Alexei Sayle: Stand-up Communist
By Karl Whitney.
Alexei Sayle, Stalin Ate My Homework, Sceptre 2010.
Rather than re-telling stale showbiz anecdotes, comedian and author Alexei Sayle’s memoir focuses almost exclusively on the trials and tribulations of growing up in Liverpool as the child of staunchly Communist parents, and is all the better for it. With Sayle’s book you don’t get a rags-to-riches tale of how he overcame his fear of public performance to wow theatre crowds and TV audiences with his popular observational humour. Instead he calmly recounts the more uproarious incidents from a highly unusual childhood. What seems astounding now, in an age where the banal chummy style of mainstream comedy has been appropriated by bland celebrity-wannabes in the backrooms of obscure pubs throughout the land, is that most of Sayle’s jokes from the 80s and 90s were, at least tangentially, and often surreally, related to the joys and frustrations of left-wing political ideology.
In this, it seems, he was drawing on a rich vein of material gleaned from his youth. Here, he tells it again, but for the most part without jokes, and the effect is laudable.
As a comedian, Sayle’s style was aggressive and confrontational, a persona that he transferred from the Comedy Store to television in his scene-stealing performances as ‘the Balowski family’ in The Young Ones. After a number of innovative, extremely funny sketch shows, he moved into writing fiction. Intriguingly, none of his comedy career is dealt with in the memoir.
Sayle chooses instead to set the book in the period between his birth in 1952 and his departure to college in the early 1970s. In choosing to do this, Sayle gives us not only a clear sense of the young Alexei, but also of his parents – both distinct and highly memorable personalities in their own right.
First you get Joe Sayle, a calm and quiet presence who works as a guard on the railways, and an organiser in the union, and who brings the family along on trips to political conferences and, when they accompany him on holidays, finds it hard to shake the railwayman’s habit of casually stepping from the train whenever it stops: Sayle writes that ‘my father had a disturbingly casual attitude to the business of getting on and off trains. After he had left us in the compartment Joe would sometimes wait until the train was actually moving, the guard having long blown his whistle and the last door having been slammed, before nonchalantly swinging himself on board the final carriage at the last possible second. […] Sometimes, as the train was moving out of the station, we would look through the window to see Joe wandering along the platform back towards the ticket barrier as if he had decided at the last minute to go home, taking out tickets passports and spending money with him. But he always managed to come smiling up the corridor a few minutes later.’
The portrait of his father that emerges is for the most part an affectionate one, slightly coloured by nostalgia, perhaps because Joe died when Sayle was still quite young. His mother, Molly, a redheaded Jewish woman who had told her family that she was moving into a flat on the other side of Liverpool, then promptly married the non-Jewish Joe, and moved to a terraced house in the Anfield area of the city. Molly is a singular woman, prone, in Sayle’s retelling of events, to very loud, highly public, displays of anger and frustration. Eventually, when Alexei forms his own circle of friends in the bohemian clubs and radical circles of Liverpool, his parents begin drinking in the same pubs as him, and start going to the same parties: “I would climb the fetid stairs to some student flat in Liverpool 8 trying to act all cool and hard when, looking across the room, I would see Molly telling a group of pretty anarchist girls some anecdotes about my potty training or how as a child I used to think that I might be kidnapped by bananas. ‘That’s him over there in the leather jacket,’ Molly would say, pointing in my direction.”
Funnily enough, Molly, who is now 95 years old, has already critiqued Sayle’s memoir as ‘a pack of lies.’ Sayle, half-jokingly, sees this as his mother’s ‘Stalinist’ tendency, saying that ‘she airbrushed out inconvenient truths’. Obviously she looms large, both in the book, and in Sayle’s life.
The young Alexei emerges as an intelligent child, who was encouraged by his parents to think of himself as special: he was, in his own description, ‘an indulged only child’ who, unlike other children, wasn’t required to do much around the house; he is a ‘delicate child’. With this, goes a sense of himself as somehow chosen, a feeling in part encouraged by his parents, in part by what Sayle is keen to stress as the oddness of their political affliation, which immediately marked him out as different from the other children.
On one of their fairly numerous holidays to the Eastern Bloc, the Sayles brought one of Alexei’s friends, Peter Pemberton, to Czechoslovakia. The friendship sours in one arresting scene, where Alexei’s behaviour becomes erratic and he attacks Pemberton during a game of table tennis in the hotel: ‘suddenly I found I was attacking him with my bat. I was hitting him and hitting him and he didn’t seem to be feeling the blows, and that made me even more angry with him so I hit him some more.’ The effect is disturbing, and though Sayle’s memoir is funny and entertaining, it doesn’t shy from showing him as an awkward, even unpleasant, character.
Sayle now sees Communism as a ‘cult of violence’ – or at least, he does when he’s giving interviews to the Telegraph, yet there is a great affection within these pages for the radicals and activists of his parents’ generation. Yes, at times you get Communism played for laughs, but for the most part what you get is a thoughtful and heartfelt evocation of a unique time and place. While Sayle condemns Communism as an ideology that inevitably led to violence, and points out that, like many other British Communists, his parents ignored the implications of Khruschev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, he also excellently, and valuably, describes the sense of Communist culture in Liverpool in the 1950s and 1960s.
Inevitably, the book also provides its share of laugh out loud moments, this being my favourite: “there was a socialist youth group in the UK that I could have joined. There were called the Woodcraft Folk, and they formed the paramilitary wing of the Co-operative movement. […] In Manchester I met a kid who was one of them at a Communist Party ‘social’. A ‘social’ was what left-wingers called a party; everything had to be something else for them – they couldn’t just hold a party, it had to have a higher purpose and a different name. There was also something 1930s’ about the word ‘social’ – it had the whiff of socialist cycling clubs and mass rambles. Anyway, this kid talked about nothing but dolphins for half an hour in a weird voice.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karl Whitney is a journalist, researcher and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 27th, 2010.