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).