Sunday, April 10, 2016

Book Notes: Thatcher Stole My Trousers by Alexei Sayle

"Thatcher Stole My Trousers" is the second part of Alexei Sayle's enormously entertaining memoirs, published this year as a follow-up to "Stalin Ate My Homework", which dealt with his early years. In many ways the books are quite similar, in that Sayle is a superb storyteller and raconteur whose style translates to the printed page with ease. He is effortlessly funny, and has lived the kind of extraordinary life which seems to generate more than its fair share of anecdotes which are improbable, ludicrous, and wonderful in equal turns. Like the first book, in Thatcher Stole My Trousers, Sayle is angry, Marxist, and foul-mouthed! But there are differences between the two books too.

While Stalin Ate My Homework, dealt primarily with Sayle's adventures growing up in Liverpool, and revolved around his complex relationship with his Stalinist, volatile, and almost unbelievable Mother, Molly Sayle; Thatcher..... moves on sees Sayle leave home, move to London and commence adult life. Both books have a central female character, and Molly makes way for Linda - who in the course of this book becomes his wife. While not as unhinged as his mother, Linda is clearly a force to be reckoned with! Here's a snapshot of Sayle's writing, roaming through family life, politics, the state of the economy, and all delivered in steely satirical prose.

"..... friends came up to Liverpool for the party when in 1974 Linda and I got married. We had decided to wed almost as an affectation. All the couples we knew were living together while marriage was considered to be old-fashioned and possibly fascist so we thought we'd be different. It was only slowly that as the date approached that we came to realise that marriage was a actually a huge commitment not to be taken lightly or done as a fashion statement. So by the time of the ceremony at the registry office in Brougham Terrace in Liverpool me and Linda were very solemn and a bit intimidated by the weight of the event. 
After the ceremony we, our parents, Linda's brother Jimmy and Chris Walker went to the Berni Inn in town for a steak lunch. Somebody, probably one of Linda's parents unsure of themselves in a restaurant, asked the waitress what she'd recommend for a suitable wine to accompany the low-quality beef, a badly burnt tomato and frozen peas. The woman, big and beefy herself, with a towering beehive hairdo, thought for a few moments and then replied, 'Well..... they say the rosé very good.'  
We wondered who exactly 'they' were. Perhaps, we thought, a group of worthies - philosophers, lawmakers, playwrights, and politicians who met in convocation to decide what was good and bad in the world, to pronounce accordingly and to ensure that life was free from upset. If that was the case then they'd clearly taken their eye off the ball recently because things seemed to be going to hell in a hand-cart. First of all there was the OAPEC oil embargo begun by the major oil-producing countries in response to American involvement in the Yom Kippur War between Israel, Egypt and Syria. The major victims were Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the US. Flying and boating was banned on Sundays and the speed limit was reduced to fifty-six miles an hour, supposedly the most efficient speed to drive at but which meant that a trip to Liverpool took seven hours. Then there were the high rates of inflation so people's wages didn't keep pace with the cost of things meaning there were a lot of strikes and work-to-rules, culminating in the three-day week in which electricity was rationed to three days a week, so we had to buy our wedding clothes by candlelight. And to add to that there was a stock market crash when the FT 30 lost 73 per cent and a secondary banking crisis forced the Bank of England to bail out a number of lenders, so perhaps 'they' should have been thinking about other things than what wine went with substandard grilled meats in a cellar in North-West England.  
Linda moved her belongings into the horrible little flat in North Kensington. She did her best to try and cheer up the gloomy apartment but really it was impossible." (p89-90)
Much of the book concerns Sayle's various jobs, and the rise of his comedy career, beginning with some slightly odd sounding left-wing theatre and reviews (he apparently had a routine about Albania under Enva Hoxha); on to the Comedy Clubs he founded, and The Young Ones which made him a household name.

Coupled with this, is Sayle gradual disengagement with the political party of his youth, The Communist Party of Britain (Marxists-Lenininst). This Maoist party both was militantly communist enough to satisfy Sayle hard-left politics, but also anti-Stalinist enough to irritate his mother which seemed to make it his natural home. As this book develops however, Sayle grows increasingly wary of the intensely esoteric, dogmatic and theory-obsessed meetings of these groups - and slips out from their membership. His detachment from the CPB(M-L) seems natural and inevitable and not the great tumultuous crisis of faith that Mark Steel's exit from the Socialist Workers Party seems to have been. (which is documented in his book, What's Going On?) Rather, Sayle seems to be passionately aware of the faults, errors and corruption within capitalism - and certain a socialist alternative is credible; but bored by the ludicrous, pedantic theoretical dramas to which the far-left seem especially prone. When Linda explained that she'd never got a pension because she was sure that by the time she was old enough to need one, "Britain will inevitably be a socialist nation led by a vanguard party whose ideology is based on the teachings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao Tse-Tung, and every worker will have all of their needs taken care of by the state." Sayle replied that he'd never got one because he was convinced that he'd be a famous comedian who could afford anything he wanted!

Whether he is covering British manufacturing, the rise of alternative comedy, his own career, Thatcher, Arab terrorists he has known (!), or his own absurd adventures - this book is genuinely funny and un-put-down-able. There are times when Sayle is exceptionally self-deprecating, but yet others in which he indulges in the kind of "See-I-told-you-so!" which is an essential element in any decent autobiography It's a heady mix of reminiscence, sentimentality, satire, comedy, social-history, and very angry ranting. You don't have to agree with all of Sayle's political or social views to enjoy this book either. If your palate is too delicate for swearing and communism, it'd might upset you; but with a story as good as this to tell, and a story-teller this good; what's not to enjoy?

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