Wednesday, 8 September 2010

A biography of Ivor Cutler


More pictures of Ivor Cutler's flat here.
More on Ivor Cutler.
Biography of Ivor Cutler by John Gibbin Print E-mail
Ivor was born in GLASGOW on 15th January 1923 100 yards from the Glasgow Rangers football ground, Ibrox, to a Jewish middle-class family, the descendant of Eastern European Jews who arrived in Scotland three generations before him. His grandfather was a pedlar of working men's caps and his father branched out into furniture and cutlery. "My parents were orthodox Jews. My father moved from the orthodox to the progressive synagogue. He had been able to read Hebrew but wasn't understanding the traditional service. For me the language was then exposed as boring. I liked the incomprehensible noise of foreign words. Victimised by anti-Semitic teachers at school for not being a "real Scot" he got the strap 200 times for not being able to write.

When his kid brother was born he was three years old and lost his place in the universe as it's centre. "Without that I would not have been so screwed up as I am, and therefore not as creative. Without a kid brother I would have been quite dull. I did try and kill him, but my Auntie Eva came into the room and thought that it wasn't a good idea." Aged six he won a school prize for singing Robert Burns' "My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose".

Ivor had a austere childhood but strangely says he liked it. He says "As a boy my two grannies used to make the same kind of cake, one making it with milk and one with water. I always preferred the one with water. Then when I got to 17 I went through a stage of drinking hot water at people's houses instead of tea or coffee, and I'd try to savour the difference between one cup of hot water and another". The books Life in a Scotch Sitting Room Vol 2 and Glasgow Dreamer tells stories about many of Ivors memories from his childhood.

When he was 15 he heard a speaker for the Rationalist Society giving a talk on a soapbox in the street. "They said religion was stuff out of the jungle. I went to our minister and said, 'Can you prove the existence of God? He must have been in a bad mood as he just said 'no'. I never went to synagogue again."

In his twenties he looked into other religions, visiting various churches on Sundays. "I wanted to see if I fancied any. I found one Unitarian church that I liked best. But when the Unitarian minister saw me - a strange face - he ran up and wanted to engage me in conversation. I had to act as quickly as possible and left immediately. He converted to atheism and then, in his early twenties, having explored astronomy, he decided to become an agnostic.

When he was fifteen he thought, "I'm going to be a composer. I'm going to make simple but strong melodies like Drove or Schubert." I've got a thing which I call my first Piano Concerto and it's only in three lines, because I didn't know what a concerto was. I took it to school and showed it to the music teacher and she was knocked out. It was a load of rubbish. Then I did a serious one called "Funeral Bells", because being a humorist I'm naturally a lugubrious kind of bloke, and suicide always has a big attraction to guys like me.
At 16, he thought he'd become a doctor, like his father. But when his father told him I would have to smash a live frog's heads against a brick walls and dunk them in acid to see it's spinal cord at work, Ivor realised he didn't want him to be a doctor ( Ivor was a humanitarian vegetarian at the time).

At the outbreak of war in 1939, he was evacuated to Annan. In 1940 he became an apprentice fitter with Rolls Royce where they made spitfires for the Second World War, and although he liked what he was doing he knew he just wasn't any good at it. In 1941-2 he trained as a navigator with the RAF. "Just after I wrote home that I was now Sergeant Cutler, I was called into the CO's office and told I was a menace and that my plots were dreadful and was too dreamy and absent-minded". He said "Oh, the clouds were beautiful that day, so I spent some time looking at them. It didn't escape their attention. I'd already written home saying I was going to be Sergeant Cutler too. Dismissed for dreaminess." For the remainder of the war, Ivor Cutler was First Aider and Storeman for Winsor Engineering Company.

