10. Ivor Cutler: The Search for Simplicity #Write52

ivor cutler.jpg

Ivor Cutler, the cult poet, songwriter and children’s writer was a master of off-beat humour and eccentricity. He was once described as having the on-stage “demeanour and voice of the weariest human being ever to be cursed with existence". But it never felt contrived. And he captivated his audiences for almost 50 years with a range of works that were utterly unique.

He had a singular perspective on the world, which some of his critics dubbed naïve. But his poetry reflected his ability to touch the creative wellspring inside us all. As Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

Cutler prided himself on bypassing the intellect as he created his work. This didn’t appeal to everyone, “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.”

Cutler was born in Glasgow in 1923, to a Jewish family of Eastern European descent. Antisemitism and the Great Depression were formative influences in his childhood, influencing later works such as Gruts For Tea, "Daddy, we've had gruts for three years now. I'm fed up with gruts".

After war-time service in the RAF, where he trained to become a navigator, he was dismissed for being "too dreamy”. He went on to become a teacher of drama, music and poetry. This included a spell at Summerhill, AS Neill's celebrated progressive school in Suffolk, whose alternative, democratic approach to education must have resonated with him deeply. He continued teaching for more than 30 years.

He began performing in 1957. And over the years produced a stream of extraordinary recordings, books and radio series. Not surprisingly, John Peel was a huge fan and he recorded twenty-one sessions for his Radio 1 show between 1969 and 1991. He also signed to Virgin Records, Harvest and Rough Trade. Often accompanied by a wheezing harmonium, his droll one-liners and whimsical humour, delivered in a frail Scottish burr, were an absolute treat.

Childhood recollections frequently cropped up in his deadpan poems, such as the superb Life in a Scotch Sitting Room Volume 2 (there wasn’t a Volume 1!).

It’s a live album, based on his memories of growing up in inter-war Glasgow. The dark, hilarious and sometimes exaggerated tales of a bleak, repressed family upbringing had their roots in the poverty and poor social conditions he witnessed. His descriptions of playtime routines involving grains of sand or bizarre toilet practices have a warmth and poignancy that gives depth to the humour, “Voiding bowels in those days was unheard of. People just kept it in."

Life in a Scotch Sitting Room Volume 2, Episode 1

Many people have fond memories of their encounters with Cutler. There’s a noted anecdote about a soundman clearing up after a gig in Glasgow who heard a voice from the wings, saying, “Right, that's it. I told you, I warned you. I'm leaving you”. The sound engineer walked around the corner to find Cutler talking to his harmonium. Which he then abandoned!

Cutler successfully carved out his own niche in life. But it can’t always have been easy. In the poem Get Off the Road, he wrote, “See the road lying/pressed along the ground/with no beginning or end/like a conjunction/like ‘and’, only longer/Don’t walk on it/For God’s sake, don’t walk on it!”

Ivor Cutler died in 1986. He refused to play by the rules of respectable society. In an increasingly pressured, conformist and unhappy world, we need more people like him to remind us that we mustn’t lose our childhood creativity and sense of wonder.