.co.uk/html/lawrence_upton.html
I believe any understanding of it, and any judgement we make of our own, needs to remember that genius, whatever the term means, does not mean perfect innovation on tap. The acronym of perfect innovation on tap is PIT and that's where such thinking gets us. What Eric was describing was the result of Jeff's hard work. It takes us all hard work if one would keep working through a long life.Charges of sexism in his hard work hurt Jeff deeply, or so it seemed from the way he told me of it. He asked me if I found his work sexist and I had to say yes; but I'm listening: let's keep talking, as it were; and I kept inviting him to read at Sub Voicive Poetry.
Reading Oscar Christ these last few days, it has struck me that it has dated. References to Vera Lynne may no longer have the same connotation as they did in 1978. The silly German voices, phonetically spelled "vun foot on see taple, vun foot nailed town to see upright of se Iron Cross" irritate me. This particular line goes on. Here it is in full without the cod accent, which is faded out in Nuttall's text anyway: "Oscar, pulling the rubber truncheon on the front row, one foot on the table, one foot nailed down to the upright of the Iron Cross with a halo of our legs their cheap black-market nylons that his triumph trickled down, unless we caught it first, like tears, on stolen Red Cross cottonwool"
I do have difficulty with ejaculate as "a triumph"; but let us beware of attributing everything to the author personally, of saying he says "I" so it must be him; let us attend to the metaphorical grammar. And let us attend to what else is going on here. The repression and suppression and fetishism sluicing through these pages is not in the past, except in the context of the Second World War; and our society is screwing itself up in lots of new ways; so we might hesitate to act adversely on perhaps inevitable judgements. The collage of pre-existing print, of drawings, cut up text and written text bears study. It is risky writing, adventurous writing.
It looks, superficially, like many other things I have seen. It may be that similarity points to the influence Jeff had on us - like the remark that Shakespeare is full of quotes - just as he always acknowledged the influence of Burroughs on him. The influence of The People Show has been enormous - this book is only one aspect of a varied and hard-to-classify output that has to be read as one thing as much as possible if we are to receive it clearly. His work was no way a simple copy of Burroughs and there is a lot more than Burroughs in these books, way beyond what one might call Jeff's own style. He took what was useful to him and it became his. He modified his style as he went along. His repeated acknowledgement of Burroughs is a sign of Jeff's honesty and generosity.
A man who writes "Our man woke in the small hours with poltergeist speeches rattling automatically from under his shamed forelock" is not just writing a sexist text.Sexism is relative given that so many of us are carriers. Whatever of it remains useful, and I think that much does, the text is also of its time and place, as with the author.
This book is worth reading NOW.
The effort to restore this to print has been gladly made.
Finally, for the record, a brief bibliographical note. Cobbing used the word "edition" to mean both "edition" and "impression", that is reprint. One set of Oscar that he called the second edition, that is the second impression, is dated May 1997. So far so good. This reissue is assembled from a box of printed pages found in Bob's workroom. It may well be the last discovery of that kind. And on the cover of that printing it says "2nd edition August 1970". Initially, I thought that Bob had printed the impression and never issued it; so that by 1997, over a quarter of a century later, he had forgotten it. But that didn't add up. It wasn't his way to print and not distribute. And when I went back to Bob's own listing of the publication, I found the 1970 print clearly acknowledged, so it had hardly been forgotten
"38. Oscar Christ and the Immaculate Conception, by Jeff Nuttall. (WFP 23, September 1968) 32pp, 8" x 6 1/2", litho, cover design by Jeff Nuttall. 2nd edition August 1970".
I found that there were far fewer covers than sets of pages, which suggests a degree of sorting, given that all the remaining covers were good, unheard of in tabletop printing 35 years ago. The shortfall suggests bad prints were discarded.
Therefore, I assume that the 1970 edition / impression was issued, but with a lot of pages and covers put into storage without being collated. He did that quite a lot.
And then he forgot it! Presumably there are people with copies of it, to confirm my assumption, but I doubt this matters enough to make it sensible to check. Thus, this is the second impression, the distribution of which was interrupted and then forgotten as Bob hurried on to the next and subsequent wf publications; and that which claims to be the second impression is in fact the third.
Lawrence Upton © Saturday, 04 November 2006