SO IT GOES – John Fleming's blog

Mr Twonkey pays tribute to Ivor Cutler, “embodiment of the Scottish eccentric”

“Embodiment of the Scottish eccentric”

Influences are always interesting.

Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner Paul Vickers is currently preparing for his new show – Twonkey’s Night Train to Liechtenstein – at the Glasgow Comedy Festival next Friday (9th March). Paul performs as Mr Twonkey, definitely one of the more eccentric acts in British comedy.

He reminded me that today (3rd March) is the anniversary of the death in 2006 of Ivor Cutler – Scottish poet, songwriter, humorist and arguably the eccentric performers’ eccentric.

Mr Twonkey phoned Mr Cutler in the winter of 1995

Paul says Ivor Cutler was “the embodiment of the Scottish eccentric.” His rider in contracts stated that he had to be provided with a two-bar fire and marmalade sandwiches – “Which,” says Paul, “is reason alone to love him. I would like to keep his name alive. He will be sadly missed and fondly remembered.”

In the winter of 1995, “feeling slightly hung over”, the future Mr Twonkey interviewed the then Mr Cutler by telephone for the music magazine Sun Zoom Spark.

This is what Paul/Mr Twonkey wrote.

I have edited it slightly for length.


An Interview With Ivor Cutler

By Paul Vickers

Mr Ivor Cutler drawing by Grant Pringle to accompany the article in  Sun Zoom Spark

In the heart of World War 2, Ivor Cutler held the position of navigator with the R.A.F, fiddling with maps and charts between 1941-42. He was de-ranked to first aid and store man for the Windsor Engineering Company when his peers noted he had other things on his mind.

He, however, was more suited to teaching movement, drama and African drumming.

He didn’t start writing poetry until 1942 and his creative waters didn’t really flow until he was forty-eight. But, since then, he has been a prolific songwriter with a chest full of wisdom spanning three decades; classic album releases (Dandruff, Jammy Smears and Velvet Donkey) and many books of poetry (Private Habits, Fresh Carpet and A Little Present From Scotland). He has also found time to carry out his numerous duties as chairman of the London Cycling Association.

He has made a name for himself by being a true original with perfect spoken word performance skills and graceful, offbeat sense of comic timing; a difficult man to predict; an impossible man to write questions for; a bona fide enigma, the man behind a huge assortment of atmospheric, melancholy laments.

“How are you doing?” I bellow in the voice of a Yorkshire mining town skivvy.

“Oh… I don’t know… I’m coming to life.”

“Could you give me a brief summary of what a day in the life of Ivor Cutler might consist of?”

“You ought to make yourself known to me…”

“NO. I think perhaps you ought to make yourself known to me don’t you think?”

I stammer and stutter a makeshift introduction. “Oh, I’m really sorry. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Paul. I wrote something about you a year or so ago.”

“Yes… I was very touched by that. You turned out to be unique in saying you laughed yourself sick initially but then began to see there was stuff underneath and I bless you for that. It’s the first time anyone has ever spoken in that way about my work. I’m sure I’m not just seen as one of those belly laugh comics, but the way in which you did it, I think was very revealing”

“Would you like to be taken more seriously?”

“I like to be taken seriously although I use humour as a medium it’s just the way I’m made. It is a way of instantly grabbing people. Yes, of course but not everyone cares to have that happen to them which means 50% of the people who come across my work think it’s great and the other half think I’m a lunatic. I resent that very much.”

“Do people actually get quite aggressive about it?”

“Well not with me but people in positions of power. People who are able to give me gigs or work. A lot of such people think Cutler’s an idiot and we’re certainly not going to put him on our programme. But I don’t want to be seen as complaining about this. It’s very nice to be controversial rather than have the total acceptance of everybody. I mean I worked with the Beatles once – on the Magical Mystery Tour – and I was so glad such a thing never happened to me. This ‘treated like god’ stuff. It would have turned me into a more unpleasant person than I already am,” he giggles heartily.

“I did a tour with Van Morrison some years ago so I got playing all these big places. I’m not crazy about it when it gets over a thousand, because I like to see the audience. I get them to turn the lights up so I can see their faces. I don’t have such a desperate ego problem that I need to play to masses of people. I remember doing a gig in front of three people. It was snowing that night. It was very early in my career and it was a great show… But I prefer more than three actually”

“You seem to find great humour in the cruelty of situations – cruelty in the ways of nature, like the way animals behave.”

“Stick a knife through a tomato –  Owcchh! Spllllcccchhh! That wasn’t very nice!

“Well yes. They’re busy killing one another. If people weren’t to be cruel then the only thing we’d be able to eat would be salt. I mean, all these plants. You stick a knife through a tomato and it goes Owcchh! Spllllcccchhh! That wasn’t very nice! One has to be cruel to survive.”

“But your humour is, at times, very dark”

“Yes, the person who totally changed my way of creative thinking was Franz Kafka who is seen by many to use very black humour indeed.

“The nature of laughter is very often fear. One is glad it’s not happening to oneself. I mean the man slipping on the banana skin gets people laughing. People are glad it’s not them.

“By the way,” he interrupts himself, “I’m not a surrealist. I get that stuck on me a lot. I’m somewhere in between surrealism and realism which makes it difficult for people to know whether to laugh or not. A friend of mine, Phyllis King, used to get dead silence when she performed because people didn’t want to hurt her feelings by laughing.”

“I think your most beautiful song is Squeeze Bees from Jammy Smears. It conjures up this sleepy image of a little girl and a little boy being completely content, sitting in silence and just enjoying the sound of the beehive; very tranquil and romantic.”

“I struck a bee-type noise with the harmonium to get the right emotion. I’m an emotional man. I think people who like to hear emotion get themselves fed by my stuff but of course not all my songs are so emotional. I’m a happy man and I’ll punch the man who says I’m not!”

“What makes you happy?”

“Well I used to collect stones but I’ve grown out of that. People go through life and do something to make them happy for a while and then it becomes boring. In fact boredom has been a very big part of my life. People look at me and think: How can a man like him be bored? Well… I just am, I suppose.”

A Stuggy Pren was a chance to peep inside Mr Cutler’s unique drawers

A photographic exhibition to promote his poetry book, A Stuggy Pren, gave people a chance to go through the keyhole and peep in his drawers, count his cushions and revel in his sentimental attachment to battered and bruised ornaments that litter his home. He is one of the last, great romantic eccentrics and, as the modern world slowly closes in on him, Ivor is slowly pushed out. He rarely plays live nowadays and when he does it’s always in the afternoon, allowing him to return safely home to get a good night’s sleep in his own bed. Anything less than a familiar mattress to Mr Cutler, just won’t do.

“One last question, Mr Cutler. What would you like to see yourself doing at the end of the century?”

“Oh crumbs! Dead, I suppose! The way I find civilisation presently I’d be very happy to be in another world. Life can be very unpleasant for me. I’d be quite happy to shuffle off after doing all one can in a lifetime. You see there’s too much rock music around and I hate loud music. It makes my ears hurt and it interferes with my body clock. I’ve got a lot of fans through John Peel and I’m sure they all like loud music and when I think what they do to me compared to what I do to them, it seems very unfair. I’m a member of the Noise Abatement Society.”

Ivor Cutler: born 15th January 1923; died 3rd March 2006, aged 83.