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Home arrow Articles arrow Homage to Ivor Cutler by John Knutas
Homage to Ivor Cutler by John Knutas Print E-mail

About John Knutas  - 

John Knutas (born 1956) is a Finnish radio journalist. Between 1991 and 2004 he made or participated in over a hundred programs for the BBC, mainly for Radio 4 and 5. He first met and interviewed Ivor Cutler after a Queen Elizabeth Hall concert on New Year's Eve 1986, after which they corresponded at the average rate of one letter per month for 17 years. Knutas also met Cutler regularly during his visits to London.

This following article by John Knutas contains excerpts from Ivor Cutler's letters to John Knutas. The date given after each citation is from the relevant letter. Where the letter is undated, the date given is the postmarked date.

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'I don't mind in the least dying, as I've had all the pleasures one can have - apart from knowing how to live.' (May 5th 1990)

I've often thought about the above sentence. For most people life is some sort of struggle, but few think of it as a problem. Ivor sometimes pointed out, quite pleased about it actually, that as an adult he got a living out of his childhood neuroses.

'Because I was seen to be the intellectual inferior of my 2 brothers, my instincts were to be non-competitive from age 10. ' (October 10th 1997)

I also sometimes wondered why Ivor took the trouble of keeping in contact with me for so long. He could have had any number of friends closer at hand, but it eventually struck me that it was the distance which worked in my favour. I'd visit London about once every three years, and if I was there for a week I'd meet with Ivor five or six times during that week. If it was a holiday for me, we'd get together at 10 or 11 AM, and then spend time together until 7 or 9 PM. About every other day we'd be roaming London, mostly around Leicester Square and Charing Cross Road where Ivor's interests lay - the British Museum, The Photographers' Gallery/café where we'd eat, loads of book shops etc. - or Phyllis King, who had a car, would take us to Kew Gardens or we'd visit her at her apartment. Every other day I'd go to Ivor's flat in Tufnell Park, we'd talk for five to seven hours, and Ivor would make us lunch, which usually was chicken or fish.

At first his apartment seemed almost indecently untidy, his only explanation for the chaos being 'I love bacteria!', which implied he didn't want to disturb the miniscule organisms by cleaning or any similar activity. But as years went by, the appartment became a physical extension of Ivor's person, which I suppose all appartments are in relation to their inhabitants. Ivor's was never filthy, it was just overcrowded with stuff he loved. Overcrowded, now weighing the word, actually is an understatement.

His largeish bathroom was a piece of art with it's pictures of the Avro airplane he'd trained for as a navigator during the war, a harem picture so innocent it went over the other edge and turned out hilariously frivolous, or joke shop toilet rolls and art reproductions, among them Finnish painter Hugo Simberg's late 1800's picture "Frost", which I had nothing to do with - Ivor was a fan of Simberg's already before we first met. I still think it's a crime against humanity that it wasn't possible to lift out Ivor's bathroom after his death, and recreate it at Tate Modern.

 'I have a nut-cage and drinking water for the birds on my balcony. They mostly eat, drink, then shit seed on the flower boxes. I always get plants and flowers that I never planted on the next year. More satisfying than buying plants and knowing what you are going to get.' (August 25th 2000)

But the distance. Through the decades Ivor had had many close friends, with whom he'd either fallen out or otherwise stopped seeing. During the early 90's one such was the great wood-sculptor artist Craig Murray-Orr, who lived across Laurier Road close to Ivor and whom we visited a couple of times. Murray-Orr also exhibited his work on stage at a couple of Ivor's concerts, I believe, and Ivor was very pleased with the effect.

But some years later they didn't much see each other anymore. The reason, as with his other friends, I now believe, was that Ivor was such an intense person he simply wore his friendships out. Almost every time after I'd been to London and seen him for several days on end, he'd write me afterwards and tell me he was bedridden with exhaustion for weeks. But I was now in Finland, and could only be contacted (by letter) exactly when Ivor felt like it, or had the energy. After the turn of the millennium, he'd actually struggle with his fabulous letters for hours, a day's work. If I'd lived in London, this intensity couldn't have continued for long, and I'd probably have wondered "what happened?".