In 1950-51 he taught at A S Neill's Summerhill, he said "I had the time of my life. However, my headmaster said I was no good". He then moved to the Inner London Education Authority in 1954 for whom he worked until 1980. From 1961 to 1970 he taught music, African drumming, movement, drama and poetry to 7-11 year-olds. Although 31 years of teaching may have seemed too long for him, it is clear from his anecdotes that the most important factor in his innocence and experience is the classroom. His pupils are in some way responsible for unlocking his creativity and desire to communicate. From his early days at AS Neil's hippy academy Summerhill - a school with no rules - and then in London, where he made up songs and drama scenarios for his classes, he found he had a strong empathy with children. In one improvisation he told the kids to pretend to kill their siblings - as mentioned earlier something he had tried to do himself aged three.
Cutler was amazed and filled with love by the children's fresh look at things. "I used them," he confesses, "but they used me. It was a mutual thing." He likens the classroom to his audience. "In a way I am still carrying on with the kids. And those who come to my gigs probably see life as a child would. It's those who are busy making themselves into grown-ups, avoiding being a child - they're the ones who don't enjoy it." When he worked with the Beatles, he was invited to teach their children - an offer he declined on socialist principles: "What made their kids more special than other kids?"

He decided to become an artist while training to be a teacher, He wanted to be a painter but found he couldn't paint although his portrait is now in the National Portrait Gallery. "I desperately wanted to be a painter and started classes at Glasgow School of Art. I'd come across Henry Moore's work and used to play with the clay to make what seemed to me pretty visceral shapes. But the teacher wanted proper sculpture and tried to get me out", During this time his music and humour developed along with it. Until his radio debut, and indeed for some time afterwards, he earned a living as a schoolteacher. Mr Cutler's classes were popular with pupils, even though today his unusual approach would be thoroughly disapproved of in a system dominated by a national curriculum, and in his time he drew criticism from both disapproving parents and head teachers. It was through his art and his humour in particular that Cutler found a way of coping with his neurosis. "It seemed a very sensible way to go about things, because not only did I have the pleasure of doing myself a good turn, but I gave pleasure to quite a lot of other people. I was being sociable and at the same time was curing myself."

Fame first came in the late Fifties. He was lying on his bed with a primitive tape recorder for company and, as he puts it, a story came out of his brain. Surprised at the ease at which he could bypass his intellect he tried again, and a second story emerged and was also recorded. Then a third. Writing poetry then began to manifest itself. "My way of writing poetry was to go to a jazz concert and just let the music come through me and just write nonsense poems, so that one was listening to the noise of the words rather than the meaning. I wouldn't allow my intellect to get in the way. After six years I found certain sounds more to my taste than others and I gradually began to use actual words".
"I didn't settle down to really composing until I was 34. I was a schoolteacher, I had a wife and a couple of kids. I wanted to be a painter and I thought I wouldn't be able to leave teaching because I needed the money. So I thought, "I'll compose a song and somebody else can sing it and I'll just cash in on it. and then I'll be able leave teaching". Pathetic, isn't it? For about three years I wrote songs and went around to Tin Pan Alley and gave about three songs to each person with a stamped addressed envelope. They'd send them back in a couple of weeks so they wouldn't hurt my feelings". "Eventually, in 1957, I said the seven words that changed my life: Perhaps I ought to sing them myself".

