I dragged my family to a cliff top in Burton Bradstock, Dorset the day after I heard Ivor Cutler died. It snowed, the icy wind whipping us with a terrible ferocity from all sides. The primeval desire to survive mounted in us as we fought our way back to the car which was irresponsibly and precariously parked by a grassy verge on the cliff top. My young son cried as we sat weather whipped in the car, our ears stinging, our cheeks on fire, 'I never want to ever go to the seaside again Mummy its horrible' he whimpered, a young boy broken by his winter trip to the seaside.
My husband looked at me in wonderment, he didn't know why I had been so insistent on this crazy plan. The truth is, I didn't know what else to do. ...and yet I knew that Ivor would have understood and as I pulled away from that frozen cliff top I could hear him howling (that's how he laughed) with delight, not out of cruelty to my son but the lovely perversity of it all. It was a strange day - my very own In Memoriam to the man I still don't believe is gone.
For days I'd been ringing Ivor's old flat, his phone number even to this day committed to memory. It rang and rang, no stern voice announcing 'Cutler here', I could imagine the other end of the line, the sound ringing in that space that I could picture so clearly. The sound travelling from his bedside table (where he had a picture of me for a time, probably long since fallen down behind the furniture) - around his dishevelled bedroom with his odd assortment of newspaper clippings and Chinese pictures - into the kitchen, with the unwashed dishes in the sink and strange assortment of well ordered whole food packs and dusty unopened tins - through into the sitting-room with its washing line of Martin Honeysett drawings and dusty unopened bottles of wine standing on the floor just inside the door (amongst his mausoleum of unwanted gifts) - his harmonium sitting in readiness by the wall - out the window looking down onto the Tufnell Park street - dog turds outlined in chalk - and back into the bathroom that cleaned more moth larvae than human humorists. The ringing turned into alarm bells for me, no answer. I didn't know what I had expected?
I had known Ivor for about 10 years having produced an album of his favourite music with him called 'Cute (h)ey!' for EMI records as part of The Songbook Series. These were albums I created with 10 heroes of my choosing. Ivor or Mr. Cutler as I knew him at the beginning was top of my list, a list which included Hunter Thompson, Ralph Steadman and Robert Crumb amongst other unlikely partners for Ivor's blend of creativity. As a student in Dublin his 'Life In a Scotch Sitting Room' and 'Velvet Donkey' got me through many a cold and hungry night. I was part of a group who lived in a squalid flat in Dublin's Dun Laoghire by the sea in the recession fuelled late 1980's, with little money, we were, at times in truth, reduced to burning our furniture for warmth, something Ivor found charming and could relate to. Our tape deck was the only sacrosanct item in the place, for somehow Ivor's stories made us feel that our way of life was not so sorry a state, but, somehow that we were rich in things that mattered. ....and that really really mattered.... Forever in his debt, I needed to meet and thank this man. When I extended my thanks for services rendered he visibly swelled with a pride that twinkled behind his eyes and quietly whispered 'Don't mention it'. That was the start of a beautiful friendship.
When I first met him (At the Photographer's Gallery) he would make occasional visits to my office at EMI Records. Swaggering his way through the open plan office area handing sticky labels to the unsuspecting people in the offices. I loved to watch his approach, a wake of confused, amused and perturbed people staring at their labels and his retreating unusual form, dressed in plus fours, his head always crowned with unusual millinery encrusted with flowers and badges. Entering my office, we would shut the door and close the blinds and transport ourselves to Cutler land. His choice of music excited me, the boogie-woogie, the complicated piano pieces of Lennie Tristano, the deep and rich voices of Nina Simone and Mahalia Jackson, the joyous tones of people celebrating life, pain and happiness. He would delight in the size and power of lungs, to him, these singers were the athletes of the music world. He chose ethereal, inspirational pieces by Arvo Part that showcased further vocal prowess and olympic level abilities. Ultimately, this music and these visits possessed a power that could transcend the stress of the piles of paperwork and mounting e-mails and phone messages that I would need to deal with following his departure.. He would dance about my office, his hips swaying at times gracefully, at others awkwardly (a reminder that he was not in fact a young boy) his face always softly smiling, his eyes wet with happiness. To the Bartók pieces we would sit and stare, often at each other but mostly into the middle distance, the space between us a cinema screen of flickering imaginings. ...and in those moments we understood each other, and how wonderful it was to be understood by someone as unique as Ivor. ...and then to break the magic he would play Japanese Work Songs, tortuous voices shrieking over haunting flutes and we would laugh hysterically. He included one of these songs on the album to 'prevent people from taking things too seriously'. Don't get me wrong he liked these songs but they were ill placed on this album and he loved that! He also included two of his own songs 'I Believe in Bugs' and 'I'm Walking To A Farm' not, I feel, because he was an egomaniac but because he genuinely loved these songs, like old friends they warmed him internally. The latter of the two was his personal favourite, it showcased the Cutler voice so well!
