Caught by the River

Stalin Ate My Homework

1st September 2010

Stalin Ate My Homework by Alexei Sayle (Sceptre)

review by Frank Cottrell Boyce.

I don’t think I’ve been so surprised by a book since I turned the last page of ‘I Am David’ at the age of twelve and found a note informing me that Boggy was going to drown me during Swimming.
Obviously I knew ‘Stalin Ate My Homework’ was going to be “just let me read you this bit” funny. The scene of Sayle’s Mother screaming “What about the Rosenberg’s” at the television during the Queen’s Speech is one of the funniest I’ve ever read. The strange trousers that his Mother made him and which he carried on wearing well into his teens, the bizarre trajectory of his athletic career, the weird privileges that came from being a delegate at the TUC (free pass to the miniature railway and model village) will haunt my imagination forever. See? I’m saying “just let me read you this bit” now.

What I wasn’t prepared for was just how unusual Sayle’s family were. I knew that the family were Communists and I thought this would be an account of a particular political culture. Instead it’s a warm, affectionate account of a tiny family (Alexei was an only child) who were remarkable not so much for their beliefs as their individuality and their adventurous spirit. Sayle’s father Joe was a railway man so he had access to free railway travel. While most of his colleagues used that to get their families a cheap trip to Blackpool, Joe used it to take his wife and son on epic journeys across Europe and behind the Iron Curtain. The affectionate portrait Sayle paints of his Dad here – courteous, idealistic, working class autodidact – gives the whole book a warm glow. While the more colourful portrait he paints of his Mother, Molly – mesmerisingly furious, foul-mouthed, energetic and besotted with her son – gives it a kind of nuclear heat.

The Sayles seem to have lived for their epic train journeys and at one point Sayle says if there was a movie of the family history, its tag line would be “They Set Too Much Store By Holidays”. We should be grateful that they did because the result is a collection of holiday memories that is hilarious, yes, but are also telling glimpses of a vanished World – the Eastern Bloc at the height of the Cold War, a lost Empire that already seems more strange and difficult to believe in than El Dorado or Great Zimbabwe. The account of how their holiday was upgraded from camping disaster to five star junket is one of the most telling insight into the weird cocktail of fear and privilege which fuelled the system – or any system – that I’ve ever read. Charlotte Keatley said “Every family is a country with its own language.” The Sayle family wasn’t so much a country as a pan-continental, rigidly hierarchical military alliance with its own nuclear deterrent in the shape of Molly.

“Stalin Ate My Homework” is definitely the funniest thing Sayle has written – which is saying something – but it’s more than that. It has a strange, poignant, elegaic feel to equal those other great memoirs of strange childhoods – Edmund Gosse’s ‘Father and Son’ for instance, or William Fiennes’ ‘The Music Room’.