Saturday, May 28, 2011

Red Sayles: Alexei, the early years

Alexei Sayle, Stalin Ate My Homework. London, Sceptre, 2010. 304pp.

“ I knew Sayle's family CP background – it's been mentioned by him many times. But Maoism? Blimey.”


As suggested by the comment quoted above, this enticingly-titled memoir of a childhood and adolescence in an atmosphere of left-wing political commitment contains a number of surprises. No doubt its author’s fame as an actor, comedian and author will attract readers not normally much concerned with what makes Reds tick. Conversely, those of us with an ingrained resistance to celebrity culture, not to mention suspicion of the Party, may be dubious about its value to radical history. It turns out to be well worth reading from several points of view.

Alexei Sayle describes in detail what having openly active Communist parents meant in practice, at the height of the Cold War, in working class Liverpool. The city itself gets a lot of attention, from the now vanished community environment where he grew up n the 1950s-60s through industrial decline to the urban devastation wrought by the planners. His father Joe was a railwayman, however, active as a shop steward in the NUR, with free rail travel for himself and his family, so that they could and did seek wider horizons. This meant not only regular attendance at the union’s AGM, but a series of holidays in Eastern Europe: Hungary in 1961 and 1963; Czechoslovakia 1959, 1960, 1962; Bulgaria 1966. Despite the family being on most of those occasions (with a few blips) treated as honoured guests in a privileged delegation, the young Alexei eventually became aware of a ‘nascent sense of unease about the Communist experiment’.

At the same time he remained at odds with the conventional values peddled by his schoolteachers and resisted pressures to conform, finding his own career path, as it turned out, in the direction of comedy early on. Politically, the chapter ‘I Was a Teenage Maoist’ is about his brief sojourn in the by-ways of Merseyside Marxist-Leninism, an episode of what he calls ‘split-brain thinking’, when he simultaneously ‘both totally believed it and totally didn’t believe it’. Tales of demonstrations, paper-selling, meetings and attempts to convert the masses will strike a chord with many who did not share his precise affiliation.

Along the way he touches on a number of points of 20th-century, from the Police Strike of 1919 and the 1926 General Strike via Hungary, Suez and the Cuban Missile Crisis to Czechoslovakia 1968. Brought up to take the party line as read with reference to the Spanish Civil War and the Russian Revolution, he was accustomed to hearing George Orwell denounced and found the reading of ‘Animal Farm’ something of a revelation. He nevertheless arrived at his own understanding of Marxist (class-struggle) historical theory, also as a result of reading, in this case Marx himself, which was bad news for his teachers.

Not all about Sayle – his concern for issues affecting ordinary people’s lives is evident – it’s not a-laugh-a-line, and punches are not pulled when, for example, repressive regimes or bureaucratic obtuseness are up for discussion. He doesn’t let himself off too lightly either. All the same, it is quite funny in a lot of places – and is a good read throughout.

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