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Alexei Sayle was born in Liverpool on the day egg rationing came to an end. His family ate salad. They read theSoviet Weekly. They travelled on transcontinental trains, and in the back of futuristic limousines. They saw Communism in action and ate strange smelling sausages. His mother was very keen on boiled eggs and the Moscow State Circus. Teachers were scared of her. His father was a union leader who made friends wherever he went. He thought he was fluent in Esperanto. Alexei became a member of the CzechoslovakianYoung Pioneers. Sometimes he was bored and other times confused. He thought he might be a great athlete, or maybe a famous artist. He spent a lot of time inventing complex explanations for the bizarre behaviour of grown-ups. Slowly it dawned on him that telling stories was a good way of making sense of his perplexing world.
Alexi a Legend
Stalin Ate My Homework
It's not like other comedians' memoirs. It's funny. - GuardianAs strange and fascinating as any fiction . . . This would be excellent even if it weren't by someone famous - The TimesFascinating and hugely entertaining - TelegraphSayle's book has charm and substance, both as memoir and history. - Times Literary SupplementA great memoir of a strange childhood. "Just let me read you this bit" funny. - Frank Cottrell BoyceThe brilliant satires on modern life of Alexei Sayle (the only comedian worth his salt as a novelist) are contemporary gems. - Tim Lott, IndependentThis touching, elegantly written memoir stands out... He looks back on his unconventional youth with comic bewilderment - Independent on SundayA fascinating and entertaining memoir about growing up with parents who were staunch communists - Daily Telegraph
Number Of Pages: 320
Published: 7th July 2011
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton General Division
Country of Publication: GB
Dimensions (cm): 20.0 x 13.0 x 2.0
Weight (kg): 0.22
Edition Number: 1
Most people know Alexei Sayle from the telly, from The Young Ones, or The Comic Strip Presents . . . Fewer know him for his novels and short stories, such as Mister Roberts and The Weeping Women Hotel. After all, in a lifetime of finite duration, there are only so many novels by comedians that any sane person will want to read, and most of them are written by Steve Martin. There is probably even less time in the average life to devote to the reading of memoirs by comedians, the complete works of Spike Milligan being more than sufficient for most us, while strictly speaking Alan Bennett isn't a comedian any more; he's a proper writer. But there is now one more book to add to the very short list: Sayle's Stalin Ate My Homework. It is not like other comedians' memoirs. It's funny. (And the novels are pretty good too.)
Stalin Ate My Homework is essentially Sayle's love letter to his parents, Joe and Molly. Joe worked on the railways as a goods guard, was incurably cheerful, always wore a trilby, taught himself French and Esperanto, and was a communist. Red-haired Molly spoke Yiddish, had five sisters and a brother, and prepared salads instead of roast dinners on a Sunday. If they were not the only Jewish atheist communist family in Liverpool, the Sayles were certainly one of the more eccentric.
As a child, Alexei – named after Maxim Gorky, real name Alexei Maximovich Peshkov – was "subject to all kinds of restrictions, caveats and provisos, both physical and ideological". He was not, for example, allowed to go and see Walt Disney's Bambi with his friends. Instead, his parents took him to see Alexander Nevsky at the Unity Theatre. Not surprisingly, he grew up with a feeling of being just a little bit unusual.
Molly's father, Alexander Mendelson, was the shamas at the Crown Street synagogue in Liverpool. Sayle's descriptions of his grandfather's house are like something out of Bernard Malamud: "The house appeared very bare, with large stretches of warm linoleum in the hall; everybody seemed as pale as a ghost, and there was always the smell of poor people's soup. The only things that shone brightly were the oddly shaped religious artifacts on the sideboard, their polished brass flanks decorated with strange foreign writing that looked like it had come off the side of a flying saucer. During these calls it felt like we were visiting the embassy of a very poor and distant country."
Every sentence there has something surprising in it. Which is how Sayle works – with little flashes everywhere, like miniature jokes or surrealist flourishes. "One dark autumn evening in Crown Street I wandered out into the back yard to find Uncle Monty sitting in a rough, temporary shed with a roof made out of palm leaves, eating two fried eggs with his hat on." He was celebrating Sukkot.
A perk of Joe's working on the railways was reduced-price European rail travel. So, naturally, when holidays came around, the Sayles headed off behind the iron curtain. In Czechoslovakia ("a place so foreign it had a 'Z' in its name") the Sayles find themselves in a topsy-turvy world where they're met by limousines, wined and dined, and generally treated like royalty. Even the sight-seeing trips aren't exactly your average: "Communist party authorities at the highest level had decided that what the first delegation of British railwaymen to Czechoslovakia would like to see more than anything else were sights, locations and exhibits connected with the wartime assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague." The sights of Nazi reprisals, Sayle writes, "were our Wooky Hole".
Back in England, the family live a quiet life in Anfield, two miles from the docks and half a mile from Liverpool FC. Sayle depicts a world long since disappeared. The party line on the telephone ("You would lift up the telephone only to find your neighbour was already on it talking at great length about their hernia operation"); the Co-op and the general store; the works of Jack London proudly on the shelf. And yelling "Don't forget Stalingrad!" and "Capitalist propaganda!" at the TV.
In the latter part of the book, Sayle goes on to recount his adventures in Paris in 1968 and finally his departure for art school, but Joe and Molly remain the real heroes, with their high ideals and their house full of Soviet trinkets and "folklorique woven things". Sayle knows that for better and for worse, his parents made him what he is: they are the book's foundations. Underneath his grandfather's house there was, apparently, a labyrinth of secret tunnels, built by the Liverpool businessman Joseph Williamson as an early kind of job-creation scheme. Sayle's mother's family dug a hole in their back yard and used the tunnels to dump their rubbish – "as if it were the most natural thing in the world to have a network of secret passages underneath your house". As if.
Ian Sansom's Mobile Library series is published by Fourth Estate.