Manic street preacher

For four decades, Ivor Cutler has been peddling his words to a public that has not always been very understanding. Now, at the age of 74, the poet's prim and improper brand of absurdity is finally being paid some serious attention. By Judith Palmer
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The Independent Culture
"Oh dear," frets Ivor Cutler down the phone, as we try and fix up a time to meet. "I just can't see how this will work. It's your voice. It's far too tense."

"My sister came over to see me once from Israel, and I had to tell her to go away again. She was far too tense."

"If you can keep your talking to the absolute minimum, that might be a good idea," he considers, his voice trailing off to a whisper, "and I'll wear my earplugs."

The phone rings again. "Have you ever taken homeopathic remedies?" peeps Cutler frailly. "I have one here to help with interviews. It's called Argent Nit. If you were to get some this afternoon and take large quantities until we meet, I think come Monday, it'll be OK."

"Have you been taking the tablets?" enquires Cutler anxiously, come Monday, dismounting from his bicycle outside London Zoo. I nod serenely, and display for inspection my half-empty bottle of silver nitrate. Cutler packs his bicycle pump into his satchel with the cautious yet satisfied air of a keeper teaching his favourite lion to jump through hoops.

"Would you consider yourself at all neurotic?" I venture, with hopefully adequate degrees of placidity. "I don't think I'm all that neurotic - I'm capable of being very sensible," replies Cutler, ritualistically moulding yellow earplugs in his palm, then reaching under his tweed cap to wiggle the plugs into place.

While Cutler's extreme sensitivity to noise is genuine (he regularly donates his royalties to the Noise Abatement Society), one suspects the earplugs also provide a welcome excuse for poking around inside his bodily orifices in public.

As poet, singer and humorist, in a career spanning four decades, Cutler, now aged 74, has made the bodily orifice his own. Never in fact has a writer so fully explored the nostril. "If your nose has more than two exits, there's something wrong, and you should block all the extra ones, unless you're already using it as an ocarina," he advises in his latest book, CD and radio series, A Wet Handle.

Cutler fans will already be alert to the possibilities of an extraordinary nasal capability, however, through such surreal monologues as "Life in a Scotch Sitting Room". Here, remembering his Jewish Glasgow childhood, he recalls a game of make-believe seaside, where grandma pours treacle from jug to jug to evoke estuary waves, wee girls blow breezes in their brothers' faces, occasionally hitting them with flecks of salty spit to complete the illusion, and grandpa ceremoniously gives each boy three precious grains of sand to play with: "I used to be able to sniff them up one nostril, tilt my head and catch them out the other," the poet modestly informs me.

His nose is, if anything, more sensitive than his ears, and he has been known to leap from moving taxis upon the discovery of a stick-up air-freshener within the cab. Highly perfumed matrons, together with unusually pungent furniture polish, have driven him from his favourite a cappella concerts at St John's, Smith Square. Now, the concentration of "young foreign girls wearing what they think is a charming odour" often sends him fleeing from the Tate Gallery, where once he sat in peace writing his absurdist epigrams.

"I think the neurotic bit of me comes from the desire for the attention I was deprived of early on," he admits, "ever since the birth of my kid brother, when I was three, and I was suddenly being ignored and not the centre of things."

Cutler has never really fitted in, from that time on. Unlike his brothers, he finally opted against becoming a doctor, passed some of the war as an RAF navigator before being dismissed for acute dreaminess, went to Rolls Royce, then settled down as a teacher. An unwilling disciplinarian, he finally cut his strap into 50 pieces, gave a morsel to each of his pupils, and set off to teach at AS Neill's experimental hippy academy, Summerhill.

"It didn't penetrate my conscious mind that I was a person of worth until the age of 42," he whispers dolefully, constantly toeing a shaky tightrope between self-admiration and abject insecurity, "though I know very well intellectually why I am a person of worth. My career makes it patent."

