Friday, September 16, 2011

Red diaper, baby

John Masters reviews Alexei Sayle's 'Stalin ate my homework' Sceptre 2011, pp304, £8.99


Alexei Sayle was one of the leading alternative comedians of the 1980s. He enjoyed a career that saw him land a regular spot in the BBC’s Young ones, the part of a disc jockey in Doctor Who and a cameo appearance in Indiana Jones and the last crusade - not to mention his performance of the timeless pop classic that was ‘Hello, John, got a new motor?’ Since then he has become a novelist and makes occasional appearances on panel quiz shows.

Before all that though, Alexei David Sayle - named after his maternal grandfather and one Alexei Maximovich Peshkov (better know to the world as the Russian novelist and revolutionary, Maxim Gorky) - was the only child of a family that differed from others in the neighbourhood: imagine a 60s childhood in Liverpool where instead of the Beatles you listened to the Red Army Choir and unlike all your mates didn’t get to see Bambi for ideological reasons.

Alexei was raised in a communist household. His father and mother were both long-time members of the official Communist Party of Great Britain and this book - his first foray into non-fiction - is a trip down memory lane back to his childhood on Merseyside. It is packed with observations of leftwing culture and behaviour that are simultaneously humorous and cruelly serious. In short, an interesting stab at the social history of a dissenting lifestyle in the middle of the 20th century.

He recollects how unlike other families the Sayles took their holidays in Czechoslovakia or Hungary, and describes his fascination at the shops that sold just one sort of pen, the strangely designed, three-headlamped automobiles, his membership of the Czech Young Pioneers and gradually realising back home in Liverpool that the things he heard, saw and did as a normal part of his family life were not exactly typical.

The book becomes even more interesting as the young Sayle gets into his teens, and wrestles with the problem of how to rebel against parents who are themselves rebels. The answer in his case was to become a Maoist. He was a founding member of a Maoist group in Liverpool, after coming across another young man who was “carrying pictures of Chairman Mao”. The group later earned its official status as a bona fide part of the left by splitting over whether to join Reg Birch’s Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) or the Communist Federation of Britain (Marxist-Leninist). The majority, Sayle included, opted to become the Liverpool branch of the CPB (M-L).

As an interesting lightweight read that provides some insight into the left of 50s and 60s Britain, this book performs well, and goes some way to help understand what exactly it was that the rank and file of the old CPGB saw in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe; and how ‘official communism’ functioned as a kind of theocratic organisation held together by a common faith that the Kremlin knew what it was doing. A party where the classics of Marx, Lenin et al were adapted to meet the needs of the latest opportunistic turn by the ever flexible Rajani Palme Dutt. A big revelation in Sayle’s teenage years came when, upon becoming a Maoist, he and his fellow comrades set out to read the classics for the first time: “Halfway through Marx’s Wages, prices and profit I suddenly thought to myself, ‘Fuck me! This shit is actually true’” (p246).

An entertaining little book, and one that will hopefully be followed soon by the next instalment of Sayle’s journey.

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