This is Alexei Sayle’s second volume of memoirs, following 2010’s Stalin Ate My Homework. While the latter concentrated on the school years of the young Sayle growing up the child of devout Communist parents in 60s and 70s Liverpool, this focusses on his late teens to early 20s, and his pathway from supremely unfocussed London art school dropout to successful iconoclast comedian, TV’s acerbic self-styled ‘fat bastard’.
Sayle’s memoir thrives on the same qualities which propelled both his earlier comedy and his latter-day writing – an eye for the details of the urban everyday counterbalanced finely with an otherworldly surrealism, with the added capacity for a great one-liner. More important than all this perhaps – a sardonic, steadfast, and hard-headed contrarianism. Here is an art school student who despises most contemporary art, and a socialist who spends much of the book taking pot-shots at the ideological idiocies of the left. He savages Communism with the vicious relish of a true renegade. Brought up in the Communist Party of Great Britain which towed the Soviet Russian line, Sayle’s style of teenage rebellion was to join the rival Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) which was beholden to Chinese Maoism instead. This turned out to be even more disillusioning. He retains a real contempt for Reg Birch, tinpot dictator CPBM-L and by Sayle’s account a man consumed with his own self-importance. Art school Alexei shared a flat in Finchley with various revolutionary Arabs who had fled their own repressive regimes, and while he admired their spirit, could see the quixotic futility of their schemes even then “hoping to stir up revolt in the Sultanate of Oman mostly by smoking, staying up all night and reading foreign newspapers in cafes.”
His dislike of Birch however is nothing compared to his apparent antipathy towards his mother, Molly, presented in the book as a fiery oddball whose behaviour seems to reach beyond the eccentric and cantankerous (screaming abuse at the world, not least in her role as a ‘vigilante style’ lollypop lady) and into the realms of actual mental illness. Sayle attributes his own ‘oddness’ to the influence of Molly (lack of sociability, and obsessive nature finding interests in such disparate objects as bikes and guns) and seems to have spent his whole life trying to escape from her, ended up mortified when she ends up joining his own rival Communist party. For his grounded side he gives thanks to his much-loved wife Linda, an omnipresent figure in the book as the voice of sanity and support. Of course without his oddness he wouldn’t have the skewed take on the world which fuels his writing, but there is certainly no thanks to Ma Sayle here.
Sayle is engagingly dry throughout, and his observations on everything from the differing political outlooks in the working classes of Liverpool and Hackney to a Marxist theory of production as applied to drug-dealing are consistently thought-provoking and funny. Things move into a different but no less engrossing alt-showbizzy realm when the narrative moves into his unlikely progress in the world of comedy. A scene involving Sayle’s brother-in-law outraging Bob Carolgees by questioning the worth of his alter-ego puppet Spit the Dog is one of many masterful minor vignettes.
Keith Allen is revealed as quite as unsettling and un-nerving a figure whom as we may have imagined, whilst the generally ever-abrasive Sayle emerges as fond and avuncular figure towards the usually slightly younger comedians around him (Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, French and Saunders et al). There’s plenty of choice meat for Young Ones fans– apparently the stunts were often every bit as dangerous and violent as they appeared on screen (‘Rick’’s crotch banging on the pillars as he slid under the bannister, ‘Rick’’s head in an exploding oven – both led to visits to hospital for the real Rik.)
Sayle’s contention that he and the alternative gang were “nice men pretending to be nasty, while the old school comedians were nasty men pretending to be nice” seems a little presumptuous, particularly given his revelation that Rik and Ade used to wreck a restaurant in Islington while paying for damages, like a countercultural analogue of the Bullingdon club. His writing is very wise and very funny but it can sometimes be tricky to see where one ends and the other begins. Sometimes he is clearly and obviously exaggerating for comic effect, at other times the distinction is not so clear (not least when it comes to the behaviour of his mother – was it really so psychotic?) Still, this is Sayle’s world, and for all its strangeness and inevitable self-servingness it still somehow seems a lot closer to reality than most memoirs you might read.
Any Cop?: Yes. The title, content and denouement of one chapter ‘Mrs Doonican Gets a Surprise’ are worth the price alone.