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Never Knowingly Understood: How Ivor Cutler Turned Daftness into Serious Business

A new show at Goldsmiths CCA shows us the ways the Scottish humourist made the comical his life’s work

‘Those who are blocked off from my messages, or do not like them, think I am a fool, or hate me.’ Reading these words of Ivor Cutler’s (1923–2006) – written in a non-cursive, naïf hand, in a small exercise book that’s displayed in a vitrine at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Arts in London – I’m reminded of parties back in Glasgow at the home of an overzealous Cutlerite friend. Pretty regularly, at a certain point in the evening, she’ll interrupt the regular flow of dance tunes to broadcast Mr. Cutler (as he insisted always on being called), pronouncing, in his thick Scots brogue – spoken deadpan, or else sung in a barrelling, music-hall baritone and set to a wheezing harmonium – his nonsensical aperçus and instructions. ‘Peel your mother from off the ceiling’. ‘My hat beats a warning to the flies’. ‘You cannot erase a love-letter with a nipple, no matter how rubbery’. More often than not, the room quickly clears.

Item from Ivor Cutler’s archive, installation view, Goldsmiths CCA. Courtesy: © The Estate of Ivor Cutler

Item from Ivor Cutler’s archive, installation view, Goldsmiths CCA. Courtesy: © The Estate of Ivor Cutler

For those of us who stay behind, part of the appeal is precisely the polarity of us-and-them that Cutler’s art insists upon. The occasional little digs he’ll make against anyone he conceives as being blinkered by conventional modes of thinking (‘This is a song for people in business’, he declares at the outset of ‘Pickle Your Knees’ (1959)) are far funnier for the near-certainty that his targets won’t be listening.  He’s surreal, sure – but in a quaint, antiquated sort of way, such that you can understand the common, out-of-hand reactions of scoffing and scorn. His wry, whacky, childlike humour revolves around minutiae – domestic life; chance meetings with birds and insects; scatology. Listening to him is a little like being let in on a secret you’re not immediately convinced is worth knowing.

You have to meet him on his own terms, like the girl in his short fable, ‘A Loaf of Bread’ (published in A Wet Handle, 1996). Here Cutler imagines himself as a baker who sells only scraps of paper that bear the words: ‘A Loaf of Bread’. Most of his punters may ‘hum and haw’, but, perhaps unable to imagine an alternative, they cough up their money anyway. This girl, however, ‘with eyes like currants’, intuitively speaks Cutler’s language. She pays him with a piece of recycled paper on which ‘69p’ is written. In return, he proffers fourpence change (in kind, of course), and a friendly word of warning. ‘Don’t let anybody know that I let you have it cheap’.

Item from Ivor Cutler’s archive. Courtesy: © The Estate of Ivor Cutler

Item from Ivor Cutler’s archive. Courtesy: © The Estate of Ivor Cutler

Daftness, for Cutler, was a serious business. It was a way of slicing through the routine ways we interact with one another, exposing the essential arbitrariness at their core, revealing the way to more meaningful, intimate connections. For much of his life he struggled to find anyone who saw things his way, confessing once in an interview on Swedish radio in 1985 that he believed he was ‘a stupid man’ until the age of 43. Having worked as a schoolteacher, first in Paisley and then in London, he began to perform on late-night BBC entertainment shows from the late 1950s, and would continue to appear on television and radio frequently on John Peel’s Sessions, for the next 50 years. In 1967, aged 43, he turned in a memorable stint as Buster Bloodvessel in the Beatles’s Magical Mystery Tour, which led George Martin to produce his second studio album, Ludo, later that year. But it  would take him another seven years to produce work that he felt was ‘professional’. On Dandruff (1974) – an album of huge poetic range, by turns tender and grotesque – he released the first in his series of pseudo-autobiographical vignettes of his childhood in Glasgow, ‘Life in a Scotch Sitting-Room’, which he would continue throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, and which are collectively his masterpiece.

Item from Ivor Cutler’s archive. Courtesy: © The Estate of Ivor Cutler

Item from Ivor Cutler’s archive. Courtesy: © The Estate of Ivor Cutler

The Goldsmiths exhibition, with sketchbooks, posters, letters and other ephemera, offers the great joy of seeing just how Cutler went about developing his ‘profession’. The title-sheets of his musical scores, for instance, are adorned with the sort of doodles you’d expect from such a maverick mind (think of a cross between Ralph Steadman and Chris (Simpsons artist)), but the real revelation comes with seeing songs like ‘There’s a Turtle in My Soup, Waiter’ (1961), which I’d unconsciously assumed were the product of casual ad-libbing, set out in formal notation on a stave. I’m reminded of the poem ‘Birdswing’ (1975), in which a thrush sends Cutler a letter, inviting him to ‘come and see me compose’. ‘She stuck her beak into the ink, and sputtered onto the manuscript’.

Cutler found life itself so inherently comical and absurd that he undertook, as his life’s work, the momentous challenge of not being outdone by it. There’s a beautiful moment in the poem ‘Fremsley’ (1974) when the radical potential of this becomes clear. Cutler and Fremsley – a sparrow – have been running hand-in-wing through the countryside, when all of a sudden Fremsley dives beneath Cutler’s shirt, telling him to hide in the nearest bush. Presently, ‘A great aristocrat bursts into the bush with two slavering dogs’. Yet even though this man catches sight of a fluttering beneath Cutler’s shirt, and looks exactly the sort who ‘could extirpate a sparrow without mercy’, he is ultimately thwarted when Cutler explains that the fluttering is just the beating of his heart.

He knew I lied. I knew he knew I lied. But I knew he would never reach into my shirt. He was a man.

A moment of fantastical danger has been averted by an absurdity that’s all too real. Time and again, in Cutler’s gloriously odd universe, society’s most idiotic preconceptions are turned against it, bringing it to heel. In a world that sometimes seems to grow more foolish by the day, you dismiss victories like these at your peril.

Ivor Cutler, ‘Good morning!  How are you?  Shut up!’, runs at Goldsmiths CCA, London until 4 November. 

Main image: Item from Ivor Cutler’s archive. Courtesy: © The Estate of Ivor Cutler

Samuel Reilly is editorial assistant at Apollo magazine, based in London, UK. 

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