The doctor and author of This is Going to Hurt is back with another medical wonder. Kay’s Marvellous Medicine is for kids and full of puerile wit, but it tackles serious issues too
It’s fitting, in a way, that the title Adam Kay’s latest book doffs a cap to Roald Dahl. Kay’s Marvellous Medicine, a play on Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine boasts the sort of puerile wit, humour and gross nonsense that kids adored in Dahl’s works. There is snot. There are farts. There is poo, and lots of it. There’s also, in the best way possible, a lot of heart in there.
Much like its 2020 predecessor Kay’s Anatomy, Kay’s Marvellous Medicine is a guide to the body and major medical moments, but for kids. The chapter headings alone are a delight; there’s the “The chapter with bloodsucking leeches and a smoking bumhole (also known as Circulation)”; ‘The chapter where frogs wear pants and newborn babies earn more pocket money than you (also known as Reproduction)” and “The chapter where everyone drinks a nice warm cup of wee (also known as Liver and Kidneys)”.
“I think, depressingly, that my natural sense of humour appeals to ten-year-olds,” Kay says in a phonecall from his Chiswick home. “I remember myself that as a kid there’s nothing more frustrating than being patronised, and speaking to my own nieces and nephews, I always preferred to treat them as humans, rather than cootchy-cootchy-cooing at them.”
Kay hasn’t shied away from tackling some serious issues within these pages, from smoking and alcohol to mental health and sex.
“You can only normalise talking about mental health, body images and smoking by being open about them,” Kay observes. “You created taboos by hiding things away. I’m really proud that I haven’t shied away from that stuff. On the sex stuff, I like to think that some adults can ‘sub-contract some of these conversations. ”
Still, it’s all gleefully surreal, silly and occasionally outrageous, and has garnered Kay a whole new legion of pre-teen fans.
“It’s just wonderful when I get letters from kids because they are 100pc honest,”. “I know they like a certain thing, but they’re not lying if they also say, ‘that bit is boring’.” Kay has mentioned his dog Pippin in both books. “Mostly, the kids are 100 times more excited to meet the dog.”
After 2.5 million sales of his memoir This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor, Kay is used to becoming a well-known entity. The book, which laid bare Kay’s life on the NHS frontline with equal parts hilarity and pathos, has been such a success since its release in 2017, that Kay is still performing live shows based on the book (he returns to Dublin in February 2022).
This Is Going To Hurt: Live has been seen by well over 200,000 people — many of them, I deduced from his last Dublin date at the National Concert Hall, are themselves doctors.
“You’d think they’d want a night off,” Kay laughs. “For whatever reason, the adult books have really struck a chord with doctors, whether it’s just hearing someone telling disgusting stories that are universal to the profession, or it’s that relatively few people talk openly about the challenges of the job an the impact it has on your mental health.”
While Kay was applauded for writing so openly about burnout and not coping amid the rigours of life as a junior doctor, the book also pulses with unforgettable characters.
In This is Going to Hurt, readers meet the man who had a condom-covered remote control in a bodily cavity he perhaps shouldn’t have. There’s the couple who, unbeknownst to them, gazumped Kay when buying a London flat (he exacted his revenge by revealing the gender of their child, accidentally on purpose, at an ultrasound). There’s the intern who mixed his hangover with the sights and smells of a surgical setting and faceplanted into a mum-to-be’s abdominal cavity during a Caesarean section. There’s also the man who swore there wasn’t a condom in existence that fit him (it transpires he was pulling them down over his testicles). The elderly relative who licked her thumb and rubbed some manner of bodily viscera from Kay’s face, mid-dinner.
More than anything, Kay wanted to relay to everyone the sheer cost — personal, psychological, physical — of life as a junior doctor. The humorous anecdotes, he admits, were something of a Trojan horse to get the message across.
Kay has long been outspoken about the parlous state of the NHS, noting that the system does well in spite of the British government, not because of it. I wonder what he thought when he watched the NHS edge ever closer to breaking point during the pandemic.
“I just felt hugely sorry for the huge numbers of family and friends still working within the NHS,” Kay reflects. “I remember a friend saying, ‘when I signed up for this, I didn’t think there was a risk of this. I didn’t think I’d have to put my life on the line to go to work and possible not come back. In the UK, about 1200 NHS staff lost their lives due to this virus. I kept reading the man mantra, ‘the health service is a miracle’. No, it wasn’t a miracle. It was the result of millions of people pulling together.”
Kay came from a middle-class Jewish family where medicine was an ‘acceptable’ profession. For want of a better plan, he went into medicine, oscillating around a few departments before settling in obstetrics.
“It’s the most wonderfully rewarding specialty,” he admits. “You come out with twice the patients you start with, which are good numbers.”
All the while, Kay nurtured artistic impulses. He had learned musical instruments and written on his school newspaper as a youngster, but his dream of journalist wasn’t on his family’s list of ‘acceptable occupations’.
When he left medicine, Kay sold the London flat he bought with an ex-partner, resulting in some money in the bank. It allowed him to move into comedy writing, and soon he was a popular gun for hire, working on scripts and script edits. He did the odd stand-up show, performing at the Edinburgh Festival and undertaking the odd corporate gig for pharmaceutical companies. Among his TV credits are Mitchell & Webb, Mongrels, and Mrs Brown’s Boys.
It’s far from a surprise to hear that This is Going to Hurt is due to hit BBC2 screens early next year. Kay worked on the scripts for the series, which stars Ben Whishaw as the struggling junior doctor.
“The pandemic delayed it by the best part of a year, which is absolutely fair enough, because you can’t bring huge numbers of people together when there’s a public health crisis,” Kay muses. “I had an extra year to work on the script, so that was very useful from my point of view. I worked with a brilliant team and Ben Whishaw is an absolute superstar. It’s never been in doubt what a brilliant actor he is, but it was incredible to see how funny he was.”
There was an unexpected aspect to writing the scripts: “Mainly making sure that I didn’t go to prison for breaking some awful confidentiality agreement, or getting ex-communicated from friends and colleagues,” Kay says. “In a diary, you can refer to someone as a patient, but I think when they’re on the telly, they probably need to be fully rounded out.”
‘Kay’s Marvellous Medicine: A Gross and Gruesome History of the Human Body’ by Adam Kay is out now via Puffin. For live dates in Dublin and Belfast, see adamkay.co.uk.