Book review

Bruce Lindsay – ‘Ivor Cutler: A Life Outside the Sitting Room’

Bruce Lindsay – Ivor Cutler: A Life Outside the Sitting Room

(Equinox Books. 254 pp. £25. Book Review by Rob Adams)

Ivor Cutler was a singular talent. He was an author, poet, songwriter, humourist and performer of material that could have come from no other source; and yet, Cutler wasn’t without kindred spirits.

One of the things Cutler took most delight in distributing were his “stickies” – sticky labels about half the size of a credit card with black text on a white or gold background. Onto these Cutler would print gnomic advice and Cutlerisms. Some were whimsical (“to remove this label take it off), others brusque, for instance “Don’t tell ME what kind of day to have.” Cutler probably meant this to be funny. Or maybe not. Taken in a certain way it has all the hallmarks of the famously abrupt jazz cornetist Ruby Braff, who once replied in similar style when wished a happy Christmas.

Later in life, Cutler’s dislike of hotels was akin to his fellow Scot, the button accordion legend and composer of The Bluebell Polka, Jimmy Shand, who used to drive inordinate distances after gigs to get back home to his own bed.

Cutler would almost certainly have known of Jimmy Shand, although the denizen of Auchtermuchty isn’t among the prodigious cast that Bruce Lindsay has gathered to tell the Glasgow-born Cutler’s story. Cutler might even have known about Braff because in his transition from schoolteacher to harmonium-pedalling purveyor of wit and wisdom Cutler wafted through the London jazz scene and had a very short-lived trio with bassist Dave Green, who coincidentally counts Braff among the visiting Americans he has played with, and drummer Trevor Tomkins.  

As with his previous book, Two Bold Singermen and the English Folk Revival, which brought the traditional singers Sam Larner and Harry Cox’s stories to vivid, informative and entertaining life, Lindsay has researched Cutler well. He’s particularly strong on Cutler’s family background and early life in Glasgow and has rounded up an impressive number of Cutler’s former pupils from his days at Fox Primary School in Kensington. These include Kate Williams, another jazz connection, who as well as being a fine jazz pianist is the daughter of guitarist John Williams.

Through a brush with Tin Pan Alley (via the almost named-to-measure music publishers Box and Cox) on his way to recording for an impressive list of record labels – Fontana, Decca and Parlophone (with George Martin, no less) and later, Virgin, Harvest, Rough Trade and Creation, Cutler emerges as a man who knew his own worth. Even so, he wasn’t above offering to reduce his fee post-gig if he felt he hadn’t delivered his best performance.

A sizable proportion of Cutler’s audience will have come to him through his numerous appearances on the John Peel Show, which allowed Cutler to join the select band of performers who have appeared on BBC Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4. Others will know him through his connection to Robert Wyatt. There are recollections from guitarist-violist Fred Frith, who talks fondly of getting to record with his hero, and Cutler’s sons, Dan and Jeremy. When one of the boys expresses an interest in playing drums, Cutler arranges for him to have lessons with one of the best drummers in the land, John Marshall, of Soft Machine.

Cutler’s personal life was, unsurprisingly, as singular – and at times as mysterious – as his art. His relationship with his audience could also be unpredictable. He enjoyed applause but due to his aversion to noise, he would ask people to clap quietly. Lindsay deals with all this sympathetically and enjoys getting into the often-bonkers detail of Cutler’s long-running and many-parted Life in a Scotch Sitting Room saga, which gives the book its title and which Cutler retailed in his trademark clipped Glasgow schoolmasterly tones.    

All in all, it’s a good read and gives a fine insight into a man for whom the term “a character” might well have been specially coined – although even “a character” might not do justice to Cutler. 

LINK: A Life Outside the Sitting Room at Equinox Books

Sebastian’s interview with Bruce Lindsay at TheArtsDesk

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