'I am a loner. I am admired for my 'clever words and thoughts'. I am scared to get close, because I know beforehand that I will feed on their personalities, then move away, like a butterfly.' (April 6th 1999)

Another aspect of the same question is that Ivor enjoyed being the center of attention. There were usually just the two of us when we saw each other, and he didn't introduce me to many people. Once he accompanied me to the BBC when I had a meeting there with radio producer Maria Balinska, and Balinska kindly moved the meeting to the cafeteria at the Broadcasting House so Ivor would feel more comfortable. But as the conversation at hand didn't concern Ivor, he seemed quite distant, and soon somewhat bored.

'I lack having lots of interesting people to talk with, probably because I am too self-centered, and also my life doesn't bring me in contact with people much. It is pretty solitary.' (August 10th 1995)

So I had an advantage in the distance between us, and the infrequency of our meetings. I can imagine Ivor was a difficult person to those who were closest to him for a long time, Phyllis King and his sons Jeremy and Daniel for instance, but he was always fantastic company and unbelievably generous to me. There was never even a hint of grumpiness in him, nor did we ever get into an argument about anything. When I now reflect upon our endeavours together, I think for instance about a time when we went to the National Portrait Gallery, where in front of every single painting Ivor would think up hilarious monologues or dialogues occurring between the pictured people. We'd be slapping ourselves laughing loudly, which would bring out worried-looking Museum guards to end the mayhem, but when they recognised Ivor they'd discreetly back off and let us go on. Or the times when we'd sit in Ivor's flat at Laurier Road, and he'd treat me to a new song or two, accompanying himself on the small pedal organ in his living room.

'I expect I am childish because it keeps fear away.' (February 1993)

I first became aware of Ivor through hearing his 1967 album 'Ludo", which I found in my employer's, the Finnish Broadcasting Company's record library. I was overwhelmed, dug out his early 70's LP:s on Virgin Records, and was instantly certain of having encountered a genius of a rare sort. At the time I worked for the Swedish language cultural section and couldn't wait to get to London to make a program about him.

I have the impression Ivor was insecure about the quality of his work until the late 1990's.

'I spent 2/3rds of my life thinking I'm stupid. It is very difficult to accept that having found a talent in me would make me any different.' (February 17th 1987)

I got a glimpse of Ivor's celebrity status one Thursday afternoon in the early 90's at his flat. The phone rang, Ivor answered with his customary 'Yes', listened for a moment, then said 'No, I'm sorry, but....' , listened some more, said 'I'm afraid I can't do that' or something of similar content, and hung up. Then he explained to me that it was a producer from BBC Television who had wanted to engage him as a studio guest in some sort of talk show the coming Saturday. Ivor told me who the other guests would have been.

On Saturday night I watched the talk show in question back at my hotel. It turned out that when Ivor had backed out, the next celebrity the BBC had called (and gotten to the studio) was Rod Stewart.

On several occasions Ivor pointed out that he is a hypocritical person. He said that the only one who saw through him right away was Phyllis King, and that she often confronted him intellectually when he was inconsistent, which he greatly enjoyed.

'I am very hypocritical. That is my greatest charm. ... The trick is to get people to think that I'm as interesting as my work, and not let them discover the truth. ' (October 9th 1987)

Ivor seemed constantly to search for what hippies in the 60's might have called 'soul mates' . He said his greatest influence was Franz Kafka's 'The Castle'. In 1988 Ivor found a book with works of the Bulgarian poet Bozhidar Bozhilov translated to English, and he wrote me in an almost extatic mood to tell me Bozhilov was '...the first poet who expressed himself like me.' A bit later Ivor retreated, and found only two of Bozhilov's poems to his liking. His next revelation was the French poet Guillevic, and the last one the Scottish John Burnside. This was in 1991, after which Ivor seemed to give up his search for similar minds.

He was quite interested in the arts, though. He studied music already as a young boy in Glasgow, and even composed a little at an early age.

