Stalin Ate My Homework
By Alexei Sayle
304 pages, $35 (pb)
Even at primary school in Liverpool in the 1950s, Alexei Sayle, was a “mouthy little bastard”.
So the British comedian, whose stand-up career began at the London Comedy Store in 1979 and became well-known for his role in TV shows The Young Ones and
When Sayle’s teacher asked her class to bow their heads and thank God for the milk at break time, Sayle piped up with: “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.”
“Deliciously inflammatory” views like this were a feature of Sayle’s family. His father and mother, Joe and Molly, were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain and they saw the world through Marxist eyes.
A lot of shouting was involved. “It seemed we had bought a television mostly so we could argue with it, a response which became particularly violent when a news report came on when one or both parents would begin shouting ‘Nonsense!’, ‘Lies!’ or ‘Capitalist propaganda!’ at anything they disagreed with, which tended to be nearly everything.”
He concludes, with mixed feelings: “We weren't like other families.”
Born in 1952, Sayle was a child taken to see films by Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, rather than Bambi and Pinnochio. Such was the child cultural development duty of the genial Joe, a railways unionist, and the temperamental Molly — who led the shouting at the Queen’s Christmas speech on the TV. (“Parasite! Liar! What’s she got on her head? What about the Rosenbergs?”)
Joe and Molly delighted in anti-patriotic heresy. For them, taking pride in the British football or cricket team “was somehow reveling in slavery, the Amritsar Massacre, the suppression of the Irish or the Opium Wars”.
The Sayles were not blinkered nationalists. They were a cosmopolitan family, “a family that went abroad” including to Czechoslovakia, “a place so foreign it had a ‘z’ in its name”.
Travel to the Stalinist eastern bloc, however, raised questions in young Sayle’s mind. He tried to cope with the concept of “Marxist limousines”, and his unease was increased by the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
He still liked the people of the left, however. Sayle's anti-parental revolt took the form of becoming “a different kind of Communist” — specifically a Maoist at the time of the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s.
As a member of the Liverpool branch of the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), he took on their deadliest enemies — the Communist Federation of Britain (Marxist-Leninist).
Unfortunately, Sayle’s exposure to the left via Moscow-obedient Stalinists and sectarian Maoists has rather soured him to the organised left as a whole, reinforcing a basic anti-political temperament.
He claims, for example, that demonstrations are “ridiculous and stupid”, a familiar excuse for the stay-at-home individualist. But there are plenty of counter-examples to show that mass public dissent seriously matters to the privileged and powerful.
Similarly, Sayle's assertion that revolutionaries are dedicated to censorship, state repression and “forced eradication of unwanted classes” is historically simplistic. It is the cynically familiar dross that comes from mixing up socialism with its Stalinist negation.
Sayle is a fine comic writer and when he laughs with the left, his humour and critical sympathy combine with a comedic flourish. But when he laughs at the left (or, rather, at his caricature of the left), the writing descends into cheap conservative gags.
Nevertheless, despite his analytical fragility, Sayle's heart is in the right (i.e. left) place and his ability to tell a funny anecdote is top-rung.
Perhaps having communist parents and a cultural diet of Eisenstein rather than Disney has, in the end, given us not just a good comic but a socially-aware one.