When Ivor left my office on those days, I would blush at the questioning faces that looked at the closed blinds, but I didn't care what anyone thought, for those moments contained some of the magic that has made my life truly happy.
Over the year that it took to get The Songbook Series off the ground I had various meetings with Ivor, often in unusual places. He was not one to be wined and dined and, instead, despite my healthy expense account, would choose to meet at The British Museum, The Photographers Gallery, Primrose Hill, The Greasy Spoon at the bottom of Hammersmith's Brook Green. If he arrived to our rendezvous before me he would hide somewhere so that he could make the final approach with the usual Cutler swagger or in some cases he would be chatting with the security staff, bemused expressions set on their faces, a little sticky label stuck to the end of their finger trying to decide whether this odd looking man was making a fool of them or showering them in some strange magic. Ivor had a natural affinity with the clock room at the British Museum where we would spend many an hour, minute, second, examining their inner workings and then he would question the security man/woman at length. They rarely knew much about the clocks internal workings and would speak with Ivor, eyes firmly fixed on his earnest face and their hand wrapped around their walkie talkie. ....and I would watch wondering what might happen next...
A staunch member of the 'Noise Abatement Society' there were many occasions where Ivor would leave our lunch table to go see 'the man in charge', adjusting his large sunflower on the front of his hat, he would march to the counter and with pain filled expression explain what the background music in the kitchen was doing to his sensitive ears. Shockingly, even the most terrifying café owners would turn the music down. These moments were embarrassed teenager moments for me, I would squirm in my seat waiting for all sorts of chaos to be unleashed between gentle Ivor and the giant greasy caf owners, wondering at what point I should step in, but nothing bad ever happened. Ivor lived in a protective bubble I'm sure of it! He had this strange instinct about people, he knew things about them that I wondered if they knew themselves. He would sometimes approach the most unlikely looking candidates to impart some of that old Cutler magic, that sort that made you ask questions about yourself, and I would hold my breath in readiness for whatever may come of it.
Once, a very aggravated looking no:31 bus driver in Camden Town was handed a sticky label. It simply read 'I am Beautiful'. His rage constructed by the hours of groaning and moaning pensioners as they entered the bus, and the chaotic traffic all vying for the same tiny pieces of visible tarmac and a very overheated non air-conditioned bus interior was shattered in seconds. How I wished I had been filming (I filmed Ivor often), the man's face changing from rage to unadulterated joy was as beautiful and as graceful a thing as watching the light change from night to day. Later as we exited the bus, the driver called Ivor over and taking his hand in his, kissed it. Ivor took his leave of me that day with that beatific smile spread across his proud face. Cutler encountered = life changed. 'You are beautiful'.
On one of our many outings whilst walking down Oxford Street Ivor insisted on going into John Lewis, stopping in front of a shop assistant behind the haberdashery counter he started a Cutler-esque conversation about buttons. Moments in, she was lost and realising this, Ivor, reached into his wallet and handed her a sticky label. It read 'Never Knowingly Understood' which he advised her to place beneath her name badge which included the words 'John Lewis - Never Knowingly Undersold.' We left her puzzling over the strange man in the strange cap decorated with tiny oriental face masks and the strange label sticking to the end of her finger. I wonder if she ever understood?
