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Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Never Knowingly Understood : The Sublime Daftness of Ivor Cutler

Ivor Cutler (1923-2006) was the daftest of the daft poets, and this is meant as the most sincere of compliments, because to entertain listeners and readers with an unremitting stream of original and uplifting daftness is not as easy as one might suppose. Cutler composed songs that were poems and wrote poems that were songs and he recited or sung them while playing the harmonium or piano. His voice is a distinctive one and once heard is never forgotten. His records are little treasures.

Born in 1923 in Glasgow, Scotland, Cutler joined the Royal Airforce (RAF) during the Second World War and became a navigator but was demoted on a charge of “dreaminess” and reduced to working in a storeroom. The story is that he was caught too many times looking at the passing clouds while flying and wondering aloud what animals they most closely resembled instead of carrying out his technical duties.

After the War he worked in schools in deprived areas of London, teaching music, dance, drama and poetry, refusing on principle to punish his pupils for misdemeanours and encouraging them to write verses about killing their siblings. He remained an inner city teacher for three decades. Writing poetry was only a hobby for him, but he appeared on BBC Radio on occasion, and in 1959 released his first record on the Decca label, Ivor Cutler of Y’Hup, which includes two quintessential Cutler tracks, ‘Pickle Your Knees’ and ‘Gravity Begins at Home’.

An unapologetic eccentric, Cutler preferred to dress in old fashioned clothes and kept a set of ivory cutlery in his house because of the pun on his name. He travelled everywhere by bicycle while communicating with sticky labels that he made himself. These ‘stickies’ featured Cutlerisms, his life’s philosophy distilled into slogans and maxims, the most famous of which became “Never Knowingly Understood”, a direct allusion to his working method of allowing his subconscious mind to do all the creative exertion on his behalf. This is a technique associated with Surrealism, but Cutler had a lighter, quieter, sparser approach to the weird, macabre and illogical than the majority of surrealists. The darkness is transmuted into mischief and the savagery into play. There is melancholy in some of the poems, even despair, but it tends to be counterbalanced by the charm and daftness. The result is calmly invigorating.

Two more records on the Decca label gave him a small following but wider success remained elusive for many years. Not that he cared much about his popularity. His ambitions were refreshingly modest. Who Tore Your Trousers? and Get Away from the Wall, both released in 1961, are now fairly difficult to obtain. It was an appearance on a television show three years later that proved to be a turning point in his career. He was noticed that night by Paul McCartney who then invited him to appear in the Magical Mystery Tour film. This led to him working with renowned Beatles’ studio engineer George Martin, who in 1967 produced Cutler’s album Ludo, the most traditionally musical of all his releases and still his best selling record.

Despite the whimsicality and apparent simplicity of his poems, Cutler had a solid grounding in jazz and collaborated with many groundbreaking musicians, including Robert Wyatt and Fred Frith. His name appears with great frequency on billings of music festivals devoted to jazz, fusion and experimental music from the 1960s and 70s, much of it abrasive, raucous and difficult. He was taken seriously by a host of virtuosos and accepted by them (something that never happened to the equally eccentric Shooby Taylor at the same time). Yet he disliked loud music and was a member of the Noise Abatement Society. He rarely raised his voice and asked his audiences to applaud as gently as possible.

For live performances he obtained the services of Phyllis King, who would contribute readings of brief prose passages. Brevity was dear to the heart of Cutler, who preferred his short stories to be no longer than one page in length and his songs to last no more than two minutes. Many of his poems consist of just a few lines, yet they often have a resonance and depth that eludes more complex works. “Women of the world take over / Cos if you don’t, the world will come to an end and it won’t take long” is the whole of the poem entitled ‘Women of the World’ and does it really need to be any longer?

Personally I hold in special regard those poems and songs where there is brilliantly simple but effective wordplay at work. He relies on a trick that humorous writers have been using for centuries, namely that if there is a possibility that a word or phrase has more than one meaning, the less obvious meaning will be chosen as the pivot on which the work revolves. In this way Cutler is not dissimilar to Spike Milligan and other absurdist comedians who were prominent at the time. Cutler’s song ‘Shoplifters’ from the album Ludo is a good example of the technique, demonstrating not only his penchant for strange placid humour but also ultimately his compassion and optimism:

Is your shop right down on the ground?
Then let us lift it, lift it for you.
There’s plenty of room in the blue
for your shop, and for you.