"One day I went into a place called Box & Cox and the boss man there was a fellow called Boxy. I was dressed up all peculiar, a big bag on my back with paintings in it and a dirty old duffel coat. I put on a deadpan voice and said, "I understand you buy songs here." He said, "Yes", carefully. I said, "Would you like me to sing one of my songs for you?" He said, "Yes", it was five o'clock in the evening, he had a fire going, he was relaxing. So he got one or two of his chums and pointed to a piano that was against the wall and he sat behind me. I said "I've got different songs. It could be a funny one or it could be a serious one." He said, "Oh, play what you like." So I sat down and played this funny one. After a while I was listening, I heard. I carried on to the end, turned around, and Box was lying on the floor, his face purple. I said, "It's OK, you can laugh." He said, "We get some funny people in here and they would be terribly hurt if we laughed, because they see themselves as being very serious." So he took me on and started me in my music career"
Ivor took his works to the BBC who, in Cutler's words, "found them to their taste". Cutler was invited to read his idiosyncratic poems and stories on the forerunner of Radio 4, the old Home Service. Frequently he performed to the accompaniment of a pedal-driven harmonium which could only, as far as listeners could tell, play in a depressive minor key. He broadcast thirty-eight stories on the BBC's Monday Night At Home between 1959 and 1963. Cutler's artistic career started with a gig at the Blue Angel in Islington in 1957, which he reckoned was "an unmitigated failure". In the 60s he became a popular figure on UK radio, and in 1961 released his first record, the "Of Y'Hup" EP. He started writing poetry aged 42 three of his poems appear in Faber's collection of Scottish verse edited by Douglas Dunn. Not bad for a poet who didn't start writing until he was 42.

In 1967 he appeared in The Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour" film as Buster Bloodvessel, subsequently recording a jazz trio album called "Ludo" for Parlophone. He quickly acquired a huge following of people who hated him and an equally sizeable following who did not. Among the latter were Paul McCartney and John Lennon, who asked the BBC for his phone number, called him, went to see him, and Cutler found himself playing a cameo role in the Beatles= film The Magical Mystery Tour. "McCartney heard a song that I sang, "I'm Going In A Field": "I lie beside the grass." I love that line. People are wondering [whispers], "What's he on about?" He heard it, got in touch with me and invited me along for a meal and asked me about it. He said "You know there's that chord in that song." I said, "Oh yeah, it's a major second." Anyway about six months later I got invited to be in Magical Mystery Tour and I discovered I was known by Lennon".

Ivor Cutler now lives in a small second-floor flat in Parliament Hill Fields, London, where he takes his chances cycling through the traffic. He describes how to reach his home on the LP Prince Ivor, surrounded by his collection of masks, paintings and sculptures. They are the trophies of a lifetime spent in the melancholic contemplation of the human mind and its humorous potential. He clearly loves cycling, and hates noise pollution. I can tell you little more about his personal life than that, for he appears to be a most private man. "I'm one of these people who ... is bored stiff. I spend my time thinking: what the hell am I going to do today? So I might go to a second-hand bookshop, I might bicycle, go to the zoo or to a gallery. Things to pass the time"

Ivor does not perform very much nowadays the last reading was in June 2000 at the Owl Bookshop Kentish Town very near his home which he doesn't like to be far from. He knows that he does not have the energy he had when he was young and he worries that, despite the successes of his varied career as artist, cartoonist, musician, humorist and poet, he has still not entirely cured himself of his neurosis. Perhaps he would miss it; perhaps his life would lose its purpose.

Ivor is a member of the Noise Abatement Society and the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. He remarked once when asked if he was a member of the Noise Abatement Society "Yes, for years and years, it makes my life a great misery, noises. I always carry earplugs with me" and "The thing that drives me nuts is a lot of the fans that I have - because of Peel, I think, or because of the taste of the day - are people who go home and play very loud music in their homes, and they go in their motor cars playing very loud music with the windows open. Then they come to my gigs and I play as quiet as I can get away with because that's how I want to communicate it. I think, "I ought not to let these people in if they play loud music." Maybe I should stand at the door and you have to fill in a questionnaire before you can hear me."

After major heart surgery recently, when he had been told he was dying, "not knowing that it was going to be as miserable as that, I thought I might as well live for a bit longer. I really wanted to go when I was ill, but it is not easy to come across the means of dying in a pleasant way".

"When I do die I shall be glad to get away from loud pop music and motor cars, but I shall miss - insofar as when one is dead one can miss anything - the beautiful kindnesses of those people to whom courtesy comes naturally. Unfortunately there are fewer of those people than of the other kind who deal with their problems in a very anti-social way."

                  John Gibbin

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