A few months ago, I was professionally obliged to ask a British comic actor about his recent memoir and what had prompted it. His answer – “The publisher hopes it can shift 1,000 copies’ worth of stocking fillers” – was both enlightening and dispiriting. Such books have become a staple of the high street shelves and landmarks of the publishing year but, apart from unhinged fans, it is hard to imagine anyone embarking on them with a glad heart or the thrill of anticipation.
Not so Alexei Sayle’s new memoir, the worst thing about which is its “zany” title that gives no indication of the funny, smart, original and provocative stuff within. For the past two decades or so, Sayle, who can claim with some justification to have invented modern British comedy (and frequently does just that with a disarming lack of false modesty), has styled himself as a “proper writer” of both fiction and memoir. Even after his recent return to onstage comedy, he has embraced the literary life with gusto, sensibly preferring the country houses of upmarket book festivals to the Novotels of the stand-up life.
Some of the biographical details of Sayle’s background are fairly well known, even if you aren’t familiar with his earlier volume Stalin Ate My Homework. Brought up by the hard-line Scouse communists Molly and Joe, his radicalism was “inherited . . . like a dukedom”. If you think that this sounds like a cue for the swelling Hovis TV advert music and heart-warming socialistic homilies, think again. Sayle is bracingly unsentimental about the British left of the late 1970s and his family’s unique and somewhat crazed adherence to the dogma.
That said, his personal politics – two-fisted Marxism with a dash of surrealism and cynicism – feels enormously refreshing in our era of trembling-lipped, Walter-the-Softy-like Twitterati. It is hard to imagine the stalwarts of Mock the Week recognising the Druze militia leader Walid Jumblatt in a London cinema or having friends personally involved in the Iranian embassy siege of 1980. Sayle is clearly still a man of the left but there is a rueful cast to his sympathies. Smashing his council flat loo by dropping a bottle of cider down it, he is embarrassed to admit to the workmen repairing it how it happened: “One of them said, ‘Don’t matter, mate. If it’s broke it gets fixed, don’t matter how it got broke.’ Yet it bothered me, this idea that if you were a council tenant there were no consequences to your actions, as if you were some kind of big baby.”
The comedy writer Dennis Berson said that Sayle was the first stand-up who “didn’t care if the audience liked him”. But compared to today’s comics and the unctuous 1970s Variety Club of Great Britain golf club elite, Sayle – baleful, menacing, intelligent – comes over as a bloke whose company one might seek out, whether he cared or not.
He is a master of the flashing en passant insult. I laughed out loud at his swift and robust dismissals of Norman Wisdom (a “demented cockney nuisance”) and Malcolm Muggeridge, wonderfully described here as “a drawling, affected, upper-class, corpse-like fop”. He seems comfortable and generous with his famous peers and friends – Sting numbered among them briefly – while not quite being of them, perhaps by virtue of his teenage years debating Maoism in tough Liverpool pubs. Pamela Stephenson manages to turn up to an early Comic Strip rehearsal with some material written for her by Harold Pinter and the group’s supremo, Peter Richardson, has “seedy” friends, who “owned things like roller disco rinks in west London”.
Sayle feels that alternative comedy, his baby, was perhaps archetypally Thatcherite. The practitioners were ambitious, they were competitive and they were largely scornful of the subsidised art and dire political comedy of the day. The were also on course to become the comedy aristocracy of the 1980s and 1990s. Through all this, Sayle remains grounded, largely because of the presence of the clear voice of sanity of his wife, Linda, to whom the book is an extended if unconventional love letter.
He is often at his best when he writes apropos of nothing, such as when he refers to Mother’s Day as a money-making project of the “floral industrial complex”, or his long, unexpected and quite brilliant riff on how each era gets the gun that defines it. Thus the Kalashnikov is the machine gun of the 1960s revolutionary while the phallic Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum is the definitive capitalist weapon accessory of 1970s America and the slick, European Heckler & Koch MP5 is perfect for “the death squad of a right-wing monetarist government”. Soon after this, he launches into a note-perfect assessment of the genius of Abba’s “The Day Before You Came”.
Describing a review of a Secret Policeman’s Ball charity event by Danny Baker that singled out Sayle for praise, he remarks that it is his favourite kind of notice – one “not only saying I was brilliant but that everybody else was shit”. If this is not quite that kind of review, I’m certainly happy to be a fellow traveller.
Stuart Maconie’s books include “The Pie at Night: in Search of the North at Play” (Ebury Press)
This article appears in the 18 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster