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Nottingham Castle

Alexei Sayle Interview

17 March 09 interview: Aly Stoneman

"People often recollect me using foul language, but I never did on television. It wasn’t the language but the attitude which was unsettling them"

“It’s a bit weird standing under a triple image of yourself! I look like some Greek peasant who’s been arrested – Naxos the sheep interferer!” quips Alexei Sayle, referring to three publicity mugshots for his latest book tour gurning mischievously on the cinema screen behind him. Leaning awkwardly against the wall he adds, “Do I look relaxed? “ He doesn’t, which seems odd for such an experienced performer. His eyebrow-raising career change from bolshy stand-up comedian to serious writer of literary fiction might be at the root of his apparent discomfort, but he quickly loosens up and reads a passage from his latest novel, Mister Roberts. Set in a remote Spanish village, the plot combines robot suits, aliens and ex-pats and is described as both original coming-of-age story and an unusual take on the corrupting influence of power. After a lively Q&A session with the audience at the Broadway Cinema and the obligatory book signing, we get down to discussing writing, politics and happiness….

Welcome to Nottingham! I think you’ve been here before, haven’t you?
Loads of times, yeah. I’ve done Waterstone’s about three times and before that, Nottingham always sold out first on the comedy tour.

You’ve just published Mister Roberts, your fourth novel…
It depends on how you look at it. It's my third proper novel.

Do you think the fact you were famous already has helped or hindered your success as a writer?
It helps you to get on and get more attention in the first instance…you get more critical attention of the "My God, it can write" variety…but I feel like if I was someone else, my books would have been short-listed for one of them prizes they give out by now, so it’s a mixed blessing. Maybe that’s just deluded self-pity!

Stephen Fry, for instance, writes in much the same way as he performs. Yet you made a fairly major transition from being a stand-up comic to writing literary fiction. What’s the motivation behind that?
Stand-up is very black and white, based around "don’t you hate this, hate that.” I wanted to be more complex about the world. When I was a comic, I was one of the best comics in the world. I was fucking amazing as a comic and I want to be that as an author as well. You can’t achieve that by writing mimsy spin off. The game is much harder than that, takes a lot more thought. I’m incredibly ambitious. Not ambitious, actually - competitive. Incredibly competitive. I want to be up there with Philip Roth or Raymond Carver.

Interesting distinction; ambition and competitiveness. Would you define ambition as a self-directed trajectory, while being competitive is all about winning?
I would make the distinction … Ben Elton is ambitious and so there’s never any end to it. You need more and more of that drug, you’ve got to be more famous and more! Competitiveness is still finite, you can reach a level. People like Ben, they can never be happy really, because their ambition never ends.

Hmm. Would you say you’re happy?
I have moments of happiness. You can’t be happy all the time.

Unless you’re Mathieu Ricard. The happiest man in the world… he wrote a book about how to be happy.
Oh really? (Laughs) Good luck with that!

What makes you happiest?
Of course, as soon as you reflect on it, it goes. But when you write something you think is really good, it’s an incomparable experience.

As opposed to all those times when you think, ‘I can’t do it, I’m rubbish! I’ll never write again…’
(Laughs) That just serves as a contrast for when you can. As long as you don’t panic about not writing, then you will write. You can go for a long time without writing, but there’s something still happening somewhere. Not writing is part of writing, its part of the same process.

When did you start writing? Did you always want to be a writer?
I’d written three movies and lots of screenplays for movies, scripts for my own TV series, hundreds of columns, so I’d already written a lot, but I’d never been able to write prose fiction. I’d never had what they call an authorial voice. Barcelona Plates was initially a movie idea, then I thought, ‘No, I’ll try it as a short story’, and suddenly the voice was there. That was the first short story I ever wrote.

Yeah. I thought, fuck that’s such a great idea, you know?

Would you say that Mister Roberts is less bleak than your previous novels?
Earlier drafts were very bleak, much nastier. I started wondering was I doing this ‘cos it’s my trick or did it suit the story? I don’t want to be bleak; I actually feel the need in my writing to be more optimistic. I don’t want to be as dark. My last desperate attempt to be popular! (Laughs) Uncle Alexei – after all those years of shouting at people!

How has your working class background affected your career?
Certainly my stand up was all about class. People often recollect me using foul language, but I never did on television. It wasn’t the language but the attitude which was unsettling them. It was threatening because class is really an unmentionable topic. I clearly don’t subscribe to the accepted modes of behavior for showbusiness. I never did all that charity shit like Children In Need! I was never nice! That’s why people think I used bad language, which I didn’t, because my attitudes were clearly subversive.

Were you being true to yourself and not giving in to the bullshit or was it just a persona you created?
A bit of both really. I was being true to myself, but it also made me rich and famous! Whether I would have stuck to it if it didn’t work, I don’t know, but it obviously worked for me, so I can’t pretend it was any sacrifice to have been like that.

You said earlier that comedy is a default setting for you. Perhaps that comes through instinctively in your fiction?
Yes, I can’t be serious for long. I need to get those laughs every couple of minutes. In public I mean, not in private. I’m not one of those people doing bits all the time, but if I’m in public I’ll always try to get laughs. Ultimately my books aren’t comedies, they are social satires.

When did you realise you were funny?
Funny? I think I always knew. It wasn’t so much being funny, but knowing how it worked. From an early age I could watch a comic dying on the telly but think "no, you’re funny" and I could see someone else who was getting big laughs, and say ‘no, you’re no good’. It’s not about being funny but instinctively knowing what comedy is.

Was that something that ran in your family?
No, not at all. My dad was a jolly sort of character but my mother’s got an extraordinarily unsophisticated sense of humour.

Does she laugh at you?
No... she doesn’t think I’m funny at all.

You’ve spoken before about your Communist upbringing. What does Communism mean to you these days?
Communism? It means a system that fails. I’ve been commissioned to write an autobiography next about growing up in a mad hole of believers and what that’s like.

If you could have written any book (other than your own), which book would it be?
Well obviously, there’s Animal Farm. It took me a long time to come to terms with that book. Somebody once asked me who my favorite fictional character was, and I said the cat in Animal Farm, because the cat never really believes it. The cat’s never for a minute fooled and I just think that’s how I’d like to think of myself really, not that I necessarily am, but it’s a heart breaking book for me because it made me ashamed of what me and my family had supported.

I suppose it’s difficult when people have certain ideals and sometimes reality doesn’t live up to those ideals?
But people won’t admit that – so the problems come from there.

You’ve written a lot about provincialism. Do you see yourself as a provincial writer, coming from Liverpool?
(Laughs) Not provincial, probably, but I try not to be Metropolitan either. I read two books recently short listed for the Orange prize - and they both mentioned Swaynes Lane in Highgate, in London. It’s a road in an area where writers live! I thought, find another fucking road, you know? Like both these women couldn’t think of another road except for Swaynes Lane, which is obviously where they go (puts on a posh voice) for their patisserie every day and you just think, they can’t even be arsed moving out of north-west wherever it is! I wouldn’t like to just write about metropolitan concerns because the country is much bigger than that.

Is that why you set Mister Roberts in Spain?
I had thought of setting it on a housing estate in Britain, but the remoteness was an essential part of the story and I’m not a great one for research. I have a house in Spain as well…

Do you speak Spanish?
I get by. I won’t be translating Cervantes any time soon!

On the subject of the wider world…you‘ve been quoted as follows: “Americans have different ways of saying things. They say elevator, we say lift... they say President, we say stupid psychopathic git. Still true?
Hopefully not. It remains to be seen. I don’t really know how much freedom Barack Obama will have. I’m certainly glad the other one went, he was a nightmare. But Obama is an intellectual, he seems thoughtful and charismatic. Whether these are advantages in a politician, I don’t know. I feel sorry for him that he is sailing into such troubled waters.

His campaign reminded me of when Tony Blair was elected in 1997.
We’ll that’s the worry isn’t it? I mean I did briefly suspend my cynicism for Blair and he was such a disappointment. I think he is somebody who has a borderline personality disorder. He couldn’t have been worse for this country. .

I take it you haven’t contributed to the Margaret Thatcher memorial fund?
I did an obituary of her for ITV news about 2 years ago. (Reflective pause) They’ll use that when the cow dies.

Would you say politics is still important to you?
It fascinates me. The psychology of the people involved - the psychology of the mass. You could see capitalism as not just an economic system but as a psychological system, because capitalism only works if we all believe in it. If people stopped believing in the system you’d have a serious crisis, so there’s a psychology. Bloody economists and their pseudo-science, they try to say economics is a force of nature like mathematics, but it’s not, it’s a human construct and therefore the only thing that really governs it is psychology. Phew! Deep me! (Laughs)

Do you think you might have a future in politics?
Not in party politics, no, but I’d like to be a Theoretician. I have these grandiose ideas, like I was saying! (Laughs) I have interesting thoughts about the way politics works. Occasionally you go on some TV show and you articulate them. I think about being a bit more active, putting out a different kind of voice. But there are a lot of dangers, by going on Question Time or Newsnight, you can just reduce yourself to a kind of gimmicky person.

"Humour is the weapon of unarmed people" as Simon Wiesenthal said…
Well, that’s the thing really, I used to try and take the humour out of it because I thought I had to be serious. Then I realised, being funny is actually the most powerful weapon I have.

What are your plans for the future?
Take each day as it comes.

And then he took out his mobile - and phoned his mother.

Alexei Sayle's website

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