Ivor Cutler: Amid cost-of-living crisis, we need his gloomy wit more than ever – Aidan Smith

Right, that’s enough! The kids had been irritating all weekend, and when they do this, and especially in such spectacular fashion, they know what’s coming.

Non-stop moaning. Constant bickering in the back seat. Total ingratitude for the fact they were being chauffeured all over town to do nice things. It was definitely time for “Life in a Scotch Sitting Room”.

You’ve just been to a friend’s birthday party, I said to our youngest, giant inflatable in the shape of a T-Rex, hours of endless fun sliding down the big purple tongue – do you know that playtime for Ivor and his siblings was battering each other over the head with thistles while shaking hands? Or… sticking a foot down a rabbit hole, turning a right angle and trying to extricate “with the brogue still on”?

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Daddy, what’s a brogue? It’s a type of shoe. You’d think they were old-fashioned so you should be thankful that me and your mum don’t make you wear them. Or kilts every day.

Poet and musician Ivor Cutler, pictured in 1974 (Picture: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I’d like to play the rabbit-hole game, Daddy. Well, maybe you wouldn’t much care for this: a trip to the “seaside” without leaving the sitting room where sand on a tin lid is handed round, but only three specks per child, the luckiest blighter receiving the “big quartz grain” – these to juggle or “reflect light to dazzle Grandpa as he sits muttering and picking at his sporran”. Then the girls, while knitting, coarse salt having been dropped onto their tongues, would blow in the faces of the boys to simulate a sea breeze, flying spittle aiding the illusion, while treacle is poured from one milk jug to another to replicate waves.

Ivor – as our kids know, greeting him with a chorus of tired groans when he pops up on the in-car sound-system – is Ivor Cutler. The Scottish humorist, in our house, in our sitting room, is the patron saint of not knowing you’re born and, through repeated blasts of that mournful harmonium, signalling that another lament of Calvinistic privation wouldn’t be far behind, I think I may be getting somewhere. At long last, after prolonged exposure to the episode which begins, “The children micturated into a large sponge which sat by the window… ”, the message might be hitting home.

The timing is perfect, for Sunday was the centenary of the great man’s birth. Yesterday brought the publication of the first biography, Bruce Lindsay’s A Life Outside the Sitting Room (Equinox). And tomorrow, on Radio 4 Extra, it’s Ivor Cutler Day.

I was too young to have heard Cutler on the old Home Service and missed his cameo role as Buster Bloodvessel in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, shown on TV on Boxing Day, 1967, as that was the Christmas I was confined to bed with mumps. So my first exposure to him was as an avid teenage devotee of John Peel’s late-night Radio 1 show in the 1970s when the punky thrashing would be interrupted by his odes to joylessness.

I didn’t know what “micturated” meant and had to look it up. But was “Life in a Scotch Sitting Room” really autobiographical? It was grim but also gripping, and I’ve continued to be fascinated by stern, Spartan, smacked bottom-no supper Scotland.

By Joan Eardley’s paintings of cross-eyed street urchins playing on bomb sites. By memories of outside cludgies. By the sitting room inhabited by a young Denis Law: “Music was a comb and paper and Christmas was a Dinky car, a tangerine, a packet of Spangles and an uncrackable nut,” the football legend told me. And by the Proclaimers on their most recent album recalling the Sabbath decree of park swings being chained up to prevent use – not as long ago as you might think and not just in “Wee Free” territories either.

Lindsay’s prodigiously researched book confirms that Cutler really wasn’t making it up. His Jewish grandparents were among thousands who had fled Eastern Europe for America, only they somehow ended up in Glasgow’s Gorbals. Cutler was born a goal-kick from Rangers’ Ibrox Stadium in Govan, and grew up in marginally swankier surroundings, but he came to prefer his grandparents’ locale. The same cake was made by the family in different ways – one with milk and the other with water. “I always preferred the one with water,” he remarked. “I liked austerity.”

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Cutler had to run the gauntlet of Glasgow’s religious divide, the challenge being: “Are you a Billy or a Dan… or an old tin can?” (The old tin can was a Jew, who might be kicked down the street by both Protestants and Catholics).

His schoolmasters could be just as bullying and anti-Semitic – an honorable exception being an inspirational music teacher at Shawlands Academy – and in three years he calculated he was belted 200 times. Cutler didn’t forget those punishments when he became a teacher, was reluctant to produce the strap at Paisley’s South School and, when he left the post, he cut it into little pieces, one for each pupil. His methods were quirky and curriculum-flouting but in London they were much admired by arty parents such as poet Roger McGough, film-maker Ken Russell and guitarist John Williams.

Cutler remained a teachers’ champion. Once asked what his first act would be if he became ruler of the world, he said he’d make teaching the top profession, rewarded accordingly, with the highest wages going to those in charge of the youngest kids – perhaps small consolation for those involved in the current pay dispute.

And, as we get ready for Ivor Cutler Day, doesn’t “Life in a Scotch Sitting Room” have resonance for a cost-of-living crisis? That’s what I’ll be telling my kids next weekend, anyway, when I dish out the sand, grain by grain.



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