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Ivor Cutler: Poet, Musician and Humourist
Ivor Cutler was an humourist, surrealist and true eccentric. He rode a bike, wore a cape and had numerous hats. He was a writer, poet, singer, musician and teacher. He was revered and under-rated, an extrovert and a recluse.
I first heard Ivor Cutler on John Peel’s show on Radio 1. In 1997 he began playing tracks from his latest album A Wet Handle. He played all 83 spoken word pieces, one per show over a few months. It was not long before I was tuning in just to hear these short pieces of poetry and prose delivered in a deadpan Glaswegian accent and signed off with a random blast from the harmonium, Cutler’s instrument of choice. The pieces were baffling in their surrealism and incongruity, but they made me laugh. I’d never heard anything like them and they were to have a lasting influence on my taste in art and literature. But I had come in at a late stage of Ivor’s career which started long before I was born.
Glasgow, Glasgow, Where are you?
Ivor Cutler was born in Glasgow to a middle-class Jewish family in 1923. After a brief spell in the RAF as a navigator, he was dismissed for being dreamy, he moved to London where he became a teacher. He was a maverick even then and on leaving one teaching job he famously cut up his tawse (a leather whip) which he’d refused to use for corporal punishment and gave a strip to each child in the class. He was briefly married and had two children. He lived in London for most of his life occupying a flat in Gospel Oak in North London.
Cutler began writing songs and poems in the late fifties. He made regular appearances on BBC Radio on the home service. He began recording albums which featured spoken word and songs on which he accompanied himself on the harmonium. On his 1967 album Ludo, credited to the Ivor Cutler Trio, he also played piano. Some of his albums featured the work of Phyllis April King, Cutler’s long term partner and collaborator. The two sometimes performed together.
Between 1959 and 1998 he released ten albums and four EPs. He collaborated with Neil Ardley on A Symphony of Amaranths LP and with Robert Wyatt on his Rock Bottom LP. In the 90s he was label mates with Oasis when he recorded his final two albums of original material for Creation Records.
Many artists have cited Cutler as an influence but it is perhaps his association with the Beatles that permanently established him as a cult figure. His dreamy song I’m Going In A Field was a favourite of John Lennon’s but it was Paul McCartney who first noticed him on an appearance on the TV show Late Night Line-Up. He invited him to star in the movie Magical Mystery Tour. Cutler played the bus conductor Buster Blood Vessel. In 1967 George Martin produced the album Ludo.
The Beatles' classic starring Ivor Cutler.
Ivor Cutler was the most frequent session guest on John Peel’s show in addition to many other radio appearances. Peel once remarked that he was probably the only artist to be played on Radio 1, 2, 3 and 4. During a live session on one show the DJ said, ‘Take it away, Ivor!’
‘Take what away?’ was Cutler’s typically wry response.
Ivor Cutler presented several radio programmes of his own which featured songs, stories and poems by himself and others including Phyllis April King. In the series 15 Minutes In the Archive he presented an eclectic selection of recordings from the BBC archive. Some of his programmes are still repeated from time to time, usually on BBC Radio 4 Extra.
Ivor Cutler published poetry in neat, tiny booklets. He had several prose collections including Life in A Scotch Sitting Room, Vol 2. featuring tales based on his childhood in Glasgow. He wrote children’s books including Herbert about a boy who turned into a different animal in each story. He also published a collection of stickers which he used to send to fans and give to people he met. They had little messages such as ‘slightly imperfect’ and ‘To remove this label, take it off.’
Sadly, many of these books are out of print. I made a good start to my collection in 2000. I was browsing a bookshop in London when I came across a signed copy of A Nice Wee Present from Scotland which I chuckled over on the train home. I had another stroke of luck a few years ago when I popped into a local charity shop for a browse. There, on display, were copies of Gruts and Fremsley,long out of print. They were £5 each and I’d bought them in less time than it takes to read this sentence.
During his time as a teacher, a boy in one of Ivor Cutler’s classes drew a donkey with 14 legs. When Cutler asked why he’d done it the boy said it looked better that way. Cutler said, ‘I wanted to lift him out of his cage and put my arms around him, but my intellect told me not to, which was lucky, because I probably would have been sent to prison.’
His own drawings that appear in many of his books and albums are full of child-like imagination. He described an important breakthrough whilst training as a teacher:
“I was asked to do a drawing which involved transport. I drew some jagged lines to represent Scottish mountains. Then I thought I would put a bus in the picture. I realised that if the bus was to be the right size in relation to the real world it would be all but invisible. So I decided to make the bus bigger. I then had the idea to bend the bus so that it could go over the tops of mountains and down the other side and suddenly I felt that I was in charge of the painting.”
Valuable lessons for any would-be artist.
Ivor Cutler was a humble performer. Former Radio 1 DJ Andy Kershaw recalled booking him for a gig. His first question was ‘How much will you pay me?’ On being offered a fee of £400 he replied, ‘Offer me less.’ A flabbergasted Andy Kershaw responded with ‘£200.’
‘Done and done.’ Cutler concluded.
Cutler’s dislike of noise meant he discouraged children from attending his shows and requested that applause be kept to 50% of the usual volume. By the time I came to hear of him he was in his seventies and his live appearances were becoming rare. I missed a couple of opportunities to see him and feared my chance might never come. Then a show was announced at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in early 2004. I was there as were a camera crew and the show later came out on DVD along with the documentary Looking for Truth With a Pin.
It was wonderful to finally see Mr Cutler perform his songs, stories and poems but it was also a little sad. He was in his 80s at the time and suffering from Parkinson’s and arthritis. It was clearly a struggle for him to perform and it came as no surprise when he subsequently retired from the stage.
In 2006, aged 83, he retired, as we all must, from the larger stage upon which we are all merely players. Ivor Cutler played a more colourful part than most people in a world markedly different from the one the rest of us occupy, a world immortalised in his many works.