Comedian Alexei Sayle grew up in a communist household – but in Liverpool. Many people – and I do include myself – think of Alexei Sayle as the founder of British “alternative” comedy and one of the great artists of his time.
On stage, he often riffed on his childhood – as the creator of the first “Marxist-Leninist funk band”, for instance – but in the first volume of his autobiography, Stalin Ate My Homework, we find out what childhood in a doctrinaire pro-Soviet household was like back in the 50s and 60s.
The book opens with a six-year-old Alexei desperate to join his chums at the tenth anniversary relaunch of Disney’s Bambi. He knew that his parents wouldn’t approve (they “compromised” by taking him to see Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky!).
The book shines a light on the problems of second generation members (or “born-ins”) in any group – whether the views of the group are better than the culture around or not, the child is separated from the values of the society and will inevitably feel different. Sayle turned this to his advantage, but it was a very bizarre childhood.
As well as communism, Sayle had a second set of values to deal with: his mother was Jewish, but afraid to tell her own father that she had married out of the faith, in case she was ostracized. Some orthodox Jews “sit shiva” for any member who fails to follow the restrictions of the faith. The shunned person is thenceforth considered dead.
Sayle’s father, Joe, had to conceal his membership of the Communist Party, by direction of the Kremlin, so that he could infiltrate the British Labour Party. As Sayle remarks, “Though everybody understood that here was a man who was dedicated to introducing a one-party state in which government terror was a central tool for ensuring the dictatorship of the proletariat I would hear people say, ‘You couldn’t meet a nicer bloke than Joe Sayle.'”
His mother was a true believer, too: “Like Fundamentalist Christians who have to believe that every word of the Bible is true and those holy words were written by people who had no human foibles, so it was with Marxists like my mother. They only wanted to listen to messages that confirmed the things they already believed in written by authors who were ideologically pure … While I could leave pornography or alcohol lying round my bedroom I was forced to hide my copy of Brideshead Revisited in a secret compartment at the back of the wardrobe.”
Stalin Ate My Homework is a fascinating and at times hilarious account of an alternative childhood in post-War Britain. Read it and laugh.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Stalin Ate My Homework? Do you have a story about growing up with a totalist worldview that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!