Alexei Sayle‘s memoir Stalin ate my homework, on his, um, unusual upbringing, is at once heartfelt, perceptive, and hilarious. And the sequel Thatcher stole my trousers* has insights on the alternative comedy scene, his early standup, and The Young ones.
Born in 1952 to idealistic left-wing atheist Jewish working-class parents—genial Joe and the brilliantly indiscreet Molly—he evokes the conditions of post-war Anfield with wry detail.
Though not universal, it was instinctual among a great many British Communists to be noisily unpatriotic. […] To my parents and their friends it was as if by cheering on the English football team, the cricket team, or Britain’s runners you were somehow revelling in slavery, the Amritsar Massacre, the suppression of the Irish, or the Opium Wars.
At primary school:
At break-time in the first week our teacher, Miss Wilson, said to the assembled class, “All right, class, now let’s bow our heads in prayer and thank God for this milk we’re drinking.” At which point I stood up and said, “No, Miss Wilson, I think you’ll find that the milk comes to us via the Milk Marketing Board, a public body set up in 1933 to control the production, pricing, and distribution of milk and other dairy products within the UK. It has nothing to do with the intervention of some questionable divine entity.”
Echoes of Irene Handl’s line in Morgan: a suitable case for treatment: “I mean, we brought you up to respect Lenin, Marx, Harry Pollitt…” (a line that I think is even funnier if you don’t know who Harry Pollitt was).
Profiting from [!] the free rail travel available to the family with his father’s position in the National Union of Railwaymen [sic], the family often took holidays abroad: “by the age of five I must have been the most travelled child in Anfield.” They soon began making trips behind the Iron curtain—At A Time When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular, I note. To pursue the latest results of my interest in east Europe, it’s these vignettes that I’d like to cite here.
For all his parent’s aspirations, Alexei casts a rather more detached view on their holidays. Of course, they could hardly imagine the tribulations of the working people with whom they identified, or even the apparatchiks who hosted them. But with his own background, he does more than merely getting a cheap laugh out of state socialism. These passages are interesting mainly for his own story, in which idealism and cynicism evolved hand in hand, a surreal training that would bear fruit in his later career.
Joe and Molly had taken the crushing of the 1956 Budapest uprising in their stride; welcoming it as a test of faith, they scorned British Communists who
didn’t understand that the march towards liberty, peace, and freedom couldn’t be held up by a load of people demanding liberty, peace, and freedom.
Enthralled by a visit to the Czechoslovak pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair, with its marionettes, Magic Lantern Theatre, and colourful avant-garde design, in August 1959 visited the country for the first time. Somehow their trip begins at a campsite in the sleepy spa-town of Karlovy Vary. After an interlude at a union-owned miners’ sanitorium, the wheels of diplomacy click into gear and they are rescued by a fleet of black Tatra limousines which takes them on to Prague, where they are chaperoned lavishly.
Next year they organized a group of like-minded comrades for another visit. This time the authorities
had decided what the first delegation of British railwaymen to Czechoslovakia would like to see more than anything else were sights, locations, and exhibitis connected with the wartime assassination of Reinhard Heidrich, the butcher of Prague.
They were among early foreign visitors to see Lidice, scene of one of the most appalling Nazi massacres. On a brighter note, they were taken to the Švejk pub in Prague, and when they got back home his parents bought him a copy of Hašek’s novel. When he eventually read it aged 12 or 13, he
wondered if the Czech authorities knew what they were doing promoting with Švejk, letting a pub be opened in his name and selling cuddly toys in his likeness, since the message of the book, while it might have been anti-authoritarian, is certainly not one supportive of the ideals of socialist conformity.
Indeed, The good soldier Švejk soon became very popular in China, where its message must also have concerned the authorities.
Anyway, back in Anfield, by the age of eight Alexei was able to report proudly to an eager young vicar,
“I am a Comrade Cadet, Grade One, Young Pioneers, fourth battalion, based at Locomotive Factory Number One, town of Trutnow, People’s Republic of Czechoslovakia!”
And one already feels a hint of the irony that would later inhabit Alexei’s stage persona (see here), with a substantial ingredient of Švejk.
For their summer holidays in 1961 they visited Hungary, lavishly accommodated in a grand baroque hotel in keeping with their incongruous status as VIPs. On a trip to Lake Balaton Alexei discovers salad, in a passage that will strike a chord with those of our generation:
Back in Anfield we had thought with a certain amount of pride that on Sundays we had been eating salad, but really all we had been eating was lettuce and tomatoes in a bowl, sometimes with a hard-boiled egg on the top and no dressing except perhaps the industrial solvent known as “salad cream”. Now I saw what a salad really could be under socialism. There were red, green, and yellow peppers, corn on the cob, huge tomatoes stuffed with Russian salad, artichokes, celery, lentils, okra, and fresh herbs, all of them covered in rich oils or mayonnaise.
(For Nina Stibbe’s candid assessment of tarragon, see here.)
He accumulates yet more pennants and badges to accompany his hoard of Bohemian glass, dolls, and “folklorique woven things” that he didn’t know what to do with—
It was hard to stop people in Communist countries giving you things [an idea taken further by Elif Batuman].
In 1962 they took their third trip to Czechoslovakia, and in 1963 Joe led a delegation of railwaymen to Hungary. This time Alexei’s feelings are more conflicted:
Sadly, if you are beginning to feel unsettled about people’s motivation then visiting a country in which some six hundred thousand citizens were deported to Soviet labour camps after the Second World War, where they spoke a weird Finno-Ugric language completely unrelated to those around it, where there were great tensions between the various ethnic groupings, Hungarian, Romanian, and gypsy, and where a revolution had been brutally suppressed only seven years before, probably wasn’t a good idea.
Joe and Molly make elaborate preparations for a tour of the northwest by a dance troupe from Czechoslovakia, but it falls through. In summer 1966 they flew to Bulgaria under the auspices of that new bourgeois creation, a package holiday. Meeting some local teenagers in search of Beatles records, he realizes that
up until then we had only ever mixed with people who were part of the system, who were loyal to the party and its allied organizations. […] Clearly there were tensions, but you didn’t get to be a Communist without learning to ignore what was in front of your face.
With his affinity with both railways and Czechoslovakia, he was always going to love Closely observed trains (Jiří Menzel, 1966)—another of those films that also left a deep impression on my student years. For Pachelbel on rubber chicken, and Czech trains, see here; and for Alexei’s penchant for Polish cinema, here.
Following Kruschev’s reforms,
though slightly assuaged by the crushing of revolts in Hungary and East Germany, many in the West’s Communist movements were uneasy with this liberalisation. They didn’t like the idea of a Communist society allowing its citizens to express their opinions freely or have a choice of more than one type of hat. Yet they had nowhere to take their disaffection until the Sino-Soviet split offered these puritan characters a choice of an extra-dour kind of socialism more in keeping with their sententious inclinations.
So, going from frying-pan to fire in a remarkable lapse of judgement, Alexei became a Maoist. You can continue reading his later story for yourself, moving on to his perceptive account of his bohemian life at art school in London, his role in alternative comedy—and Molly’s blooming [see what I did there?] as a foul-mouthed lollipop lady. For more (not least his critique of ballroom dancing), see here.
So while Alexei didn’t get to play the Matthew passion or hang out with Li Manshan (though both are charming fantasies), I regard his upbringing, not to mention his later career, with a certain envy.
For other excellent memoirs in what can be a dodgy field, I think of George Melly and Arthur Smith. And this chat with Stewart Lee is a match made in heaven:
* Sinology could do with some titles like these (for a somewhat less appetising one, see under Jarring here).