Remembering Ivor Cutler, the man too strange to be anyone’s pet eccentric

Celebrating the centenary of canny Scots poet and much-loved indie touchstone, Ivor Cutler

By Jim Wirth

Having enchanted The Beatles as lugubrious would-be bus conductor Buster Bloodvessel during the making of Magical Mystery Tour, Ivor Cutler received what he considered an indecent proposal from one of the Fab Four to work with their children as a private tutor. The sporran-dry Scottish humorist said he turned the offer down “on socialist principles”, adding: “What made their kids more special than other kids?”

Released to commemorate what would have been his 100th birthday on January 15, Bruce Lindsay’s new biography A Life Outside The Sitting Room shows how Cutler was far too determinedly strange to be anyone’s pet eccentric. The Glaswegian’s surreal poems, songs and meditations on his Govan childhood entranced generations, from the smart set at Peter Cook’s Establishment club to generations of John Peel listeners. Cutler’s voice-and-harmonium combination graced the finale of Robert Wyatt’s 1974 masterwork Rock Bottom and his perverse records were released on the hippest labels of his age: Virgin and Harvest in the 1970s, Rough Trade in the ’80s and Creation in the ’90s.

“It’s the imagination of the man,” says Lindsay, explaining Cutler’s appeal. “He can sing a beautiful song like “I’m Going In A Field” – one of Paul McCartney’s favourites – and he can sing a song from the perspective of a yellow fly.” Matt Brennan (aka Citizen Bravo), who co-ordinated 2020’s all-star Cutler tribute LP, Return To Y’Hup, adds: “He created an absolutely unique and self-contained world through his music, prose and poetry. By operating on the fringes of so many forms of music and art, he attracted admirers from all genres into his orbit.”

A sensitive boy deemed too dreamy to complete his training as an RAF navigator during World War II, Cutler drifted into teaching, including a revelatory spell at AS Neill’s “school without rules”, Summerhill. He continued to work in London primary schools while eventually deciding to perform his own material after publishers could not persuade any artists to record his strange songs. The Beatles dragged him onto the Magical Mystery Tour bus after hearing him on BBC radio and he would continue to be a solitary presence on the margins of the London cultural scene (amusing himself by leaving gnomic sticky notes around town while riding his bicycle out from his Camden flat) until his death, aged 83, in March 2006.

Emma Pollock was entranced by the grim twinkle of Cutler’s Life In A Scotch Sitting Room stories, which were tour-bus go-tos during her time with The Delgados. “It’s that kind of withering wit – that very Scottish take on life when there’s just the hint of a joke but not any more than that,” she tells Uncut. “He had a very individual outlook and he didn’t seem to give a damn what anyone thought.” Lindsay agrees: “There are certainly comparisons with people like Spike Milligan. But with Ivor, I think everything he did, he did primarily for himself.”

Lindsay never got to interview Cutler himself, but assembles his complicated story with the help of a raft of friends and relatives – not least Cutler’s two sons, and poet Phyllis April King, who as Cutler’s partner for much of his later life did not need to address him as “Mr Cutler”, a protocol the artist demanded of anyone meeting him for the first time. Stern and inscrutable but mischievous and at times painfully poignant (hear 1998’s “I Built A House” and weep), Cutler said of himself: “If I am a genius, I’m a genius in a very small way indeed.” Here, his tiny light shines bright.

Ivor Cutler: A Life Outside The Sitting Room is published by Equinox, Jan 15 (£25).

Source: Remembering Ivor Cutler, the man too strange to be anyone’s pet eccentric

Ivor Cutler “Left of Leeds”

On what would have been his one hundredth birthday, Left of Leeds celebrates the life of poet, performer, storyteller Ivor Cutler.

On what would have been his one hundredth birthday, “Left of Leeds” at ChapelFM in Leeds celebrates the life of poet, performer, storyteller Ivor Cutler. John Toolan talks to Bruce Lindsay about his new biography “Ivor Cutler: A Life Outside The Sitting Room”.

We also play a few lesser well known Ivor Cutler cover versions.