'Up till I was 15, I went to synagogue regularly and soaked in the Jewish melodies... I liked Elgar's Enigma variations & Introduction + Allegro... Paul Klee & Georges Braque were very big for me... And I used to go dancing three nights a week!' (letters in 1988, -89 and -91)

Up until Ivor was about 75, his insecurities regarding his work were often pressing upon him. I think this had to do with spells of depression, which in the end got so bad Ivor went to a doctor for help. It must have been quite a step to take, because he got medication for depression in 1998, and starting taking that medication must have had him wondering whether it would interfere with his creativity. Here are some excerpts from letters written before he started taking anti-depressants.

'I am having one of my "trying to make sense of my life" times. These times always pass, without any answers, though I think it is merely being alone on a big ball in the sky that brings the feeling on. Do you see the Orion constellation in Helsinki? We see it here in October and November around 4 AM. It is my family, and when I see it in the sky I am no longer lonely. I look forward to joining them some time. I believe you can get a great view of the cosmos from there.' (January 1st 1993)

'I get so fed up being miserable. It's because I've spent my life being socially useful so as to make people like me. What a waste! I've never even been drunk!' (February 18th 1995)

'I don't know how to have a good time and I am only happy when unhappy. Actually, I don't think that is true, because I hate telling my troubles to friends, and hate hearing theirs unless it's something I can do something practical about, like giving them useful advice. I am a mender of minds, because I'm neurotic.' (September 1995)

'Look at my fans, feeding on the creativity of a mental cripple, trying through this, to heal themselves. Like ants licking the arseholes of greenfly for its sweet nourishment.' (January 29th 1996)

'If I face reality, I shall not want to live any more, so I do stupid things, like teaching people the technique I use to write poetry, and pretend it is important. And it works till the evening, then I try reading a novel or a book of jokes.' (October 17th 1996)

In 1964 Ivor had suffered a mild heart attack, which had given him a fright. On November 1st 1989 he wrote that he'd just had another tiny one, which meant a countdown for a bypass operation. He finally had a triple one on October 1st 1990, and during that one-year waiting he was in a rather good mood.

'I shall be a new man in about 4 months, and no woman will be safe, or sheep, goats, cows and horses. Hedgehogs will be safe.' (September 27th 1990)

During the time I knew him Ivor wasn't especially interested in politics - he'd grown tired of the subject. His interests lay in languages and books, of which he bought loads in the Charing Cross Road second hand stores. In the late 1980's he went back to t'ai chi, and took classes in pottery and wood carving, after which he aquainted himself with the Korean, Chinese and Japanese languages. For four or five years he wrote to me partly in Finnish, at first tentatively but towards the end of the period astonishingly well and at his best for two whole pages. Towards the second millennium Ivor became increasingly interested in books which contained pictures of people's faces, like foreign corporate history books or books about practitioners of some particular field of work. Also his general interest in insects and bacteria turned towards an interest in the feeding habits of different animals. As the years passed, more and more of the space in his letters was taken up by his drawings, which were always fantastically funny.

'At last, a letter from my friend. I think it is an F.' (1994)

Also, Ivor would naturally play around with words a lot. This passage he was so pleased with, he added a sign after it asserting his copyright for the text.

'My eye caught the word 'starting' (previous line in the letter) and I thought that if I removed the horisontal tick from the second 't' it would become 'starling', which would make a considerable difference, so I looked out the window, and you won't believe this, a flock of startings raced across the sky, but because of the extra -s that they carried, they came gradually to earth and started to walk to where they were going. I hate starlings, so I ran downstairs and started tugging their -s off, allowing them to continue their voyage. The birds started copying me, tugging away, but they didn't know which - to tug, so a lot of them became slartings and had to sit down and wait till I phoned the zoo, who sent a van to shovel the slartings into the back, and when they returned to the zoo, flung them gently into an empty cage till the zoologist came in the morning to have a look at them.' (April 30th 2000)

'I love the word 'extraordinary' because although it means especially good, amazingly original, it could also, if one chose to think of it so, mean extra ordinary - very very ordinary.' (October 17th 1993)

