“Never knowingly understood,” Scottish poet, songwriter and performance artist Ivor Cutler was born in Glasgow in 1923 to Jewish parents with origins in Eastern Europe. Suffering from what he termed a lifelong “neurosis,” he experienced anti-Semitic bullying at school, was drummed out of the Royal Air Force for “dreaminess” and only came into his creative own in his 40s after finding inspiration working with children as a teacher. He started writing poems and songs in a stream of consciousness style, and accompanying himself on the piano or harmonium, and after being discovered by a promoter was eventually featured on various BBC programs, eventually reaching a wider audience via Radio 1’s popular John Peel Sessions. In 1967, he appeared in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour film as the tour guide, Buster Bloodvessel. Later in life he lived in London and was often to be seen cycling about the capital, dressed in his signature fez and plus-fours, distributing stickers. A dedicated member of the Noise Abatement Society, he despised cars, whistling audience members and other egregious invasions of his sonic field. In his flat he kept a wax ear stapled to the wall with six-inch nails.
Cutler’s mournful, pedantic Glaswegian articulation of bizarrely juxtaposed imagery and language is both delightful and vaguely disturbing. He produced several LPs, numerous children’s books and poetry pamphlets, and was a whimsical illustrator of his own work. Listening to his Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, ridiculously exaggerated accounts of a grim Scottish childhood, I hear the hiss of a cassette tape late at night, and am reminded of the stuffy, overheated living rooms of my working-class grandmothers, or else the Geordie village my father hailed from, the green-painted benches of its wave-whipped sea front exposed year-long to the unforgiving winds of the North Sea. Even a superficial sampling of Cutler’s work offers its listener tenderness, hope, reminiscence and puzzlement, not to mention advice to the entrepreneurial and singularly unappetizing meals. Zen koan, surrealist memoir, Kafkaesque dream narrative or provincial cri de coeur, it’s all in there, mixed up with many chipped mugs full of silliness and joy.
It was my brother Ian who introduced me to Ivor Cutler. His covert, late-night radio listening during our teen years naturally included the John Peel Sessions. Decades later, he had a particularly lucky day.
Ian Stonehouse: I met Ivor Cutler in Camden Town in 1997, at 3.45pm on Thursday, July 10th to be precise. I’d been on a late lunch break, heading back to work at a film/video production company, and was standing at a pedestrian crossing when he appeared next to me with his bicycle. I said something profound like “You’re Ivor Cutler aren’t you?”, followed by a rambling monologue about how much I loved his music and poetry, especially the song ‘Paddington Town’. I explained how I’d once specifically listened to this song on my Walkman whilst sat on a bus in Paddington, and how special the musical cadences were and proceeded to sing an excerpt (“Far from home, I’m seven stops from Paddington Town”) just to illustrate the point.
I don’t recall what, if anything, he said to me but as I was talking he kept handing me sticky labels from out of his pocket that he’d had printed. I think he gave me about four or five of them, one of which was about lengthening your stride by a few inches in order to save an extra few percent of insects; another had his phone number written on the back in wobbly handwriting. Then the crossing lights changed, he said goodbye and got on his bicycle and rode away. When I got back to work I immediately wrote the date and time on the back of one of the stickers so I wouldn’t forget. Much later in life I found out that one of his main methods of communication was via sticky labels with his “Cutlerisms” printed on them.
Cutler’s Cutlerisms included “Befriend a Bacterium,” “To Remove This Label Take It Off,” and “Imperfection is an End. Perfection is Only an Aim.”
Ivor Cutler died in 2006, aged 83. If you haven’t discovered him yet, I suggest you do so. It’s at least as easy as looking for truth with a pin.