Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Noël Coward of Communism

20th October

Most people go to the gym to get their abdominal muscles to ache. During Manchester Literature Festival, we just go and see Alexei Sayle at the Met in Bury.

The Met was packed for Alexei Sayle’s reading of his new memoir, Stalin Ate My Homework. Most of us were of the generation who at least remembered Alexei Sayle’s Stuff, which appeared on the BBC in the 80s and 90s, and he had lost none of his humour and capacity to entertain. He has made a successful transition from light entertainment and comedy into writing, and his work is both quirky and funny but also expertly observed.

He began with a reading from Overtaken, an earlier novel, about guest books. The scourge of hotel visitor books everywhere, Alexei explained that he had transitioned from the nondescript “everything was very nice”, to leaving dramatic, melodramatic, or even cryptic messages. Or, simply, “the pies, the pies…”

He went on to read from Stalin Ate My Homework, a memoir about growing up with his extremely Communist parents. His mother, Molly, and his father, Joe, were in thrall to the Communist ideals of the 1950s, naming their son Alexei in tribute to their devotion to the Soviet Republic. By the age of six, Alexei had developed a sense of the ridiculousness of it, calling himself a “six-year-old Noël Coward”, which sowed the seeds for his later comedy career. He describes Stalin as a “heterosexual Jewish Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.”

His childhood was definitely unusual. Like all children, he was desperate to fit in, but was constantly thwarted by his parents’ ideals. Instead of seeing Bambi, which is parents disliked because of Walt Disney’s associations with Senator McCarthy and feared would traumatise the young Alexei with the scene where Bambi’s mother is killed, he was subjected to Alexander Nevsky, a 1938 Russian film featuring several scenes of ritual child sacrifice.

He has brilliantly captured his parents’ oddities, just as he has done with fictional characters in Weeping Women Hotel and Overtaken. As Communists, they were infinitely paranoid, and so fearful that the local “petty bourgeois” taxi company would not rate them as worthy as the Royal Family, that they would call every half an hour to remind them that they had booked a car for holiday trips. Then, of course, they would take the bus anyway.

Arms flailing and pacing up and down the stage, Alexei gave the audience a mix of gags, anecdotes and readings from both the new memoir and its follow-up, on which he’s still working. He is just as lively and energetic as ever, but his temper has mellowed. This was definitely more of a literary than a comedy event, but Alexei kept the audience laughing, his reading brilliant, engaging and at times thunderous. He would occasionally pause during readings to elucidate a point, which was always funny and appropriate.

After reading a short piece from his current work, Alexei took questions. The audience was just as lively as him, one woman even offering him a “comedy tip” that he should “stand still.” Alexei managed questions about his current political beliefs in the manner of a union official of the early 1960s, a being with which he had great familiarity during his childhood. His father’s work as a railway man and strong political beliefs meant that Alexei never missed annual union events.

He also covered questions concerning his difficult relationship with Ben Elton, his time on The Young Ones, his role in Indiana Jones - which involved spilling sauce on the crotch of his gabardine suit right before meeting Steven Spielberg, and his greatest extravagance. He revealed that he once owned nine bicycles, and that his parents had once spent £1000 compensation on a cabin cruiser to take a two-week holiday to Nantwich. In fear that the boat would be stolen, they took the outboard motor home on the bus.

It was a revealing, and thoroughly entertaining evening. Alexei Sayle still has the ability to keep an audience thoroughly engaged, and without the aggressiveness of his earlier years, he’s an excellent author both to read and see live, but you will laugh so hard you hurt.

by Joely Black

Joely Black is a freelance writer and author who writed epic fantasy and drinks large quantities of tea. Two of her books, The Execution and The Inheritor, are available as ebooks from Smashwords.

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