Listen to the program at: Left of Leeds #76

Jude Rogers’s folk album of the month: Unthank-Smith’s “Nowhere and Everywhere”

Rachel Unthank’s voice wraps softly around Paul Smith’s unfussy baritone on an otherworldly album that explores the songs of their mutual homeland

By Jude Rogers

Rachel Unthank is a folk-singing veteran whose family band, the Unthanks, have always been collaborative, political and quietly experimental, recording LPs of the songs of Anohni, Robert Wyatt and Molly Drake, as well as works of moving social history with Maxine Peake and Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. Paul Smith, the festival crowd-cajoling frontman of Newcastle indie-rockers Maxïmo Park, is outwardly very different, but has long been a folk fan; after the pair met at an Africa Express gig, they set out to explore the songs of their mutual homeland, the north-east of England.

With Field Music’s David Brewis producing to crown a north-eastern triumvirate, Nowhere and Everywhere is a beautiful, exploratory collection bringing old stories to life in settings pastoral and otherworldly. The arrangements are the star of the show, hinting towards the mid-century soundtracks of Basil Kirchin, the spacious ambience of later Talk Talk and the post-rock textures of Tortoise and Gastr del Sol. Clarinettist Faye MacCalman and drummer Alex Neilson provide the soft waves on which Unthank and Smith’s vocals drift, crest and roll.

Smith’s voice slots very naturally into traditional settings, his direct baritone the unfussy, handsome instrument of an intimate storyteller. It is especially gorgeous on the Child ballad, Lord Bateman, Unthank’s voice wrapping around it like soft cotton; real joy also shines through their duet on Lal Waterson’s glorious ode to drunkenness, Red Wine Promises.

Unthank also plays an unsettling, droning harmonium on Graeme Miles’ stunning Horumarye (a song about the sound the wind makes whistling over the moors) and contributes her first-ever original to a record, Seven Tears, about a selkie, a mythological seal that sheds its skin to transform into a human lover. This track builds gently, then feverishly, shivering with love. This whole album carries the same liberating feeling throughout.


Source: Unthank Smith: Nowhere and Everywhere review | Jude Rogers’s folk album of the month

Let Kids Read Roald Dahl’s Books the Way He Wrote Them

The beloved author’s books are being edited by their publisher to suit contemporary sensibilities. That robs us of the author’s vision—and any sense of history.

By Katha Pollitt

The United States can be a harsh place to be a child. There are guns galore and bullies in school. Suicide is on the rise, homelessness is rampant, and many school budgets have been scraped down to the bone. In New York City, almost one in five children are poor. One in seven doesn’t have enough to eat. Even well-off youngsters struggle with sexual abuse, depression, stress, and the cruelty of online life. Thank God there is one place where all is sweetness and light, or will be soon—children’s books.

You may have read that Roald Dahl’s classic tales have been altered to be, well, nicer. Because as we all know, niceness is what Roald Dahl is all about. Forget the misanthropy, physical disgust, and delight in transgression and violence and extravagance that give his stories bite and edge. Forget, too, the dependence of wit and vividness on specific, concrete words, on their sounds and evocative associations. What matters is that no one in the whole world be offended and that no opportunity be missed for moral improvement.

The Roald Dahl Story Company and Puffin, Dahl’s authorized publisher, have teamed up with a group called Inclusive Minds, “a collective for people who are passionate about inclusion and accessibility in children’s literature.” The organization turned the task of sanitizing Dahl over to their sensitivity readers, the oddly named Inclusivity Ambassadors, who have “lived experience” and can provide “valuable input.” If they sound like smooth-talking authoritarians, that’s not far off. In the world of children’s lit these days, sensitivity is king. But are actual readers—parents and children—calling out for the removal of the word “black” describing tractors or for replacing “North Africa” with “lots of different countries”? Do they object to describing a voice as “screechy” instead of “annoying”? I don’t know why Dahl is being censored—hopes of higher profits by Netflix, which owns the rights to his books and the movies made from them? Fear of social-justice Twitter? Did it start out as a few modest tweaks but got out of hand? In any case, there’s a loss in these changes—in vivacity, vigor, concreteness. As any good writer can tell you, we all know what a screechy voice sounds like, but an annoying one could be anything.