His creative career started in the late Fifties, on the old Home Service, and the popular peak-hour radio show, Monday Night at Home. As Ivor Cutler of Y'hup, Oblique Musical Philosopher, accompanied by the baleful groan of his pedal-driven harmonium, he recounted with grave deliberation tales of suburban coughing competitions and grandmothers who bit the buttons off cinema seats.

"Because of all the people who hated what I did, they only had me three weeks out of every four," Cutler explains.

Feelings about Cutler's work are still so radically polarised, in fact, that people have apparently been known to bring their fiancees to concerts, only to cancel the vicar in horror when they discover that their intendeds are immune to his sense of the ridiculous, missing the profundity beneath the veneer of puerility.

"Lots of people are unable to like what I do, so I am seen by them as a pain in the neck. They just don't know what I'm on about. That's fine and I certainly don't feel diminished by it, because the people who do enjoy what I do really enjoy it and feel well fed by it."

"Oh dear, crumbs, I see myself as the little boy in `The Emperor's New Clothes' who points out the emperor is naked," he suggests, blue eyes sparkling. "When I sing a dirty song, I look at any old people in the audience - they're usually charmed. They're used to young people being embarrassed and not saying things in front of them, so they're very grateful."

Younger audiences, on the other hand, can be shocked and sternly disapproving of the eroticism dripping from Cutler's prim paterfamilial tongue:

"You are perfect. You hold all the qualities that I admire and respect. I want to sit on your skin and enjoy myself squashing hard against you, then peeling myself off slowly, like velcro. Now, what can I do to give you pleasure?"

"I quite like my own poetry. There are lots of laughs in it for me," he adds, suppressing a smutty titter.

Fellow fans ranged from Bertrand Russell to the Beatles. Cutler acquired new fame as bus-driver Buster Bloodvessel in The Magical Mystery Tour, was adopted by Radio 1 DJs John Peel and Andy Kershaw, and now the Septuagenarian Scot has been taken up by Oasis's record label Creation. He once toured (in earplugs) with Van Morrison, but has a dislike for vulgarly decorated hotel rooms, so paid fourpence every night to sleep in the nearest station waiting-room. Performing with the Gallaghers is therefore unlikely.

Sartorially, Cutler is as singular as any pop star. Every walk through London is its own performance. Today, he is soberly attired in plus-twos (from Harrods), his cap studded with ladybirds. On more buoyant days, however, you might meet him buying goats' cheese in Selfridges food hall, in flamingo-pink shorts, with a christmas decoration as a tie; or perhaps you'll spot him in the Royal Festival Hall foyer, a sunflower in his buttonhole, fragile wisps of cloud-white hair emerging from an embroidered fez.

"I am really only finding ways of filling in the time between getting up in the morning and going to bed at night, but, oh how lucky I am!" he starts excitedly, from the drift of existentialist melancholia. "I should be at home now watching the telly - that's what you'd expect of a man of my august age."

`I'm a man who's very lonely for certain types of communication. A lot of people in that position turn to religion," he ponders, lips crumpling upwards with a mischievous twinkle.

Fishing inside his pocket, he suddenly brings out an abundant fistful of impromptu presents: squares of dark chocolate, a glass tube of glistening splintered opals, and a stack of teeny stickers.

"Funny Smell", "Befriend a Bacterium", "Let me out", "To remove this label take it off"... Cutler became hooked on sticky labels in 1964, and has been cutting across the city's bitter loneliness, pressing them into the hands of strangers ever since.

"The idea that black marks on a small piece of paper can bring such delight to a person... when I see their face suddenly creak into a smile, I feel very blessed."

`A Wet Handle', the book, is published at pounds 4 by Arc Publications, Nanholme Mill, Shaw Wood Rd, Todmorden, Lancs OL14 6DA. `A Wet Handle', the CD, is on the Creation label. `A Wet Handle', the radio series, begins tonight at 8.50pm on Radio 3

Ivor Cutler appears as part of Laurie Anderson's Meltdown at the QEH / RFH2, SBC, London SE1, at 7.45pm on Monday 23 June (Booking: 0171-960 4242)