Last year Francis Wheen's excellent book on the 1970s, Strange Days Indeed (Fourth Estate), noted that in looking back at the decade there was a tendency to dress it up as one big Abba song.
Although that sounds like hell to me, the point was clear: in memoirs, novels, TV shows and films the decade had morphed from what was evidently quite a troubled time — with terrorism, the three-day week and inflation — to a disco-dancing dream.
Liverpool in the 1960s conjures a similar image around Mersey Beat musicians. But not for Alexei Sayle, whose memoir Stalin Ate My Homework (Sceptre, September) relives the era from a completely different perspective — one which included tours around eastern Europe to see sites of executions and trips to the cinema to see black-and-white Communist propaganda from the 1930s while everyone else was watching "Bambi".
"The way popular history is written there is always this falsehood. You know, people always say "Oh Manchester", everyone was wearing a kaftan, but if you look at pictures everyone was wearing a suit. It would be dishonest for me to say there was "music came through every door," he says, broadening his Scouse accent. "It just wasn't like that: Yuri Gagarin meant more to me than John Lennon did."
Liverpool does, however, play a vital role in the memoir — which ends in 1969 as he leaves the city for Southport — and it was also crucial in the book's inception. "It wasn't until I did that documentary on Liverpool ["Alexei Sayle's Liverpool", broadcast on BBC2 in 2008] that I thought it was something I could do," he explains. "I had always made a very clear distinction between the act — the persona — and my life... Then I did that documentary, and I realised that I was more relaxed about those things. Or I'd got more desperate."
As the only child of Molly, a Lithuanian Jewish Communist and "goy" Communist party candidate and railway worker Joe, Sayle had what even now might be considered an unusual upbringing — but this was the height of the Cold War, when America was in the grip of McCarthyism and neighbours were spending whatever cash they had on nuclear bunkers. Not the Sayles, though — they had the inside track and knew (or perhaps just believed) there was no chance of nuclear warfare, believing the Cuban missile crisis to be a clever form of diversionary tactics.
The radicalism of his parents had more prosaic consequences like making Sayle's teen rebellion a challenge: he ended up joining the local Maoists. But despite the family's extreme political views, Sayle writes that he received more attention for his quixotic dress sense. "In Liverpool, no one really cared [what you believed in] — you were just in another loony cult. There was no difference between us and the Catholics... But I thought it made me special. That was the start of my messianic sense of self."
Molly's side of the family also played an important part in shaping the young Sayle, although he finds it more difficult to define the role his Jewish roots had on him, beyond heightening the notion of being "alien". Now he is reliably sardonic when it comes to the Jewish community: "We're responsible for all that was wrong in the 20th century: Communism, the atomic bomb and psychoanalysis."
Sayle puts the start of his storytelling down to the combination of having parents who were "nuts" and no siblings "to check in with". This became particularly acute when his father became sick and his health started to deteriorate. Sayle began to spend every night out of the house, roaming from one pub to another. "I had no one to feed off, or share this anxiety with," he says. "That's certainly in a strange way where my imagination developed."
The book leaves off before Sayle embarks on his career ("that's the least interesting part, for me"), but it is intriguing to see how one of the most iconic comedians of the 1980s developed his style and stage persona. Those who remember him for "The Young Ones" and "Ullo John! Gotta New Motor?" will find perhaps a more mellow voice, although the book still demonstrates his ascerbic, anarchic style of humour. "My view of the world has changed massively,"he says. "I used to be fuelled by rage and hatred, and I'm not any more. I have a more moderated view of human beings now — I strive very hard to understand the world as it really is."
- Stephen May | "I do think, whether you like my book or hate my book, that I'm doing my own thing"
- Cecelia Ahern | "I don’t think any book should be described as 'chick lit'"
- Fatima Bhutto | "I think when people think of Pakistani women they think of reserved, quiet, compliant women and I don’t know any quiet, compliant women in Pakistan"
- Maggie Shipstead | "I think that as a female writer, if you want to be taken as a serious literary author you do have to be able to write from a man's point of view"
- Matt Dickinson | "I write a lot of film scripts and I think fiction—and especially young adult fiction—is becoming more filmic."