Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 15. 1969.
Books — Intellectual Odyssey
Jeff Nuttall: Bomb Culture. Published by MacGibbon and Kee, London.
Jeff Nuttall's Bomb Culture will anger and confuse many of the Left. The anger will come from his many wild and subjective statements on polities, literature, art and even Culture itself. The confusion will rise from the number of transitions and contradictions Nuttall makes in his explanations and opinions.
But one must be wary of rushing out of this book with hasty judgment conditioned by years of programmed studying and thought process conditioning. Nuttall is, in a sense, anti-university and anti-academic, though his ability of spontaneous, subjective thought has reached a further stage than most do at university. The only danger perhaps in this type of thinking is a lack of perspective. This is Nut tail's major weakness.
To a New Zealander Nuttall's book has no specific relevance except in its interest in literary and political terms. Most of the names, happenings and movements mentioned will be familiar to those regularly read British journals of kaliedoscopic hues. Basically, however. Bomb Culture is an intellectual odyssey of an important period in British history, a period which is more influenced today by international affairs at most periods till now.
It begins in the late fifties with the gradual growth of the nuclear disarmament movement and the reaction against what is popularly termed the Establishment—what essentially gave birth to the New Left.
Nuttall came after this generation and much of the vituperation in his book is directed at them and their like.
Nuttall's involvement with Cnd and what is now termed the Underground has been a constant one yet one which has enabled him to both see it integrally and analytically. The Underground proper was launched in 1964 with the return from America of novelist Trocchi and the attempt to start an international intellectual revolution. This revolution took on a number of forms which encompassed drugs, anarchism, sexual liberation, and madness viewed a la R. D. Laing as a protection against an evil society.
Nuttall describes how this movement Functioned and how he became increasingly critical of it. This he does most successfully in a detailed description of several key episodes which led to his ultimate break from it.
This detachment has not, however, changed his committment or ideals—only his orientation. His conclusion about society is remarkably different in tone from the opening of his account, which is a melange of strung-together quotations, opinions, hatreds and generalisations about Art and Culture, including the "Sick Culture". His conclusion is somewhat different: drugs, nihilism, madness, may all be effective weapons to fight society, but they offer no alternative to it.
The bomb culture is one which used an ultimate weapon not purely for survival's sake, but in a grotesque expression of self-gratification. Here Nuttall draws a distinction between VE Day—where the defeat of Nazism and Fascism marked the end of a crusade against the forces of darkness— and VJ Day—where the celebration was of nothing but the weapon itself after one war had finished and the new one begun.
Nuttall draws no political evidence for this, but doubters will find it amplified in the many radical analyses of the origins of the Cold War by historians like Gil Alperovitz and David Horowitz.
The main trouble with Bomb Culture, suggested above, is not what Nuttall reveals of his account of his experiences— but his perspectives. Nowhere does there seem to be more than a superficial appreciation or understanding why or how society is structured. Thus the end effect of Bomb Culture is one of unique inside critique of the Underground through a combination of retrospection and "as it happened diary extractions. Once one has plodded through the first part which is hardly illuminative, the second part is rewarding indeed.
I have not seen any of Nuttall's own work except his poetry published in a recent Penguin Modern Poets,, but it appears that his early work was a reflection of his admiration for William Burroughs and this has now moved to a more mature handling of the media mixing that provides much of the artistic impulse of the Underground. We can see such stuff in the few magazines that come our way, the most common being the newspaper International Times. Bomb Culture tells us a lot about Nuttall and the movement of which he was part—let's hope that he can use his accumulated knowledge and experience in a clearer manifesto of intent and action.