How is that Ivor Cutler managed to cease being my neighbour without me noticing? He's been up there living on Dartmouth Park Hill ever since I've been living in north London. He died in March aged 83, and for some reason his departure went unnoticed, he left so quietly, and it took an obituary in a magazine four months later to tell me.
"I wore my elbows down to the bone for you..." he sang plaintively to me from a cassette recording and playback device, as I sat in a smokey Glastonbury living room, stoned as a twat, harbouring carnal desires for the patchouli-scented hippy chick who was energetically massaging my neck and warbling on about crystals. His work was a mixture of poems and songs and performances, which he gave in his soft Scottish accent, and seemed always to be kind and yet bitter, frivolous and also deeply serious.
The first time I met Ivor in Bumblebees, the "alternative" food shop in Brecknock Road, off Camden Road. I noticed him while I was shopping for Tamari and Cider Vinegar (names I always considered suitable for the offspring of some pop star) and I could not resist approaching him. He seemed chirpy. He wore a brightly badged, decorated grey beret with a small porcelaine Victorian doll on the brow and he was playfully chatting with the female shop assistant, who clearly knew not who he was and was giving him that carefully amused distance that you give crazy elderly people so as not to offend them in case they turn nasty.
Bumblebees is a small shop but it has a complex layout, and I found myself near the nuts, scoop in hand, doing my usual trick of adroitly combining expensive nuts (cashews, walnuts) with the cheaper mixed salted variety in order to "add value" to my purchase in typical capitalist style - please note, this is not the kind of action I would be doing these days.
Ivor, having regaled the sexy young shop assistant for a while, made his way to the superb and mouthwatering selection of chutneys and jams, and so I stood within a foot of him, knowing that here was the man who had starred in the Beatles film Magical Mystery Tour, and who wrote stories about sparrows and poems about flies. I couldn't resist singing quietly to introduce myself.
"I wore my elbows down to the bone for you..."
Ivor started, and looked round, alarmed, and I instantly felt terrible. I realised I shocked him. What right had I to sing this man's songs to him in a shop? I apologised, and said, "You're Ivor Cutler, aren't you?" He blinked and visibly recovered.
"No no," he said, "that's quite alright, quite alright, you rather took me by surprise." He gazed at me with soft yet penetrating eyes. Here was the man who had gone onstage in the middle of sixties acid rock gigs and blown their minds with his words alone.
"I like your work a lot," I said.
"Thank you," he said graciously, with none of the assumption of famous people who are used to compliments. He seemed genuinely pleased now. He wandered away, then came back 30 seconds later.
"You have the kind open face of a man who can be easily hurt," he said. I didn't know what to say or think. He smiled at me. "What do you do?" he asked. "I write.. er, and sing.. " I stammered. My normal aplomb had vanished as I tried to process his intuitive declamation.
I left him alone and carried on shopping, my ears burning with mild embarassment, which is not an emotion I experience very often at all. By the time I came to the counter by the door, arms laden with jars and bottles and sachets, Ivor was paying, and discussing the year with the cashier.
"It's the year of the cat," he was saying, "but also the year of the rabbit. You see, the Chinese believe it is a magical beast which can disappear and reappear, and so it can be both, or either." It was uncanny - even his everyday speech had the same quality of his recorded poetry, it put you into another space where reality's pause button was pressed down and possibilities started to open up. I felt myself gently detaching.
He turned and smiled at me. Feeling less bad now, seeing that my brief incursion into his mind had done no lasting damage, I added, "In the war, the Dutch name for "cat" was "roof rabbit" - they were so hungry that they ate them." This seemed to tickle Ivor and he uttered a spontaneous treatise on Holland.
"Yes. The Dutch are a peculiar race," he said, "who eat butter with everything, but they are prevented from becoming fat by the huge distances they travel by bicycle."
I chuckled, and noticed that the shop assistant seemed to be enjoying Ivor more in my company. Perhaps she felt safer, perhaps she realised that he was not making any special effort to entertain her and had no agenda towards her - he was like this with everyone.
She turned to me and raised her dark eyebrows. I put my stuff on the counter. Ivor said "Ta ta," and left.
The shop assistant smiled broadly at me. As I paid, I felt I was the lucky recipient of Ivor's charm.
I stepped out of the shop into the sun, still smiling, assuming Ivor would be gone, anticipating that I would tell my friends about the encounter, and walked towards where I had chained my bike. To my surprise, there was Ivor, unlocking his own.
"I hope you didn't mind me singing your song in the shop," I said.
Ivor came close, and gently took my arm and looked me in the eyes. "Not at all," he said. "But you see... I write these things... in a certain space.. and often they are about quite personal matters.. despite that I sing them for other people. You sent me back in time."
That evening, I got a call from Ivor, to my great surprise. We chatted for about an hour. The next day he sent me an envelope full of stickers, which I still have, a most precious possession. One of the stickers carries a phrase which became my mantra, a quote from Craig Murray-Orr: "Creativity requires a certain ignorance" which is always somewhere visible in any workspace of mine.