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“UNIQUE” is a uniquely misused word. “Eccentric” is also used eccentrically. But, without a doubt, both may be used validly with reference to Ivor Cutler.

The Glaswegian’s bleak, surreal humour, recited in a lugubrious baritone to the backing of a wheezing, funereal harmonium, brought him a large cult following that included The Beatles, John Peel, Billy Connolly, Bertrand Russell and Stephen Fry. His gloomily laugh-out-loud lines included: “I lie upon the coffin a doughnut in my hand.”

A keen supporter of the Noise Abatement Society, his frequent stage silences created problems for radio producers, one of whom said he could give Samuel Beckett a run for his money. Yet he was at one point the only performer whose work had featured on BBC Radio 1, 2, 3 and 4.

LPs of his work appeared on Virgin, Rough Trade and Creation, the most famous – recorded live at Glasgow’s 3rd Eye Centre on Sauchiehall Street in 1977 – being Life in A Scotch Sitting Room Vol 2 (there was no volume 1).

Largely autobiographical, episode 11 in that series (a title also appearing on the album Jammy Smears), recalled his father taking his family on a surprise walk in the countryside, “hugging a drystone dyke to escape the worst of the effects of the fresh air”, and passing a large man “astride a donkey packed with turnips”.

His work also appeared – voluminously, as it were – in print. Poetry collections included A Nice Wee Present from Scotland (1988) and Is That Your Flap, Jack? (1992). Prose ranged from Cockadoodledon’t!!!! (1966) to Glasgow Dreamer (1992). Children’s stories included Balooky Klujypop (1975) and Herbert the Question Mark (1984).

This week saw the publication of a biography called A Life Outside the Sitting Room, by Bruce Lindsay. Wednesday was Ivor Cutler Day on Radio 4 Extra. Last Sunday was the centenary of his birth.

Ivor was born Isadore Cutler on 15 January 1923. His Jewish family had fled Eastern Europe for America, but ended up in Govan. He claimed his first scream was to the sound of a goal at Ibrox. Seeing kids arrive at school in bare feet made him a socialist at the age of five.

Gradually, the family became more prosperous, though Ivor’s life stalled when a younger brother appeared. This sibling he not unnaturally attacked with a poker, until restrained by an aunt. But familial discombobulation forged artistic temperament: “Without that I would not have been so screwed up as I am, and therefore not as creative.”

Songs around the piano, and winning a school prize for reciting Burns, also gave encouragement, unlike the anti-semitism of some teachers. Ivor calculated he got the belt 200 times in three years. Later, when a teacher himself, at Paisley’s South School, he cut his tawse into pieces, giving one to each pupil.

In 1939, Cutler was evacuated to Annan and, after a spell as an apprentice fitter at Rolls-Royce, joined the RAF in 1941 as a navigator. Dismissed from that role for dreamily staring at clouds, he spent the rest of the war as a storeman.

After the war, he studied teaching at Jordanhill and painting at Glasgow School of Art, before moving in 1950 to London, finding work with the Inner London Education Authority teaching music, dance, drama and poetry to primary school children, a job held until retirement in 1980.

Leaving Scotland was, he said, “the beginning of my life”. However, his unorthodox teaching methods – e.g. a sibling-murder improvisation in drama class – worried some parents. For a while, he taught at fellow Scot A.S. Neill’s controversial “free school”, Summerhill.

His performing career began in 1957 at the Blue Angel in London. It did not go well, and so he was invited to appear on the BBC’s Home Service, broadcasting 38 poems and stories between 1957 and 1963.

In 1959, he released his first record, an EP called, as you might imagine, Ivor Cutler of Y’Hup. It was followed by other classics such as Who Tore Your Trousers?

In the 1960s, unsurprisingly, Ivor found himself a regular on television and after one programme, Late Night Line-Up, was noticed by Paul McCartney, who later invited him to play a cameo role in 1967’s film Magical Mystery Tour film.

As bus conductor Buster Bloodvessel, he announces to passengers: “I am concerned for you to enjoy yourselves within the limits of British decency.”

This led to his 1967 album Ludo being recorded, with bassist Gill Lyons and percussionist Trevor Tomkins, by Beatles producer George Martin. Though the most musical (trad jazzy) of his records, and also one of his funniest, it did not sell well

However, Ludo was re-released in 1997 by Creation, then the label of Oasis. Earlier, Rough Trade had re-released three albums—Privilege, Prince Ivor, and Gruts.

The reason for this renewed popularity was undoubtedly his 21 sessions recorded between Peel 1969 and 1991 for John Peel’s influential late night Radio 1 show, the lifespan of which encompassed prog, punk and whatever came after that.

Ivor also put himself about in collaborations with the likes of Neil Ardley, Robert Wyatt, Fred Frith, David Toop and Steve Beresford. But the sound and fury of fame was never for him. Indeed, his dislike of noise was very real. He even hated loud applause, and forbade his audience from whistling in appreciation.

At Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms, he asked the sound person to turn off the PA: “Too loud!” In Glasgow, following one gig, a sound man heard a voice from the wings saying heatedly: “Right, that’s it. I told you, I warned you. I’m leaving you.” On going to investigate, he found Ivor talking to his harmonium.

Dressed in plus-fours and badge-adorned hats, Ivor also liked sticky labels with messages such as “Never knowingly understood” or “To remove this label take it off”.

He could quote Homer and taught himself Chinese. He believed: “Imperfection is an end; perfection is only an aim.” His own perfectly imperfect life ended on 3 March 2006, in London. He was 83.




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#Ivor #Cutler #Gloomy #eccentric #spartan #dirges #raised #smile

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