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10 March 2016

My mother elbowed Tony Benn out of the way to get to her Vietnamese comrades

Molly descended the stairs and, going straight over to the ambassador, elbowed Tony Benn out of the way.

By Alexei Sayle

In my second year of college, to celebrate me getting my own place, I decided to throw a dinner party, except I didn’t know how to cook anything. So my mother, Molly, using the free rail pass she was entitled to as the wife of a railwayman, travelled down to London with a chicken, cooked it and some vegetables in the hideous, greasy old oven I had in the flat, and then, before my guests arrived, she went back to Liverpool.

Unfortunately, allowing her to do that meant from that point Molly would just turn up at my flat, unannounced and without a chicken. One lunchtime, she appeared in north Kensington. To keep her occupied, I took her for a walk around the neighbourhood. My mother and I wandered through the market on the Portobello Road then turned towards Bayswater, with me showing her points of interest like my bus stop.

As we walked along a street called Chepstow Villas, Molly suddenly said, “I know some people who live here.” And before I could stop her she ran over the road to hammer on one of the front doors. After a few seconds it was answered by a sleepy-looking oriental man. The brass plaque by the entrance read “Legation of the People’s Republic of North Vietnam”.

“Oh, hello, Molly,” the man said, giving me the feeling that this might not be the first time she had appeared unannounced at the legation. Because of her work for Medical Aid for Vietnam my mother was well known to many of the diplomats from the North.

We were shown in to the front room and after a little while the military attaché, a man who had been one of the heroes of the great Battle of Dien Bien Phu, when the Vietnamese had decimated the French colonial forces, entered wearing his full dress uniform with row after row of shiny medals at his breast, and made painful small talk with us for half an hour. I imagined he’d rather be back in the jungle getting napalmed than doing this, but he undertook his task with great dignity.

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A little while later, in April 1975, Saigon, the capital of the South, was captured by the North Vietnamese army and the long war finally ended. Our old friends from Chepstow Villas took over the former South Vietnamese legation, a huge mansion in Wimbledon. To celebrate reunification they held a big party to which the Sayle family was invited. Everybody from the left in Britain was there and as you entered the massive ballroom there was a man in a frock coat who announced your name. He called, “Mr and Mrs Sayle and Mrs Sayle,” which was me, Linda (my wife) and Molly.

Molly descended the stairs and, going straight over to the ambassador, elbowing Tony Benn out of the way, she pulled out a canvas bag from her pocket.

“There’s £12 worth of 20-pence pieces there,” she said as she tried to press it into his hands “. . . that we collected for Medical Aid on Merseyside.”

“No, no, Molly,” the ambassador said. “Not now.”

“Thatcher Stole My Trousers” by Alexei Sayle is published by Bloomsbury

Alexei Sayle appears at the Cheltenham Literary Festival on 7 April


This article appears in the 09 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho