Reading Alexei Sayle’s Stalin Ate My Homework was an interesting experience for me. Reading it was fun but a little unsettling in places, finishing left me with a bit of an OMG have I been an awful parent moment.
To put this in context I better start by summarising the book which outlines Sayle’s childhood. Alexei’s parents were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain and left wing political activists in Liverpool. There were various things which Sayle was and wasn’t allowed as a result of his parents ideological beliefs. He went on exotic family holidays to Eastern Bloc countries and lived a bohemian lifestyle in working class Anfield.
There is a strange analysis of the politics and the reality of his own erratic behaviour, as well as his mothers but within it is a clear love and respect for his parents.
He describes how as he grew up and got involved in revolutionary politics within the late 1960’s there came a point where he had to deal with the feelings of dissonance which were emerging. Those were the most unsettling bits for me. In the book he says, “My only real problem with being a Marxist-Leninist was that I didn’t believe a word of it, or rather I totally believed it and totally didn’t believe in it, all at the same time. The trouble with any kind of fundamentalist organisation is that it cannot be big on subtlety or nuance…..Unfortunately your mind will not allow you to get away with the kind of split-brain thinking I tried to stick to. Psychological tensions rise to the surface and tend to find outlet in erratic behaviour.” (P232)
I would remove the word fundamentalist and perhaps replace it with ideological and then say this sums up exactly why many of us have had a problem with church over the years and sometimes/often still do.
As I say my own reaction to the book was also to smile in places. I wasn’t bought up in a communist household, but my father was, what Sayle describes in his left wing classification system, ‘a fellow revolutionary’. So I understood something of what he was talking about on a level which was slightly more than just this is well written and funny. It also gave me some good memories.
My dad didn’t ban things like Sayle’s parents did, mine being an anarchist who believed that we should be allowed to choose but he did give us political lectures to help us make good choices. For example because my friends were I took the 11+ and got offered an assisted place at the local private Girls School. My dad took me off and gave me a talk on how it was entirely up to me and if I insisted on going they would somehow make it work but I did have to take into account my class history and the fight for free education in this country, realising that I would be betraying my class if I did go. It was enough to put me off going to a school which would have been wrong for me for a range of reasons.
Then there was the time when my mum was in hospital with my younger brother, who was having an operation to correct his cleft lip and palate, and so unable to physically stop us. I was interested in CND and so against my mums wishes dad took me and my friend off to Molesworth to protest against the stationing of nuclear weapons there one Easter. When I went back to school our Geography teacher asked us to write about something we’d done in the holidays. We then looked at how much of the class had done what – there was only one of us in the category of ‘political demonstration’.
Then there was the “OMG have I been an awful parent?” moment. Reading through I was aware that whilst I am not a communist and did not go on exotic holidays as a left-wing Christian I did subject Third Party to a “different” childhood. I knew and have always acknowledged it wasn’t average but have always looked on it as having taken her on a series of adventures she wouldn’t have had otherwise.
On the political side there were the various demonstrations she was taken on. There was time we dressed up as dinosaurs and stood outside the council offices to protest at cuts to the museum service, then there were the anti-fees actions she went on as a toddler (I remember vividly the day after one national demo when she marched out of church and into Sunday School singing education is a right not a privilege). Peace wise there were the anti-war demo’s, (not sure what her school friend I was looking after the evening war broke out made of being dragged on the local action in Canterbury). Then there was this trip to Aldermaston which I guess a teenage Third Party saw very differently to me. And so I could go on.
Perhaps two of the maddest adventures of all involved Surfing as well as myself around the time of Make Poverty History. There was our London all nighter at Wake Up to Trade Justice which didn’t go quite to plan when we didn’t get into Methodist Central Hall because it was full and ended up spending the night with another friend and three kids on the green outside (see this post). Then was the big demo in Edinburgh when we did the night coach up and back, going on the demo and listening to Gordon Brown at a Christian Aid rally in between (one post on it all here). Photo at the bottom, which I notice also has next years vice-president of the Methodist Conference smiling away in the background, was taken that day, when I thought it was a great idea to rush over with Third Party and get her photo taken with the chancellor (as he was then) – just as a bit of a memento of the day.
To be fair I did often try and make national demo’s a bit more fun for her by taking a detour into Hamley’s or Hard Rock Cafe or some such other capitalist enclave to try and turn it into a bit of a treat.
The discussions on what and didn’t come into our house and what she was/wasn’t allowed to do normally just involved ethical shopping and buying fair trade. However, there was I remember a big thing when she was about 13 because her friends were all getting playboy merchandise and I said no, probably giving her a feminist lecture in the process.
Then there were the holidays she went on with me. Apart from the time I got a tax rebate and took her to Disneyland Paris, these were trips to Christian conferences or music festivals (or in the case of Greenbelt a hybrid of the two). There were also for a few years our annual trips to the Isle of Wight for the Wib/Ship meet.
To put this in context for those not familiar. Spring Harvest, (which was what we did when she was really little), involved a trip to a Butlins in Skeggie or Minehead (or in one case somewhere in Wales) where she was taken off for children’s activities for part of the day. As with Detling which she went to through her junior school years there were ‘family celebrations’ which would involve lots of action songs in the early evening. Then she would be left in the chalet/ tent area with somebody, (most of the time not me), in the evening whilst the main adult celebration was taking place. The thing was we always went in assorted groups and so the adults would take turns in doing the childcare.
As she got older and we went on the wib/ship meets and to Greenbelt she would invariably end up camping / staying on a boat with mums friends off the internet.
The music festivals were different, that’s when she got to spend time with grandad and her uncles too. This always had the aspect of being ‘grandad’s work’ though.
As I say until I read Sayle’s book I don’t think I realised how different the childhood I had given Third Party might be. I knew that the other people, with money, took their families on other ‘normal’ holidays as well as off to these festivals and conferences but we didn’t have the resources, and to be fair I’m not sure what I would have done as a single mum on one of these ‘normal’ holidays where things to do weren’t included and set out for you. Reading Stalin Ate My Homework enabled me to see it all was different, not wrong….but different.