A woman whom once I knew
had a shop, it sold bananas and calico.
She said, ‘Lift up my shop’
so we lifted it two thousand hundred yards into the sky.
She thought she was going to die.
But we gave her the big reassure.
There was plenty of room to spare.

‘Good Morning! How are you? Shut up!’ from the same album is an even more ingenious and wry demonstration of the duplicity of words and meanings. The protagonist expresses a morning distaste for “small talk” and insists on “big talk” instead (“elephants, elephants, oh I love that big talk”) but soon changes his mind and asks for small talk (“Flies, mice and spiders. Mice, flyders and spice. Spice, mice and flyders. Microscopes, microscopes, oh I love that small talk”) before reverting to a desire for big talk again (“Cows, yaks and mammals. Maks, yammals and cows. Yaks, yows and cammals. Cacks, mammals and cows. Have you finished with your big talk? Yes, hello!”)

Having said that, if I had to choose just one favourite piece from his output, I might settle for a song without any wordplay at all in which the hilarity is generated by pure ridiculousness paired with a smile-inducing calypso rhythm. ‘I Believe in Bugs’ from his 1974 album Dandruff is a tonic for all our troubled souls. It helps to restore an unspecified hope to the ravaged world. The daft is mighty! Cutler shows us that it is best to never grow up in the first place, but that it is not quite too late for those who have unfortunately already grown up.

Cutler generally made no real distinction between his records and his books, seeing them as variations on each other. Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Vol. 2 (there is no Vol. 1)is autobiography with an absurd twist, designed to be read, listened to and looked at. The record was released in 1978 and the illustrated book in 1984. Tales of an impossible childhood in Scotland, where parents drag out their children into the rain to enjoy nature (“Look, said father, a patch of grass!”) but where chores intrude like monsters to quash curiosity, are presented with minimal inflection and fatalistic understatement. One wonders how such damp surroundings can result in such astoundingly dry humour.

The titles of his records and poetry collections and other books are frequently wonderful in themselves, one line absurdist poems in essence that tickle the eyes. Cockadoodledon’t!!! (1966), Jammy Smears (1976), Grape Zoo (1991), Is That Your Flap, Jack? (1992), and the quartet of books featuring the character Herbert, all released in 1984, Herbert the Chicken, Herbert the Elephant, Herbert the Questionmark, Herbert the Herbert, and the wonderful collection of some of the stickers that Cutler would hand out to random people, Befriend a Bacterium: Stickies by Ivor Cutler (1992), among dozens of others.

Cutler’s eccentricity was authentic and never contrived for the sake of a public persona. He was once found in an empty theatre chastising his malfunctioning harmonium. “Right, that’s it. I told you, I warned you. I’m leaving you.” True to his word, he abandoned the instrument and it eventually found its way into the hands of a theatre troupe who staged a play based on Cutler. The jazz musician Robert Wyatt remembers Cutler as friendly and funny, but denies that his poems and songs were comedy and nothing more. “Neither quite comedy or tragedy, his work took you to another place, like a sort of East European Samuel Beckett.” Despite his seemingly primal Scottishness, Cutler’s ancestors were Jewish and the Jewish musical traditions remained in his family, though Cutler himself cited Paul Robeson as his favourite singer.

Useful advice in an emergency situation is always welcome. It is best to conclude this brief appreciation of Ivor Cutler with a ‘Jungle Tip’ from Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Vol.2. If confronted by a lion in the wilds of Scotland (or in any other place where lions are largely unlikely) the following poetic suggestion might save your life…

If a lion attacks
stoop swiftly.
Pick up two medium sized rock stones
and insert them deftly up his nostrils.
He will forget your presence temporarily
in an attempt to remove the foreign bodies.
But do not wait around
for he will bound after you
and you will not play your trick a second time.

More videos from Ivor Cutler:

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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