Russell Kane won the Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2010, and is one of the best known stand-ups in Britain. His comedy schtick is very much his tough upbringing in Enfield, his surly father, the bleakness of his surroundings. When I heard, like many comics before him, he had written a novel, I was pretty skeptical. But when I started reading The Humorist, I was impressed, so I approached him for an interview. This is what he said about how he discovered books.
“Part of it was to try to piss my dad off,” he reckons. “Some people did drugs or got involved in crime or slept around. I wanted to be different. I thought ‘I’m going to read everything just to show I can.’
“I used to sit in the park, glueys on one side, spliff smokers on the other. I had my own gear, my own spliff, waiting for my friends, and I’d read Jane Austen, just to make people say, ‘What are you doing, weirdo?’ Accidently it fell from rebellion into love.”
At first, it was a torrid affair and grew into something beautiful only because Kane was incorrigible. He read slowly and when he could, kept a dictionary and an encyclopaedia by his side. “Pride and Prejudice was the first proper book I read,” he recalls. “Every word I encountered that I didn’t know got its own index card with a meaning written on it, then I’d put it in a pack, which I carried around in a bag. I went through it again and again until I had expanded my vocabulary.”
He was, he says, 14 when he started creating his portable dictionary, but then corrects himself. “I’m exaggerating, because I’m ashamed. I was about 17. I’m ashamed I did it that artificially, that late in life. But eventually ‘impudent’ became a word I was comfortable with. That was the first word: impudent. The first word I ever wrote down on a card.”
He collected 3,500 cards over the years. “I would pick a pack up, and I would go along the street, and I would say, ‘Oxymoron – what does that mean?’ The card was discarded when I felt the word naturally occur to me, when I could use it without thinking. I thought, ‘I now own that word, I know what oxymoron means, I’ll never forget it.’ And I never forgot any of them.”