Monday, September 26, 2011


Stalin Ate My Homework is a smart, funny and self-effacing autobiography by Alexei Sayle. It covers the years 1952 (when Sayle was born, on the same day that eggs stopped being rationed) to 1969 (when he started at Southport College of Art – his mum having sat the interview for him). There’s lots of this kind of odd, engaging detail in the 53 short chapters, Sayle’s life and times sketched out in fleeting glimpses.

Sayle was named after Maxim Gorsky. His parents, Joe and Molly, were Communists – dedicated to the party, even after the brutal repression of the uprising in Hungary. Sayle’s good at explaining the different factions, the personalities and the culture of the left. I found his explanation for how his parents could condone events in Hungary (seeing it as a test of their faith in totalitarianism), and then his own leanings towards the Maoists in the 60s, really illuminating of the politics of the period – I’ve not seen it spelt out so simply before. He manages to address the theory and the personalities involved, and get some jokes in, too.

Joe worked for British Rail and used his free pass to take his family all across Europe, so it’s also a travel memoir. Again, the family’s visits to Communist countries – at the height of the Cold War – are fascinating. Sayle notes the irony of a family so dedicated to totalitarian equality lording it up as guests of the Party, and the pang of having to return to ordinary living when these holidays were over.

While there’s a passion for the politics, there’s also a delight in human frailty and life’s strangeness, and he’s good on acknowledging his own weaknesses, anger and stupidity. There's lots on the way that Liverpool changed after the war - linking the architecture to the communities living around and in it. He’s good at unpicking the hippy and peace movements – young guys who were terrible at organising anything and who seemed mostly in it for the sex. It’s all told with an endearing sense of his own envy and confusion, belying the usual cool shtick of the 60s.

The book is dedicated “to Molly”, and it’s as much Sayle’s parents’ story as his own. Molly is a perfect comic creation – argumentative, sweary and utterly adored by the writer. Joe has an easy, carefree faith in the Party ensuring everything will be all right in the end and seems to hold it as an article of that faith not to get on a train until it’s already moving. He and Molly cut sparks and are devoted to one another.

Another child might have resented his "famous" parents overshadowing his own identity - just as he starts going to pubs, so does Molly and she holds court there. I wondered if there might be a link between the nerdy, shy boy who is known because of his parents, and the bullshitting that seems to pervade his teens. Is it an effort to define himself on his own terms - to find a way to get attention for something he's doing himself? But perhaps that would only work if Sayle were more hostile or resentful.

The glowing affection for Molly and Joe makes hints about Joe’s declining health all the more powerful. It's what makes this such an absorbing and feel-good read. But the following passage is worth quoting in full for its mix of history, comedy and gut-wrenching pathos. I find it utterly haunting, and a sign that this isn't just a funny, daft book but something really special.

“The Bedfordshire CID had come to our house to interview my father about the murder of Michael Gregsten at Deadman's Hill on the A6 in Bedfordshire, on 22 August 1961, along with the rape and shooting of his lover, Valerie Storie. James Hanratty, a professional car thief, had been charged with the crimes. Hanratty's alibi was that at the time of the murder he had been in the Welsh seaside town of Rhyl, staying in a boarding house named Ingledene run by a woman called Mrs Jones, in the attic room, which had a green bath.

The police had discovered that Joe had stayed at Ingledene between 21 and 24 August, in the small front room on the first floor. He was there on behalf of the NUR, taking part in a recruitment drive. In his book Who Killed Hanratty? Paul Foot describes Joe as 'the most important witness from the prosecution point of view'. He says that Joe saw no sign of Hanratty, although he admits, 'he was out on union business from dawn to dusk'. Which sounds typical enough.

Hanratty's trial began at Bedfordshire Assizes on 22 January 1962. On 17 February he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Hanratty's appeal was dismissed on 9 March, and despite a petition signed by more than ninety thousand people he was hanged at Bedford on 4 April 1962, still protesting his innocence.

Joe was away for a week attending the trial in Bedford. One night Molly spoke to him on the phone, and when I asked how he was she replied that he had told her he was frightened. I asked her what my father was frightened of, and she said he was worried that Hanratty might have criminal friends who could harm him in some way.

When he returned from the trial Joe told us that what had upset him most was that he had been the final witness called in the trial. He realised that the last person Hanratty had heard testifying against him, the last person he had seen on the stand, the final person confirming his fate, was Joe Sayle. After that he was taken down, sentenced and hanged two months later. The last witness to testify against the last person executed in Britain was my father. Though he never talked about it, since he was such a good-natured man that must have been a heavy burden for him to bear.

Over the next few years the case did not go away: prosecution witnesses attempted or committed suicide and several books were written about the case, including one by Lord Russell of Liverpool. There were newspaper articles, radio and TV programmes, all of them contesting the soundness of Hanratty's conviction and reminding Joe that he might have taken part in the execution of an innocent man. When one of those programmes came on we did not shout at the TV as we usually did but simply changed the channel and said nothing. In 2002, the murder conviction of James Hanratty was upheld by the Court of Appeal which ruled that new DNA evidence established his guilt 'beyond doubt'. So the coppers got it right.”

Alexei Sayle, Stalin Ate My Homework, pp. 113-5.

(Wikipedia says Hanratty wasn't the last person executed in the country - I assume that's dramatic licence.)

No comments: