BILLY KAY

The Ayrshire-born author looks forward to the Boswell Book Festival

Gill Sherry

It’s always special to hear authors talk at the Boswell Book Festival. It is, after all, the world’s only festival of biography and memoir. What makes it even more special, though, is when the author is from Ayrshire.

This year’s programme includes an appearance by the writer and broadcaster, Billy Kay, whose memoir, Born in Kyle: A Love Letter tae an Ayrshire Childhood, was published in November.

“I’ve never been to Dumfries House,” declares Billy, “so I’m looking forward to going there.”

His memoir celebrates the Irvine Valley working-class community during the 1950s and 1960s and is full of serious and humorous tales, both fact and fiction.

“The book is mainly memoir but there are a number of short stories as well. The final section is creative writing. Sometimes I felt I couldn’t be as direct and honest as in the memoir, so I had to change characters etc.”

I ask Billy, whose best known work, Scots: The Mither Tongue, is still selling well three decades after it was first published, what prompted him to write his memoir now.

“Because of my age! I’m getting on in years, and the older you become you realise how exotic the early years of your life are compared to the present day. One of the stories I talk about in my book is going to play football and an old lady calling me from her window saying, ‘Son, will you go down to the store and buy me some messages for my man’s tea?’ You couldn’t refuse that… you just had to stop what you were doing and fulfil your duties to the community.”

Billy was born up ‘the scheme’ in Galston and lived in the same Council house until the age of 18.

“The formative years of my life were spent in Galston. I had two big sisters, Mary and Janette, and a very loving mother and father who were wonderful parents. It was a very optimistic era… because it was a time of full employment. There weren’t the social problems that came later with lack of employment and opportunity. This was just after the war and people were looking forward with more optimism than in later decades.”

Billy describes himself as belonging to “the last of the pre-television generations” and acknowledges the importance of that from a linguistic point of view.

“I didn’t have a television until I was about 11 years old, so the first 11 years of my life were spent in a Scottish village rather than a global village. That had a big effect on my world picture. Literally, the only time we heard English spoken was when we spoke to the teacher (rarely), the doctor (rarely) or the minister (rarer still). The rest of the time we were speaking broad Ayrshire Scots.”

Although some people at the time considered this a negative thing, Billy and his family always had a positive attitude towards Scottish culture. In fact, it influenced Billy’s future tremendously.

“You learned from a very early age that you couldn’t speak Scots to the teacher… you learned to switch quite early on. I have a natural ability for languages and it was that bilingual background in Galston that gave me the facility for languages that I took up later on.”

Billy intended to study Modern Languages at Edinburgh University but realised he could study his own culture and language so switched his focus to an English degree, which was mainly Scottish literature and Scots language.

He is now fluent in French, German and through his wife João, Portuguese. He also studied Russian at Kilmarnock Academy and was lucky enough to visit Russia in 1967.

“There was a school trip to Russia available to Scottish school kids studying Russian so I went when I was 16. I had an amazing experience in Russia which I talk about in my book.”

Although his memoir is mostly set in Ayrshire, he also talks about his early travels in foreign lands.

“The year before Russia, when I was 15 and still at Galston High School, I started hitch-hiking in France and Germany… I talk about me and my pal Davy with our kilts on and the great experience I had then.”

It would be easy, I suspect, to become nostalgic when writing about your past. Billy, however, focused on the positive side of that nostalgia.

“I tried to keep the balance. For example, when I studied English Literature, one of my favourite authors was William Faulkner from Mississippi. He describes in detail the rural and small town of Mississippi back in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. There is nowhere in Scotland as remote and ‘backward’ as rural Mississippi was in that period. In other words, you can create something special, in Faulkner’s case something world-class and memorable, out of a small town and very local environment. So I wanted to celebrate the culture and small town environment in the Irvine Valley that I grew up in, and also the language of the period because we were an important generation as far as Scots was concerned.”

One of the things Billy is looking forward to most about the Boswell Book Festival is reading in front of an Ayrshire audience: “It will be a pleasure to see them react to the live reading, but also, for people from outside Ayrshire and outside Scotland, it will be a real cultural eye-opener to learn how rich that tradition was.”

He tells me about the reviews for his radio series, Odyssey, which was broadcast on Radio 4 in the early 1980s. The reviews were fantastic because, he believed, listeners from outside Scotland found the series “exotic”.

“They were used to a watered down version of Scotland but I gave them the real thing… Ayrshire mill workers, Fife miners, Angus ploughmen, St Kildans, Dundee jute workers, migrants from Ireland… with their natural voices being broadcast on Radio 4. People realised that it was strange and exotic but close enough that they could tune into it. That’s what I hope the reaction of people from outwith Scotland who come to the Boswell will be.”

One thing’s for sure, it will be an entertaining talk. Particularly if he mentions the circus…
“It was the biggest disappointment in my 70 plus years on the planet… the day the worst circus in the world came tae Gawston and I realised that the wee totie bodie on the donkey wisnae the real Davy Crockett.”

The Boswell Book Festival takes place at Dumfries House from 10th to 12th May. For more information visit www.boswellbookfestival.co.uk.

Born in Kyle: A Love Letter tae an Ayrshire Childhood, is available to purchase from Amazon, The Book Nook in Stewarton and the Aroma Coffee Shop in Galston. You can contact Billy via his website at www.billykay.co.uk.