It had been a bad day at the bookshop. The boss was in a stinking mood, the heating was broken, and there was a huge pile of Schott’s Miscellany in need of new stickers.
Looking up, I noticed an old codger loitering by the reference section. He sported a tartan cap with a sunflower in the brim, and was studiously leafing through the latest Who’s Who. Oh god, I thought, another local loon – I’m really not in the mood right now. Catching my eye, and perhaps feeling I was owed some kind of explanation, he raised his head and said only one thing: ‘Just checking.’
It was no longer a bad day at the bookshop.
My first experience of Ivor Cutler was a common one: it was on the Radio 1 John Peel programme, for which he recorded 23 sessions (a record narrowly beaten only by The Fall and, in various guises, David Gedge). 1991 had already been a pretty good year for Peel sessions, showcasing everyone from the Charlatans to the Shamen, Bongwater to the Ragga Twins, Helmet to Dr Phibes and the House of Wax Equations. I used to tape them religiously and compile elaborately felt-tipped cassettes of highlights. It was the sheer variety of artists that mainly thrilled me, but nothing had quite prepared me for Ivor Cutler. Out of my radio came this slightly unsettling Govan voice, crooning the following over a doleful piano:
Why is your coat so thick, Joe?
Why is your coat so thick? It seems thicker every day.
“What’s it got to do with you?
That’s the way I like my coat.
My coats have always been thick.”
What’s the material called, Joe?
You told me yesterday but I forgot.
“I’ve forgotten too.
But I’ll tell you the colour – it’s a darkish blue.”
Oh don’t go on, the colour’s grey –
It’s only the light from the street.
Do let’s go for a walk, Joe,
I’d like to stretch my feet.
Why is your coat so thick, Joe?
Why is your coat so thick? It seems thicker every day.
It was deeply strange, but I found it hard to put my finger on precisely why it was strange. Even allowing for Peel’s famous each-record-completely-different-from-the-one-before-it eclecticism, Ivor Cutler was unusual. With the precision of his inflexions and the daringness of his silences, it was as if Radio 1 had – unlike my cassette deck – been put on pause. It was as if the weather had changed. ‘Ivor’s great at dreich’ Billy Connolly once said, referring to the Scottish slang for drizzle.
But the thing with Ivor Cutler was that you had eclecticism within eclecticism. He didn’t seem to fit into any one box. He wasn’t a ‘cosy’ poet, but he wasn’t an overtly ‘alternative’ one either. He was neither John Betjeman nor John Cooper Clarke; neither Pam Ayres nor Patti Smith. His work was very funny, but it seemed to carry a peculiar weight on its shoulders that the work of other ‘humour poets’ (even the very good ones) often didn’t.
In his world, nothing was quite what it seemed. The cover of his 1976 Jammy Smears LP sees Cutler bare-chested, apparently in a southpaw sparring pose, as if he’s snarling ‘You talking to me?’ into a mirror. Look closely, however, and his fists aren’t actually clenched. His face is melancholic and afraid, like a haunted figure in a Samuel Beckett play. His boxing shorts are pyjama bottoms.
Cutler was Scottish and Jewish, although he seemed to contradict Arnold Brown’s famous joke about these being ‘two racial stereotypes for the price of one’. I often tried to piece together his ‘story’, but it was a slippery one. Who exactly was he? His recollections and observations were rooted in Scotland, but they also seemed to take place in a bigger, far woozier world. He belonged to Glasgow, but also to other planets. This is, after all, a man who was once grounded by the RAF for ‘dreaminess’.
It’s interesting, listening to Cutler’s early work (his first three records are currently available on CD as An Elpee and Two Epees), how his delivery arrived almost full-formed. Those 1959/61 recordings have a slightly more Milligan-esque knowing wink, and you can hear how they wouldn’t have frightened too many Home Service horses, but it’s still the Cutler we know. As far as I can tell, he’s an artist with no juvenilia.
As the years rolled on, the voice (and face) became unmistakable – when it comes to TV ‘hauntology’, he was exactly the kind of weirdo you’d expect to see popping up on Late Night Line-Up, Whistle Test or The Innes Book of Records. He was also terrific as Mr Bloodvessel in Magical Mystery Tour (‘I am concerned for you to enjoy yourselves, within the limits of British decency…if you know what I mean’), although it always annoys me how much they underused him dialogue-wise.
As he grew older, Cutler’s work – like Samuel Beckett’s – matured into a sort of crisp minimalism, and his imagery became even odder and more oblique. Here’s his 1991 prose poem Seaweed:
Sometimes it’s a bit difficult to determine where a woman’s face ends and the air begins. As though flesh and air shared the area, like high tide and low tide.
So when you lean forward to kiss her, your lips touch sand, or else they plunge into the sea. It’s always a surprise.
I prefer sand, with a bit of bladderwrack on the lip.
The phrase ‘flesh and air shared the area’ is brilliant there. Cutler doesn’t just have a poet’s eye – he peers intently at the world, and at language, as though through a jeweller’s eyepiece.
It always comes back to that voice, though – a voice that works very well on the page, but only if you already know what it sounds like. I remember when Cutler was about to collaborate with some indie band, the NME reported a telephone conversation between him and the singer. Sadly I can’t recall the name of the band, but I vividly recall the transcript:
SINGER: When shall we meet?