Ivor appeared absolutely deadpan in his concerts, but he wrote me that he often had to struggle with staying that way and not burst out laughing. To a person in my profession, one of the interesting things in the future will be to see how much of Ivor's art is connected to his person. He was a spellbinding performer, somehow on stage reminding me of the Danish-American Victor Borge, and his inimitable voice and delivery were probably unsurpassed as tools of trade. But unlike for instance Borge, a lot of Ivor's appeal lay between the lines, in the poignancy or slightly hidden bottomless melancholy of many of his poems, and whether this will translate to new generations simply through his written texts, without the aid of his own voice and delivery, will be interesting to see. I believe his LP's and CD's combining songs, poems and stories will work as a sort of temptation which will draw new audiences into his realm, after which some of them will discover his poetry books, and this will keep Ivor's work alive, and separated from his actual person. Ivor himself wasn't always so sure about it.

'People who first read my work on the page often think it's rubbish. Then they hear it, and I catch them in my fishing net with its 1mm holes. I wish I could catch them initially on the page, but I'd have to work too hard to be able to do that, and perhaps (perhaps not?) the words would lose their spontaneity.' (August 1999)

Ivor also occasionally worried about his overall influence, and thought about what he wanted to achieve with his art. But when he had created a good piece, he knew it, and almost bowled over with enthusiasm and happiness. And when the result wasn't up to his standards but slipped past his quality filter anyway, he didn't take it lightly.

'I often think I'm a force for evil because I make people laugh, instead of making them angry.' (February 8th 1991)

'I'm Walkin' to a Farm' is on Dandruff [album on Virgin Records] . It's my best song.' (January 29th 1996)

'My new book 'Under the Spigot' is not good enough, and I'm embarrassed.' (February 3rd 2002)

The last time I met Ivor in person was on Monday September 29th 2003. The BBC had kindly flown me to Great Britain to do a 30-minute radio documentary for Radio 4, and in order to gather material for it I was traveling around England and Scotland for a week, which left me only five hours in Tufnell Park with Ivor on that Monday.

He wasn't well. He had a quite marked stutter in his speech, with which he seemed relatively at ease, but he was unshaven and seemed distracted. When I had to take the evening train to Blackpool, he came and saw me off at the station, and we hugged as usual (something he had taught me to do twelve years earlier - Finns don't generally hug). I had a premonition that this was the last time we would meet, although I don't believe in premonitions, but Ivor was clearly not well. On the other hand, if he knew his time was coming to an end, he certainly didn't show it.

'When we die, we'll go to a place where the flowers will pick us and pull our limbs off and say "She loves me, she loves me not". (March 20th 1989)

It is generally thought that friendships and other relationships work two ways - you give some, you get some. I seldom felt this was true with Ivor, because he was such a joyful and insightful, endlessly abundant barrel of jokes and wisdom and stories and associations, that I constantly felt on the receiving end. He often went out of his way to accommodate and be nice. In 1997 the Finnish Foreign Office had flown me to London to co-host a showcase afternoon of Finnish tango music at the Barbican Centre, and Ivor turned up there to meet me around mid-day. When the soundchecks for the orchestras started I could see him visibly battle with himself - Ivor was sensitive to, among other things, loud noises - and around 2 PM he looked me up and actually apologised for not being able to take it anymore. He was shaken, but he had done his best.

The only time I felt I actually was of any concrete use to him was a few years earlier when we talked about his short involvement in WW2. He had enlisted in the Air Force and been shipped off to Canada to be trained as a bomber plane crew navigator/meteorologist. In the end, the people running the war effort didn't feel they could rely on Ivor's concentration in that capacity, feeling he was too dreamy and unfocused. Ivor told me that he'd both felt and been called a coward during the process of that rejection, which had troubled him a great deal ever since.

I had done my army service in my youth, and could logically prove that Ivor might be a coward, but not because he was rejected from service and missed the chance to become a war hero. He was so relieved he burst out crying, the only time I ever saw him do so.

The last letter I received from Ivor was stamped May 17th 2004. It was a short note of only a few lines. The last line read:

At last it moves silence.

The line had nothing to do with anything else in that letter. I still don't know what he meant.

John Knutas

Kotka, Finland, January 5th 2009

© John Knutas and the Estate of Ivor Cutler. All rights reserved.





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