By Pat Stack
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Stalin Ate My Homework

This article is over 11 years, 3 months old
Alexei Sayle, Sceptre, £20
Issue 351

Alexei Sayle is generally regarded as the path-breaker of alternative comedy. He paved the way for a whole plethora of comedians who became household names as they brushed aside the ageing racist, sexist and shockingly unfunny generation that went before them.

I first saw Sayle at one of the SWP’s early “Marxism” festivals, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen before: a mixture of the political, anarchic and downright bizarre. In this book you begin to understand where much of this would have come from, because Sayle was a “red diaper” (a child of leftie parents). More specifically, he was a child of Stalinist Communist Party members.

I have known a number of people who grew up with leftie parents, and the main thing they describe is a feeling of being “different”. Some of the stuff Sayle describes is very similar to these friends’ descriptions, such as a house full of books in areas where this was unusual, or eating habits, like brown-bread salads at a time when no one else in the area ate much that didn’t come out of a frying pan or a chip shop. There was also a decided lack of patriotism that resulted in laughing at England’s sporting misfortunes, avoiding the queen’s speech at all costs and hating icons like Winston Churchill.

Sayle also spent family holidays in various Eastern European locations, on which, for a time, his family were treated like guests of honour. How many rail workers would be met by a fleet of limos when arriving on foreign shores?

Sayle’s parents – a quiet, friendly Liverpudlian rail union activist and a volatile firebrand redheaded Jew – come across as intriguing and very likeable.

One of the contradictions of Stalinism was that, despite the horrible ideology, Communist Parties frequently recruited some of the best and most committed activists, people whose motives were entirely honourable but whose politics led them to defend the indefensible.

Of course, the question for all kids, even red diapers, is how do you rebel? Sayle joined the Young Communist League, more or less, as he puts it, “joining the family business”. But he quickly found a way to kick out by becoming a Maoist – out-Stalinising his now “wishy-washy” parents.

Sayle looks back on most of what he was taught politically as nonsense, although there is a really nice moment when he describes finally getting that Marx was actually right about the historical process.

Much of the book is funny and at no time nasty about his unconventional parents. Of course, Sayle can and does easily make fun of the politics he grew up with, at times tossing chunks of baby out with the bathwater, in my opinion. Nevertheless, it’s a fun read written by a very funny man.

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