IVOR: Well, what time do you surface?
SINGER (Laughing): Well, we don’t usually surface till about ten!
IVOR: In that case I shall meet you at nine.
I also remember a Radio 4 announcer asking him about his plans for Millennium Eve: ‘I’ll climb over my books and try to get into bed,’ he said. ‘Then I might sneer.’
Much as I adore his poetry, the autobiographical Life in a Scotch Sitting Room and Glasgow Dreamer monologues are probably my favourite works. I love the line about the family eating herrings, about how they’d wolf down the batter first ‘to take the edge off our appetites so we could eat the herrings with respect’. I never tire of the story about his father taking them for an instructional walk (‘There are lots of thistles in Scotland – we were soon well-acquainted with them’). And I’ll certainly never forget the line ‘I extended my puny finger and sank it into his fluted scrotum’. How much of it was true autobiography, and how much was invention? Again, Cutler blurs the lines.
I remember one winter I got ill with a fever (‘hugging the wall to escape the worst effects of the fresh air’) and my company under the blankets was the Life in a Scotch Sitting Room Volume II album, recorded at the 3rd Eye Centre on Sauchiehall Street in 1977. It remains one of the most blissful evenings of my life. Never mind listening to Pink Floyd on acid – you should try digging Ivor Cutler when you’ve got flu.
When I moved to London and began working at Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road, I got used to seeing incredibly famous people. When you work in London retail, you very quickly become blasé about talking to celebrities – they’re just part of your daily routine. I could fill a whole book about my experiences behind the counter, serving everyone from Clare Grogan downwards (or, if you like, Rod Liddle upwards). I could tell you about the time a grumpy Ken Dodd asked me to look after his suitcases or the time Nicole Kidman pushed past me on the stairs. I could tell you that Michael Heseltine and Jerry Sadowitz were both very friendly but Harriet Harman wasn’t. I could mention the week I served three different Doctors Who. I could recall the day a heavily-masked Michael Jackson generously tipped the security guards with chocolate but then had his credit card declined. Only two celebs have ever really made me truly starstruck, though: one was Tom Courtenay (who asked where the Anglo-Saxon dictionaries were), and the other was Ivor Cutler.
Foyles stocked quite a few of Cutler’s volumes, a selection of which had just been republished as miniatures, and Ivor (who lived locally) would periodically pop in to see how they were getting on, a bit like a restless gardener tending a greenhouse. I remember the way he first introduced himself: ‘I’m Ivor – would you like me to sign anything?’ he said, carefully dismounting his bike. ‘I’m apparently Scotland’s foremost poet.’
During my time at Foyles, I got to know Ivor quite well. He’d come in fairly regularly, and I often volunteered to work in the poetry section in anticipation of his visits. He was somehow frail and full of beans at the same time. His official live performances were rare, but I had a private audience with him every week; he’d hang about by the till reciting poems, stories and songs, most of which seemed to be world exclusives. I remember one time a police helicopter could be loudly heard overhead and he ad-libbed a routine about the ingenious methods he was using to escape capture.
Did I discover ‘the real Ivor Cutler’? Not really. Or if I did, he was the same chap who’s on the records. He did confide that he didn’t think John Peel should be wasting his time with Home Truths, but that’s the closest I’ve got to gossip. It was very odd talking to him ‘out of character’, though – he usually had a smile playing on his lips, and I suspected that, like most eccentrics, he was fully aware of the eccentricity-buttons he was pushing. (How long had he planned that ‘Just checking’ line? Had he used it before?) I’ve always felt the same way about John Peel, Alan Bennett and Vivian Stanshall – there’s a trick to making all that quotability seem natural. Which isn’t to say that any of those people are frauds; quite the opposite, in fact – they’re simply very skilled at speaking the truth.
His visits became gradually less frequent, and I last spoke to him about a year before he died. As he left, he handed me a sticker (as he often did), which read ‘To remove this label, take it off’.
To most of my colleagues he was ‘that weird Scottish poet guy’. To me, he was…well, that weird Scottish poet guy. But he brightened up my days anyway. There’s certainly a lot less dreich in the world now he’s gone. (Or a lot more, depending on how you look at it.)
I was always touched by how protective he was of his own books, which is why it maddens me how little of his stuff remains available today. Most of his poetry and prose is long out of print, for a start, the tiny volumes he signed in Foyles now commanding colossal sums. The albums have fared slightly better, although not all of them are available – the material’s all owned by several different labels, so even an Essential Ivor Cutler compilation may be a problematic endeavour. The Peel sessions, however, are surely long-overdue the boxset treatment.
What really puzzles me is why nobody’s ever commissioned a proper Ivor Cutler anthology. Not necessarily the collected works (which would be a glorious doorstop) , but a ‘Selected Poems’ volume at the very least. This goes back to what I was saying before about me being unsure of Cutler’s status. Is he considered a ‘proper’ poet? How is he viewed by the gatekeepers of the literary canon? It’s hard to get any real frame of reference, but his absence on the bookshelves remains scandalous.
With this in mind, I advocate that every January 26th we should celebrate Cutler Night. We toast Rabbie Burns on the 25th as usual, but the next day we raise a class to Scotland’s other national poet. And instead of haggis, neeps and tatties, we tuck into egg meat, gruts and pickled knees.
All within the limits of British decency, of course.
If you know what I mean.