The Ambassadors have made hundreds of changes—59 in The Witches alone. At first, I thought a few were justifiable. Dahl was oddly obsessed with fatness and unattractiveness and used these qualities to mock unlikable characters. In the new editions, every single use of “fat” and “ugly” has been removed. I see the point: We know a lot more now than a few generations ago about how children suffer when others make fun of their appearance, and how long-lasting the harm is. But I don’t know that replacing “fat” with “enormous” sends a different message, or that replacing “fat little brown mouse” with “little brown mouse” does much for the cause of kindness—doesn’t fat also suggest cute and cuddly, at least in small furry animals? The trouble is, once you start fiddling, where do you stop? Why not leave the books alone, and if people are so offended, they can stop reading them (which I doubt will happen any time soon)? The alternative is the falsification of history and the dumbing-down of great literature.

Be that as it may, most of the changes have no such therapeutic rationale. They seem more like the work of an over-caffeinated undergraduate relying on those lists activists write up of Words to Avoid. “Crazy” becomes “silly,” while “idiot,” “nutty,” “screwy,” and other mental-health-related colloquialisms are deleted. “Mother “and “father” become “parents,” “brother and sister” are “siblings,” “boys and girls” are “children,” “ladies and gentlemen” are “folks.” (Sadly missing is my favorite degenderizing neologism, “nibling,” for niece or nephew, which sounds like something you’d find in a can of corn, or maybe an opera by Wagner). But the Ambassadors don’t stop with simple word changes. Compare these passages from The Witches:

2001: “Don’t be foolish,” my grandmother said. “You can’t go around pulling the hair of every lady you meet, even if she is wearing gloves. Just you try it and see what happens.”

2022: “Don’t be foolish,” my grandmother said. “Besides, there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”

It helps to consider the actual story. The Witches wear wigs because they are bald, and they wear gloves to hide their claws. Touching their wigs would be a dangerous thing to do. Besides, the story takes place at a witches’ convention, where it is unlikely the child narrator is going to meet an ultra-orthodox woman in a sheitel or a chemo patient or a woman who simply enjoys playing with her appearance. But never mind the context: The important thing is to remember that wigs are okay! Be nice! Even if it means adding a preachy smiley face to a book written by an angry genius.

And what about this change in Matilda? Dahl is describing the joy of reading:

2001: She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling.

2022: She went to nineteenth-century estates with Jane Austen. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and California with John Steinbeck.

Take away those olden-day sailing ships and all the adventure is gone. I love Jane Austen, but the constrained world of Regency country gentry simply doesn’t convey the excitement and danger and unfamiliarity Dahl was going for. As for John Steinbeck’s California, it was a grim and prosaic place. What child has ever said, Oh, to be on the road with the Joads! And why is that old imperialist Kipling gone but not Hemingway, whose African stories heavily feature white men hunting now-endangered species and drinking too much? Isn’t Hemingway kind of a colonizer too? Perhaps the next edition will replace him with Mary Oliver.

I’ve loved Dahl’s books since Mrs. Jesup read us James and the Giant Peach in the seventh grade. Back in those barbarous times, even delightful, wise teachers in an all-girls school thought nothing of references to the Cloud-Men, who are now Cloud-People (singular, Cloud-Person), or of calling the earthworm “pink” (now deleted, along with many color words which to a demented—I mean, silly—person might sound “racist,” even though earthworms actually are pink). The Ladybug no longer blushes—I suppose blushing is too stereotypically feminine. Gone too is the passage describing the Cloud-Men’s wives frying snowballs for their supper. Well, gender-neutral Cloud-People wouldn’t have wives, would they? Certainly not ones who cooked for their men. It’s as if the Ambassadors think children have no sense that the past was different, as if it cannot be explained to them, if need be, that in 1961, when James and the Giant Peach was published, mothers did the cooking—as in most households they still do! No, reality, past or present, must be tidied away, lest some child somewhere starts fuming because the fried snowballs aren’t on the table promptly at six o’clock now that Mom has a job.

Each of these changes might seem small enough, but if you add them up, what you have is a weaker, duller, blander text. Dahl’s delicious dialogue loses its edge of rage. In places, the rhythm is destroyed. (The revised comic poems are a mess.) What gives these politically correct plodders the right to meddle with historical texts approved by their author and known and beloved by millions? Dah died only in 1990; he had plenty of time to rethink his literary choices, and in fact sometimes did so: The Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory started life in 1964 as African pygmies content to work for cocoa beans. Dahl revised that in a 1973 reprint—but it was his decision as the author, not that of some anonymous committee.

Source: Let Kids Read Roald Dahl’s Books the Way He Wrote Them