Poet, performer and humorist who became an unlikely cult hero
Thursday 09 March 2006
Ivor Cutler, singer, poet, writer, teacher and performer: born Glasgow 15 January 1923; married (two sons); died London 3 March 2005.
In the mid-1980s Ivor Cutler turned up for an Andy Kershaw radio session at the BBC wearing plus-fours and a fez and announced, "I have a harmonium and it's going to explode in two minutes." Astonished BBC staff didn't know whether to laugh or call the emergency services. At least it wasn't quite as disturbing as the time he showed up at the BBC with half a boiled egg taped to his forehead.
Such bizarre entrances were commonplace in the surreal world of Ivor Cutler, one of the great British eccentrics, who always insisted on being addressed as "Mr Cutler" in whatever unexpected walk of society he found himself. A teacher, poet, songwriter, humorist, performer and storyteller, he defied all the normal parameters of popular appeal to become one of the unlikeliest of cult heroes, his wry humour and clipped Scottish tones slicing through cultural and generational divides. Adored by John Peel, admired by Bertrand Russell, John Lennon, Billy Connolly and Johnny Rotten, he also popped up on the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour, toured with Van Morrison and in later years was rediscovered anew by a young audience after his records were reissued by Oasis's record company.
It was an ironic turn of events for someone who was a devout member of the Noise Abatement Society. "I'm an extremely sensitive man and I'm very sensitive to noise," he said.
Cutler was born in Glasgow, 100 yards from Rangers' football ground at Ibrox Park, the son of Jewish parents whose own family had reputedly migrated to Scotland from Eastern Europe in the late 1800s believing they were heading for America. The mundane absurdities of his childhood often cropped up in his deadpan works such as Life in a Scotch Sitting Room Vol 2 and Glasgow Dreamer which, beyond the wry couplets, betrayed an unhappy upbringing of austerity and victimisation by anti-Semitic teachers. He once recalled he was given the strap over 200 times for his lack of academic skills, though there was an early indicator of his future career when he won a school prize for his performance of Robert Burns's "My Love is Like a Red Red Rose".
He tried to commit suicide with an aspirin overdose when he was 15 but when war broke out the following year he left the misery of Glasgow to be evacuated to the coast at Annan. On leaving school he became an apprentice fitter with Rolls-Royce, but quickly discovered he was not cut out for orthodox employment. It was an assessment fully confirmed by a short period with the RAF as a trainee navigator, from which he was dismissed for being "too dreamy and absent-minded" after being caught sketching clouds in mid-air.
Instead he decided to become a teacher, joining a school in Paisley, but characteristically rebelled against the fierce strictures of the education system and, instead of beating his students with a strap, he cut it into 50 pieces, symbolically distributing them to his students on the day he quit.
Suitably cleansed, he left Scotland in 1950 to start a new life teaching at A.S. Neill's Summerhill in Suffolk, an alternative residential school where lessons weren't compulsory and pupils were involved in the decision-making. Yet even in such a free environment he struggled to conform. "I had the time of my life but my headmaster said I was no good," he commented later. He also rued the absence of women - "I got bored after two years because there were no women there. I like women."
He moved to London and found release of sorts teaching music and drama to 7-to-11-year-olds in inner city primary schools. His spontaneous, improvised lessons occasionally brought him into conflict with parents and school heads, but he remained a teacher for over 30 years and insisted the empathy he experienced with his pupils was the key catalyst for the creativity that followed.
By now married with two children, he at first had ambitions to be a painter and sculptor, but decided songwriting would provide a more lucrative career path. He started writing songs in the late 1950s, trying but failing to interest Tin Pan Alley "until I said the seven words that changed my life - 'Perhaps I ought to sing them myself' ". His first attempt at a performance gig at a pub in Islington was "an unmitigated failure" but his idiosyncratic work found favour at the BBC, where he was given a break on old Home Service radio shows like Monday Night at Home and television's The Acker Bilk Show and Late Night Line-Up. In 1961 he released his first record, an EP titled Ivor Cutler of Y'Hup.
At the age of 42 he started writing poetry - three of his works appearing in a Faber collection of Scottish verse:
My way of writing poetry was to go to a jazz concert and just let the music come through me and write nonsense poems, so that one was listening to the noise of the words rather than the meaning.