Whilst visiting his flat one crisp autumnal day I saw a beautiful white bird shaped kite stuffed behind the sideboard and mentioned that I had never learnt to fly one. Ivor immediately got his coat on and insisted that we depart post haste for Primrose Hill. It was a beautiful kite made of the thinnest paper in China and it flew like a dream. He carefully instructed me in the arts of flying and then proudly handed me the string. A strong gust took it and with great speed we took off. I ran behind it loosening the string, until, running full pelt down hill I fell flat on my face. His beautiful bird flew away and although he laughed at my fall he never quite forgave me for letting it go. He attempted to mask his upset but I remember wondering if that white paper bird represented a bit more than just a kite. I left him that day in the park, him sitting face upward, his eyes searching the sky for signs of a returning paper bird. It never returned. Soon after, I took him to a kite shop in Carnaby Street to see if I might replace it, but, he was appalled.
His little flat was a sanctuary in the London's Northern end, there was a certain stillness over it, and when you were there with Ivor, nobody else existed. He would serve all sorts of strange food fare that I must admit I didn't always like or want, but he would arrange them just so, generally minimalistically on a pretty plate and then eagerly wait for me to tuck in. In the early days I would come bearing gifts, bottles of wine that he would add to the growing stockpile of other unopened bottles, bunches of flowers that he would throw into the sink - one day he grasped the cornflowers I had brought throwing them in temper and shouted 'Don't buy me any more gifts, I don't like gifts'. Point taken, we stepped out into the street on our way somewhere and plucking a flower from a bush he handed it to me with a twinkle in his eye. I took it graciously and put it in my hair. We didn't talk for a while, but he kept looking at the flower and my smile.
He would often sit opposite me in his sitting room and read from his notebook of recently crafted poems (which he generally wrote during the night) and await my reaction with interest. I wish I had recorded every conversation we ever had because I remember always feeling incredibly clever afterwards - he had this great way of taking your words and crafting them into something cutler-esque. We would riff on words, like musicians jamming their way through an emotion we would jam on themes, feeding off one another, I would say something and Ivor would pick it up, throw it in the air, catch it again and run for the far end of the pitch beyond the goalposts and back into the arena again, my words turned into something entirely unrecognisable which he would then let loose to find their natural resting place....and it was some of the best fun I have ever had. Feeling like a genius I would take my leave, always feeling somehow changed.
He constantly tried to get me onto stage with him, I never did or even could imagine doing such a thing. He would say that I had a wonderful voice (I don't) but not as good as Cutler's! Once one of my oldest friends (old flatmate from that den of iniquity in Dublin) and in fact the person who introduced me to Ivor's work in the first place, came to visit. Back from an extended trip to Africa she came to Ivor's flat with me. Instantly they struck a rapport and within an hour were performing on stage together, she, with a drum borrowed from Ivor's flat and he, with his harmonium, his tiny book and his deadpan face. He asked me to record the show which I did on a small tape player and following the performance handed it over to him. Days later he called me to his flat and made me sit through the recording of me chuckling quietly over the whole thing. Every now and then you might hear Cutler in the background but it was me centre stage. He laughed like a drain (ask anyone who knew Ivor his laugh was most ungentlemanly!) and tried to entice me onto stage to re-enact the whole thing. He suggested that I sit without explanation on the side of the stage on a high bar stool and quiet literally chuckle the whole way through his performance even at the unfunny bits. I declined on that occasion and all others. He regularly encouraged collaboration, if you had the nerve you were on! He liked to give poetry writing lessons and would encourage you in your own creativity, his tone changing from it's usual timbre to another one more serious and these, were the only times I saw him acting his age. At all other times he seemed to be a mere slip of a boy, full of wonderment and excitement at even the tiny things in life. Having Ivor at your side to interpret the world for you was a life altering experience and I am changed because of him.
Over the years of our friendship we covered a lot of ground, mainly around Charing Cross Road, Trafalgar Square, The Photographer's Gallery, The British Museum, National Portrait Gallery (where he would proudly say they kept a painting of him in the basement!). I filmed many of our excursions and must delve into those old tapes when I get the chance. For such a performer he was often shy in front of the camera, in fact, I think the camera rarely lies and told the real truth of Ivor Cutler, at the very heart of things, he was shy.
