Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Ivor Cutler, absurdist poet, teacher, songwriter, Magical Mystery Tourist, survivor of a Scotch childhood

Interviewed in his North London home by Alastair McKay. Published Sunday, 5 June, 1994, to accompany an exhibition at the Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, of Katrina Lithgow’s photographs.

The directions to Ivor Cutler’s flat in Kentish Town are very detailed, involving hills and churches and roads fanned out like the fingers on a hand. In the end, though, it comes down to a question of learning. “Do you have a classical education?” the tremulous voice had demanded on the phone. “Because the number on the door is in roman numerals. Och. Don’t worry, the numbers next door are in Arabic, so it’s easily recognised.”
After a long wait, the door with the roman numerals opens. Ivor, a sprightly 71, is wearing electric pink shorts and a patterned skullcap. Cutler has a collection of stickers with which he decorates his correspondence. On his hat is the one which reads: “To remove this label take it off,” though it could just as easily have been the one that boasts: “Never knowingly understood.”
Cutler’s living quarters are as could be expected of a man who can enjoy the poetic resonance of a lemon meringue pie, or write a song called Never Trust a Human Being, in which the last verse observes optimistically that you can, however, rely on a hen. Which is to say that there are surprises everywhere. It is a display of organised chaos: of wooden birds, plastic flies and seashells. Among the old unframed paintings, the pottery, and the yellowing illustrations, there is a large photo of an Ivor from a different age, bald, but with black hair at the sides, looking like the young Bernard Bresslaw.
Cutler has just concluded A Stuggy Pren, a short series on Radio 3, in which his deadpan reminiscences on a Scottish childhood were mixed with his current interest, the promotion of an anti-intellectual style of poetry. (The poem of the title was first published in the Scotland on Sunday Magazine).
He has devised a scheme through which undiscovered bards can locate their voices. It involves relaxation techniques and voice exercises. The budding poets should then set an egg-timer at three minutes and write down the first thing that comes into their heads. Thinking about meanings is prohibited. Cutler is interested in how the unconscious mind communicates, and considers the intellect to be a block on creativity.
“I was lying in bed last night playing about with Pitman’s shorthand. Usually I have Japanese and Chinese dictionaries round the bed, and the question is ‘How is it that these little marks of black on white are capable of communicating something?’ I remember seeing a film when the woman, the hapless maiden, is with a man who intends to kill her, and she says to him, ‘I poisoned your coffee’, and he stands up, keels over, and dies. And I thought, supposing she had said ‘I poisoned your coffee’ in Chinese. He would choke her to death. And yet, it was just these vibrations in the air that killed him.”
Today, Cutler is probably best known for his sessions on John Peel’s Radio One show. Peel has been broadcasting him since 1969, and he has had more sessions than any other artist. His first break came when, as a school teacher, he decided to try to write funny songs, with the hope that he could earn enough to stop teaching. After a couple of fruitless years knocking around Tin Pan Alley, he was booked by Ned Sherrin for the Tonight programme. Unfortunately, his appearance was cut short when the engineer accidentally pulled the plug in the second verse of a three verse song.
An audition for the radio show Monday Night at Home followed, and Cutler took some of his stories and poems. “The producer went behind the glass thingummibob, and I read it out, and his secretary came out and said: ‘I think you’ve hot a gold mine, Mr Cutler.’ It turned out to be a copper mine.”
Cutler’s most affecting work is that which is drawn from his childhood memories. The Life in a Scotch Sittingroom series has been followed by the more autobiographical Glasgow Dreamer. Both are bleak and funny, precise in their language, and beautifully rendered. In a sample sentence – “‘This mince needs something,’ grunted father, returning a barely chewed mouthful to his dessert spoon” – the mince, something, and the dessert spoon are all loaded with humour, rendering something mundane into the stuff of high pathos and comedy. You have to laugh.
There is, however, an undertone of hurt in much of Cutler’s work, and he has resisted offers of a biography for fear of dredging up bad memories.
“When I was 15, I tried to commit suicide. My big brother was a medical student, and he brought home a sample of aspirin. It was a packet of six. I looked at it and it said ‘Maximum dose: two’. So, one night I took the whole six, and then I wrote a goodbye letter” – he issues a wheezy laugh – “and I thought, ‘that should do it’. I wrote that I had just discovered what a horrible place the world was. This was the mid-1930s, when Hitler was doing his thing. And not only that, the torture of being a teenager. I woke up all refreshed the following morning and I said to my brother: ‘You know these aspirin? I took them all and I tried to kill myself.’ He told my mum and dad. God, they were deeply embarrassed.”