His crossover into the mainstream came when the Beatles offered him the part of Buster Bloodvessel, the bus conductor in the television movie Magical Mystery Tour, screened on Boxing Day 1967. He also recorded an album, Ludo (1967), with a jazz trio produced by George Martin and his strange whimsical observations delivered with engaging, whispery gravitas over a breezy harmonium accompaniment made him a cult hero and comedy icon, inspiring comparisons with Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.
John Peel was an early fan who became instrumental in his growing stature among a younger audience and Cutler recorded 21 Radio 1 sessions for Peel between 1969 and 1991. Through the 1970s he was signed to Virgin Records, recording three albums, Dandruff, Velvet Donkey and Jammy Smears (all with Phyllis King), joined EMI's Harvest imprint for his Life in a Scotch Sitting Room Vol 2 LP in 1978 (there was no Vol 1) and recorded three LPs, Privilege, Gruts and Prince Ivor for the rock indie label Rough Trade in the 1980s. He was also featured on Robert Wyatt's best-selling Rock Bottom album in 1974.
Long separated, he spent his later years living alone in a small flat in North London but continued to write and perform whenever he could, often with another poet, Phyllis King, who worked with him on the BBC radio series King Cutler and who would sit at the side of the stage knitting when Cutler was doing his reading. Anybody arriving late for his concerts ran the risk of public humiliation, while he would respond to anyone taking his photograph with a cutting "Don't you ever do that again".
He wrote more than a dozen children's books, some of the most popular concerning the adventures of a little boy called Herbert who would wake up each day believing he had turned into a different kind of animal. He also published numerous collections of prose, monologues and poetry reflecting his highly individual take on a world of strange people with even stranger habits, darkly funny but hauntingly poignant too, be they debating the merits of shoplifters, babies, odd smells or mad grannies.
In 1997 his profile was raised again when Laurie Anderson invited him to appear at the high-profile Meltdown Festival on London's South Bank. He was back there again the following year when John Peel was curator and he shared a bill with Jesus & Mary Chain, Ardal O'Hanlon, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Sonic Youth and Spiritualized. His third appearance at Meltdown came in 2001 - when Robert Wyatt was curator - supporting Elvis Costello at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. He asked the audience not to clap too loudly because the noise offended his ears.
Indeed, Cutler seemed pained by much of the loud rock music that invariably attached itself to him. Asked about his favourite music he would invariably mention the composers Arvo Part and Béla Bartók, but was also fond of Eastern European folk song - he'd habitually attend concerts by the Hungarian singer Marta Sebestyen until one year she turned up with a loud band. He stopped listening altogether when his record player went wrong and he didn't bother to get it fixed.
From the mid-1990s on he was largely retired, but, far from mellowing in later life, he seemed to grow ever more eccentric, going shopping in central London wearing pink flamingo shorts and a selection of curious hats and loud ties, accosting complete strangers in the street asking them if they wrote poetry ("You'd be amazed how many people did") and randomly handing out stickers bearing cryptic messages like "Funny smell", "Let me out" and "To remove this label take it off".
On the prospect of death he was typically forthright:
I shall be glad to get away from loud pop music and motor cars but I shall miss the beautiful kindnesses of those people to whom courtesy comes naturally.
Like many others, I had admired Ivor Cutler's stories, told in his graveyard Scottish voice, on Monday Night at Home when in my late teens, writes Caroline Richmond. I met him on computer dating in 1966 and we remained good friends for several years. I still have the books he gave me, one of which, Gruts (1962, reissued with new illustrations in 1986), is a collection of Monday Night at Home stories.
On his doorbell (in Laurier Road, NW5) it said IGOR CUTLEP. His parents' surname had been Kussner, and they had been handed the name Cutler by Glasgow immigration officials.
I once went to watch him teaching at Fox primary school in Notting Hill Gate. He played "God Save the Queen" in boogie on the piano and got the children to sing it (difficult). Then he stopped the piano with some crashing chords and asked, glaring with feigned disapproval, "Who sang 'God shave the Queen'?" No one owned up, of course, because no one had. He ticked them off and restarted. Whereupon, of course, they all sang it.
We used to bump into one another sometimes, cycling round London. He would wear a City suit and a straw hat that a donkey would have rejected.
Once, visiting an ex-boyfriend in Canada, I was struck by the name Ivor Cutler written on the fridge. It transpired that a cult radio programme had acquired an LP by him, and played a track a week to an enraptured audience, but didn't know who he was. Every week they would ask, who is this Ivor Cutler? So I rang the broadcasting company in Toronto and gave them Ivor's home address. Ivor got his fee eventually. He rewarded me with some of his stick-on aphorisms.
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