I’M ON a train, trundling through Sussex in the summertime, reading a computer copy of Phil Kay’s new book, when I get a message from Phil Kay. “I ought to be in Lewes some time today. Could be swimming at England’s oldest lido.”
This is progress. I am supposed to meet the Scottish comedian to talk about his book. I’m not sure where or what time. And originally I thought the interview was happening on the Isle of Lewis. I glance again at the book. Wholly Viable. The book advises me to stay positive. Life is an adventure.
I read: “They always ask if the glass is half full or half empty... it’s neither... is it not amazing that we can even make glass and distill fluids that affect our vegetable-consciousness in an exciting way?..the glass is packed…”
Lewes is a sunny, flower-filled hippy town. The nearest pub to the station has a tree on the ceiling and is full of men with beards. Some of them have bare feet. There is a sign on the noticeboard asking if anyone has lost some teeth. I sit outside with a cold beer and wait. And suddenly there is Phil Kay. Skinny, lanky, beardy, he doesn’t so much walk around the corner as fall around it. Comedy style. I hand him a pint, show him the notice about the teeth and tell him I love the book.
“Oh I’m really glad,” he says. In person he’s gently spoken, a bit nervous, sweet, with a soft Speyside accent. “I got almost everything that’s relevant in it. You have to write a big book, everybody should.”
So how would he describe it? “It’s got a bit of the human driving manual about it. It’s like a show, except you can’t go back and change a show.”
The book is full of tastes, smells, bike rides, silly jokes, tales of gigs gone good, gigs gone bad, recipes for pancakes and gurgling babies. After reading Chapter One I had an overwhelming urge to run into a field and rub mud into my hair. “There is a feral aspect to me,” he says. Feral Will was one of the list of possible titles for the book – along with Faith Book, Verbal Dairy. BoHa ha ha, Notworking and Ticklebuttons “Everything is an indication of you. What matters is how good are your best bits.”
As a stand-up Kay’s wild, wide eyed, campfire storytelling style has earned awards and been an influence on people like Ross Noble, Eddie Izzard and Dylan Moran. He has been a big success, working for Channel Four, living in a duplex in Glasgow, earning £75,000 for a whisky advert.
But he’s also been thrown out of bars, homeless, arrested, banned from his own venues, and sacked by his agent.
“I sometimes, by accident, cause a massive reaction from people,” he says. He tells me he’s upset the owner of the local bath shop – because he stripped off and sat in the giant bath outside his shop.
On interviews, the book advises: if you want to know about someone – ask about their day.
So I do. And he tells me about making pancakes with home-made hemp milk, walnut and sesame seeds. Then gathering up the kids and some friends and the clothes and the sunscreen and the snacks and heading in a great giggling tousle-headed bunch to England’s oldest lido.
He loves living in Sussex, surrounded by nature, in a village where he can walk to the health shop and the kids can walk to the Steiner School. And it’s easy to go to London if you want a night on the rampage. “People say: ‘You should get out more. But I’ve been out a lot. I’ve been at every gig I’ve ever done. I love being at home with the kids. If I never do a gig again it’ll be fine. I’ll just play my guitar.”
He’s been writing the book for about five years, “in big chunks”, but only really got down to it when his partner, Melina, went to Australia and he was able to sit in a caravan in his garden and work for hours on a borrowed computer. “I had a literary agent for about a minute – until he told me to be more specific.”
Kay moves in and out of the comedy world – compering at raves, playing music with The Caravan Band, doing gigs where he doesn’t tell jokes but plays the guitar. He tells me he has only performed about five stand up gigs in the last year. Sometimes gigs go badly wrong.
“I’m amazed I get any gigs at all. But then sometimes I will do something and people will say it’s the best thing they’ve ever seen. It’s like the Great Wall of China. You can see it from space because it’s very long. It isn’t very wide. If you keep doing things you’ll get there in the end.”
Karen Koren, the boss of Fringe venue the Gilded Balloon, was his agent for 17 years. He talks about her with great warmth. She gave him his first gig, when he was 19. The Fringe has been a huge part of his life – he loves it – but began to feel overwhelmed by the scale of it all. “I just couldn’t park my bike outside the Gilded Balloon any more. I changed because I knew I wouldn’t have fun for one more year.”
For the past two years he has performed at Bob Slayer’s venue Heroes of Fringe. Ex-jockey Slayer is also his publisher. As a publisher he has his faults. He can’t spell Lewes – which is why I thought I was going to the Outer Hebrides.
But Slayer is an inspired publicist and conjured up a Kickstarter campaign for the book which hit its target in weeks. Fans can pre order copies signed with kisses, boxes of secret treasure and advice on universal happiness. For £781 you can buy the caravan where the book was written.
Kay is happy about it all – but doesn’t do social media – “I’m not on Facebook. I don’t check in with 35 people every day. Some of it makes me feel very sorry for folk.”
But the DIY thing is working for him. Fans and fellow comics have been happy to tweet, share, like and donate to make sure his “blog - raphy” sees the light of day.
And the book is a joyous thing. Moving backwards and forwards, playing with words, dipping in and out of stories, falling apart, falling together, pulsing with life, poetry and a love of the road. “When you go out to a lot of gigs, you are on your own,” says Kay. “You are not hampered by anyone else. You are having crazy adventures. You are following yourself. Following your nose.”
Later that night he’s on stage again, freestyling a routine at a rave in a disused furniture warehouse with a Dolly Parton tribute act, a trance band, an angry clown and a cowgirl wearing a glitter bikini.
On this hot, summer night the doors are flung wide open – out back is a river and a huddle of caravans where people are chatting, smoking and looking at the stars.
• Wholly Viable will be launched at Bob’s Bookshop during this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Phil Kay’s storytelling show Verbal Diary is at Heroes @ The Hive, 7pm, tomorrow until 11 August. His music show, Mr Phil Kay and Thee Cameron St. Clair are: Men Utd is at the Voodoo Rooms, 2-11 August. Phil Kay also performs at Heroes @ Bob’s Bookshop, until 26 August.