He maintains that his wish to die was sincere. “Suicide has always been a good friend to me. For me it’s something that’s very comforting: the notion that it’s available. And also the notion that it’s extremely difficult without doing yourself an injury. The options are really not very pleasant. High buildings have been my favourite for quite a time. But recently I was in a building and I was up eight storeys, and I could quite easily have jumped onto the tarmac below, and I decided against it. Because I have discovered at times of great despair it’s usually a preamble to exciting things happening. So I’ve hung on.
“Like when my marriage broke up, and I thought I was old and ugly because I was 40, and life was over. And in fact, life began then, as I discovered.”
His teaching career began at Paisley South, he did two years at AS Neill’s Summerhill, and then moved to the Fox in Notting Hill, where Tony Benn and Ken Russell sent their children. “In Paisley, I didn’t use the strap and I was getting a nervous breakdown because they thought I was a softie. In the end, I bought a belt. I sent off to Lochgelly where they make them. It was a thing about this thick. So I went to the staffroom and I said, ‘Anybody got a skinny belt, and I’ll give them this fat one?’ There was one teacher, a real sadist, and he made the exchange, so I got a thin belt, and I hung it on a wall. And of course the class had to test me, so I hit them.
“When Neill accepted me, I got a razor blade, and I cut the belt up into 50 bits, and I gave each kid a bit so they could think ‘Thus are the mighty fallen’.”
On moving south from Summerhill, he took his progressive views with him. In Notting Hill, he remembers teaching the nine times table and boasting he could do it standing on his head. “Then I realised what I had said, so I put down a cushion and went down on my head. Of course all of the money fell out of my trousers, so I came down sharpish.”
Many of Cutler’s attitudes to education were informed by the (not unusual) brutality of his own experience, at school in Shawlands. It was an upbringing of strict rotation and obedience, teaching information rather than the ability to think. He was, for example, belted 200 times over three years for bad writing, and discovered later that the problem was physical. With hindsight, he also suspects an element of racism. “I’m a Jew and the teacher used to have me come out and sing the Jewish national anthem, and he said: ‘Come on out and sing ‘Call Out The Lifeboats’. That was the nearest he could get to ‘Kol odd balavav’ which was the beginning of the song. Looking back, it seems funny, but when I put it all together, I realise…”
Cutler’s father was a manufacturer’s agent, something Ivor was ashamed of, until in adulthood he read an essay by Ernest Benn which explained the importance of the middleman.
When the war started, he wanted to follow his two brothers into medicine, but his father explained to his (then humanitarian vegetarian) son the brutality of medical training. “He said if you’re going to become a doctor, you’ve got to get hold of a frog and smash its head against a wall, like the Nazis did with babies, and then dip it into a bath of acid, and it’ll try to wipe the acid off, because it’s the spine that’s operating the intelligence.”
Ivor became an apprentice fitter at Rolls-Royce, but did not fit in, though he loved the aesthetics of mechanical engineering. “And then I saw in the Daily Record, a banner headline: ‘Abraham Levi, Conscientious Objector’, and I knew what that was about.”
Fired up with the desire to do something for the war effort, he applied to become an airforce navigator, and got one flight away from being awarded his wings. His career was cut short when two examiners discovered that his habit of gazing in wonder at the clouds was making his flights erratic. “That was my war experience and I was deeply embarrassed at the time, but with hindsight I think the Almighty must have had it in mind for me to do something more important than getting shot to pieces.”
His first 28 years were spent in Scotland. “Everyone in Scotland thought I was daft. My parents and my family and my colleagues. Everyone. I mind when I wrote my first song on the piano, and I said, ‘Mammy, come and listen to this song’. I sang the song through to her, and I could see her face drooping a bit. She said: ‘It’s very good.’ Then she said, ‘Ivor, couldn’t you write about something nice?’ It was a song about: ‘I’ve a hole in my head, dentist/Please fill it up with teeth/Put one set on the top, dentist/And another set underneath.’”
His efforts at art were also derided. One early example, pinned to the wall, shows a distorted head. “I remember doing one of these drawings and I stuck it up on the staffroom wall at Paisley South school, and I when I was out of the room somebody got a Polo mint and stuck it over one eye, making it 3-D.”
He enjoys drawing attention to himself, and once turned up for a television appearance at the BBC with half a boiled egg taped to his forehead, though, to be fair, it was hidden underneath a bowler hat. He views creativity as therapy, is not mad, but will concede that he suffers from alienation. He is recognised in the street about once a day, and enjoys it, though he realises this does not put him in the same league as the Beatles. He says he considers himself to be a child still, sees no hope of changing, and is grateful.
“There is a French philosopher who said: ‘Incongruity is the basis of laughter,’” recalls Ivor, now dressed in a lumber shirt and flat cap.
He has forgotten the man’s name, but remembers the words.