by Nicola Barker
The novelist Nicola Barker on her hero Ivor Cutler, poet, humourist – and a true vaudevillian
I first met Ivor Cutler - poet, humourist, performer, singer, (although he might conceivably object to any of these particular epithets, because that's just how damn stroppy he is) – several years ago, on the phone. My flatmate was interviewing him and Ivor was ringing back to conform their arrangement. He liked the sound of my voice and so we chatted for a while. At the end of the conversation he asked me to come along to the interview too. I said all right.
This forward behaviour isn't at all out of character for Mr Cutler. He's an amazing lothario and a true person-devourer.. He is easily bored. Boring Ivor Cutler is like placing your hand on a burning hotplate. It's very painful. What's more, he considers it criminal.
I didn't see him for a while after that. He was undergoing major heart surgery. We met again by coincidence, having lunch in the Photographer's Gallery in London. He was fully recovered and as tart as a lemon. I made the mistake, early on, of calling him Ivor. If you don't know him well, you should always address him as Mister Cutler. It's just form but it matters. Now that I know him, however, I find that I can be as rude to him as I like and he doesn't give a damn. He is invariably even ruder back.
Ivor Cutler doesn't own a television. Television is one of the many things in modern life of which he disapproves. Noise, excessive heat, bumpy beds, low-grade chocolate and dogs form a small part of a very long list. Because he doesn't own a television, Ivor feels duty-bound to telephone people during all the very best programmes of the week. “Cutler here,” he'll say abruptly, and that's that.
Sometimes I call on Ivor at his Tufnell Park eyrie. He enjoys making lunch. I'm a vegetarian. Ivor has no sympathy with vegetarianism but adores health-food faddishness and so tolerates it well. The first time he prepared me a meal I was presented with a large, white plate, in the centre of which lay two, small, vaguely obscene, boiled vegetarian sausages. He also gave me a packet of crisps. Pudding: tinned tapioca served in a mug, to be eaten with a teaspoon.
The whole of Ivor Cutler's life is like a children's picnic. He has a fantastic selection of silly hats which he'll answer the door in. Usually, if you visit, as he moves around, an odd chirruping sound will emerge from the creases in his clothing. He carries a small bird-sound device in his pocket. As it twitters, his face is always as straight as a ruler.
Last time I visited, he took an extremely long time to answer the door. He pulled it open, wearing his characteristic plus-fours, red leather slippers, cerise lounging jacket and a yellow feather hat which looked like a cluck of hens had been disembowelled on his rounded pate. “Sorry I took so long,” he announced, in his crisp but creamy Scottish toffee-chewing voice. “But my kettle is having a baby.”
Ivor doesn't like other poets. There is the odd exception, but, in general, poetry does nothing for him and bores him to distraction. I like to mention other poets' work favourably in front of him to see how his mouth tightens.
One of the things I like best about Ivor are his Stickies. These are small, sticky-backed pieces of paper on each of which he has printed a little provocative message, silly phrase or curious remark. These he hands out at random to whoever he meets.
Recently, I was having lunch with him at Cranks, the healthfood restaurant, and a woman with a newborn baby was sitting at a table next to us. Ivor decided to give her a Sticky. He took out his wallet and went through a wide assortment of them, settling, finally, on one that said simply FUNNY SMELL. He handed the woman his Sticky. “Are you still breastfeeding?” he asked archly. She nodded, somewhat confounded. “Wait 'til he gets onto solids,” Ivor said, sagely, “then you'll certainly know all about it.”
Ivor is very formal and precise. He speaks, likes he writes, with great wit and humour and deliberation. I am quite foul-mouthed. He doesn't swear often, but when he does, it's absolutely sublime.
He cycles a lot. If you ask, “Did you come on your bike?” he'll pause, raise his eyebrows and say, “No, I didn't. Not this time.” It takes me seconds to realise exactly what he means. It's these kinds of seconds Ivor lives for. He doesn't laugh often himself, but if you do manage to make him laugh it's quite a performance; like an owl-hoot and a fox's yelp. It turns heads.
Ivor has a harmonium in his living room. If he's in the mood he'll put on an impromptu performance for you. His deep voice fills every corner, the harmonium creaks and a whiffling noise emerges as his foot presses down on the air pedal. He's a true vaudevillian. But his art is something simple and richly egalitarian.
Naturally I took the Stranglers at face value when they belted out “No More Heroes” way back in 1977. Even so, I do find Ivor's wickedly irreverent way of life somehow heroic; his dogged attachment to little things, to tiny details, to the sublime and fantastical in the everyday.
Curiously enough, Ivor is reputedly one of Johnny Rotten's heroes. That seems appropriate. He's a perpetual rebel. In many ways he's a man ahead of his time.
First published in The Independent. Reproduced with permission.