Our relationship had an intensity to it that sometimes made me question whether we were stepping over a line, but I realise that was just Ivor's way. He proposed marriage on a daily basis to me and I knew I was one of many. He had a certain way about him that made you feel that he was in love with you, but then, he probably was at just that precise moment. I remember when I married my long term partner and went on honeymoon, Ivor was not best pleased. While we were on honeymoon my Mother-in-law and her Mother stayed in our house which was being repainted. The decorators had taped all the windows and doors up without realising that they were inside and despite the heatwave conditions my Mother-in-law and her Mother soldiered on in the searingly hot conditions as though they were back in wartimes. Ivor rang at this time and revelled in the perversity of their predicament giving hilarious 'life-saving' advice. He also, made hissing sounds every time my honeymoon was mentioned or indeed my husband's name. He rang imparted more advice and hissed several times over this period. We soldiered on with our friendship after that but things were never the same again, and when I had my first son he was nothing short of disgusted.
He had a definite penchant for strong women and I remember him actually physically hugging himself with glee whenever I recounted stories of battle with the management at my work (of which there were many). He would ooh and ahh at just the right moments, playing out my battle in his head re-casting me as some Celtic Boudicca character. He loved a good fiery nature and would revel in moments of disagreement. However, it was difficult to remain cross about a situation with Ivor, he just had this way of placing you and your temper on a pedestal and making you examine yourself there.
Reading the piece written for this website by John Knutas has made me feel better about the last days of my relationship with Ivor. John explains the intensity of a friendship with Ivor far better than I ever could, he explains how Ivor's intensity quite simply wore his friendships out....in the end, I couldn't give him enough. Unfortunately my son was very ill until he had an operation at the age of 2. I would have loved to have spent more time with Ivor and talked more with him but quite simply my life couldn't allow it. The last time I saw him I had a few precious stolen hours from looking after my son. It was a beautiful day and we strolled around the streets at the back of his flat. Half way through a conversation Ivor stopped dead turned to me with eyes filled with tears and said that he couldn't remember what he had been talking about. He looked devastated and close to tears. I quickly grabbed his arm and told him that whatever he was about to say must have been a lie (that's what my Mum used to say to me in these situations). He turned to me and said in a funny kind of American voice 'Are you callin' me a liar Miss Nolan?'
I think about Ivor always. I see him in the small things, the little incidentals that happen in life that make you smile. I want to dial his number and share things with him and have him interpret them for me, thoughts and images given back to me with an Ivor Cutler gift wrap. A few years ago in Brighton I walked down a pathway littered with dog poo mounds that had little flags stuck into them, flags of all different countries - I nearly wept with a mixture of joy and sorrow at the realisation that I couldn't tell Ivor about it. There are so many stories that I could share about Ivor, like the time we went to The Barbican to see Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares and he trembled with anticipation and delight every time the large bass singer took a deep breath, and the time that he turned up at the control room in Abbey Road's Studio 2 and sidled in without anyone noticing and left us 'waiting' for him long after we needed to start, but in an odd sort of way I want to keep the rest of my stories just for me. Obviously, I still have his books and his recordings to listen to but the memories of times shared are amongst the most precious things that I possess. Just like his pocket sized poetry book collections thus designed so that they can be carried anywhere and everywhere I will carry Ivor with me wherever I go, and whenever I see or hear something that I think he might like I will take him from my pocket and show him the world around us.
(c) 2009 Ciara Nolan
About the author: Ciara Nolan produced the beautifully designed 'Songbook Series' of albums for EMI. Musicians were invited to select some of their favourite and most influential songs by other artists.
Details below of Ivor's contribution to the series.
Cute (H)ey? (CD) EMI Songbook Series, 1999 (7243 4 96610 2 8). NB this is a compilation of music by various artists, selected by Ivor Cutler . Two tracks by Ivor Cutler are included: I Believe in Bugs and I'm Walkin to a Farm. The CD comes in a booklet (ISBN 1-85848-565-7) which has extensive artwork and text by Ivor Cutler.