Alexei Sayle greets me with a friendly handshake. We are in his spacious ground-floor flat in a fine town house in Bloomsbury. I comment on the blue plaques which adorn the neighbouring houses at frequent intervals. "Yes, people round here tend to identify their house by the plaque," says Sayle. "Like, 'I live in Sir Philip Sidney, or next door to Vera Britten, or three doors down from Dickens'."
I first saw Alexei Sayle when he was compère at the Comedy Store in the late 1970s. Back then he was a bundle of manic energy with a too-tight suit and a shaven head; today he gives off a more relaxed vibe. He still has a considerable physical presence, but he looks much less like a standup performer, which he isn't any more, than a successful novelist, which he is. He was the first of the new wave of comedians to write fiction, and with two collections of short stories and three novels to his credit, all of which garnered admiring reviews, is still among the very few comedians to write fiction which can be taken seriously as literature.
As Sayle makes tea in the kitchen I mention how much I enjoyed his latest novel, Mister Roberts. He grins as I quote one of my favourite passages about a couple, all of whose friends were provincial equivalents of famous people: "the Frida Kahlo of Basingstoke", "the Pablo Neruda of Darlington".
Like most of his books, Mister Roberts is hard to categorise. It's short, barely more than a novella, part social satire, part comedy, part science fiction, and partly a literary novel with a serious moral purpose.
Set among a community of expat Brits in Spain (where Sayle himself has a house), it details the rivalries, the pretensions, the habits and the hierarchies of these essentially silly people, and how they are thrown into turmoil when a pair of aliens crash-land in the hills, bringing with them a robotic humanoid suit – "Mr Roberts" – of immense power. It's also extremely funny. "There's always an element of comedy in my writing. That's my default position," he says. "A lot of my previous fiction does have a kind of bleakness to it as well as being comic, and the earlier drafts of this were going that way, but I found myself thinking, do I really want to do that, just because comic bleakness is my gimmick? So I found myself writing it as a more optimistic, purely comic story and that's when it came to life. It's more lighthearted, more accessible, though it does still have that moral core that's in all of my work."
We settle in armchairs in Sayle's high-windowed sitting room, with its colourful woven rugs on the floor and an eclectic collection of paintings, including a pair of landscapes of 18th-century appearance in ornate gilt frames, a swirly abstract mosaic done by an art-college friend, and a socialrealist painting of some farm labourers and a cart from the 1930s Soviet era.
I've sometimes got the sense reading Sayle's fiction and, in the olden days, watching his comedy, that he has a certain contempt for the middle classes, with their dinner parties and the passionate interest they take in their brilliant careers. Is that fair?
"No, not really – at least, if I'm making fun of them, I'm making fun of myself too – there's always been a certain amount of self-loathing in my comedy. I don't go easy on the working class either. When I was doing benefits, I'd always make sure I didn't let the audience off the hook, I always wanted to show how stupid, how collectively stupid we all are. Because people, all people, just can be outrageously silly."
Sayle grew up in a communist household, and used to be billed as a Marxist comedian. Is he still a Marxist?
"Yes, I think so. Marxism is an analysis of history and I still broadly agree with that. Capitalism, if you live in the good bits, is pretty fantastic, but if you live in the wrong bits it's a catastrophe. Of course I don't agree with all the things that have been done in the name of Marx – I'm not a Marxist-Leninist and I never was, and I think Marx would have been appalled at the things that went on in the Soviet Union and other states that have claimed to be Marxist. But people have always had this capacity to take someone's wise words and utterly pervert them. It happens with religion too."
In Mister Roberts there are a number of digs at religion, but he's not anti-religion per se. "People fall into religion because they feel lost. They're searching for absolutes. I sympathise with that – I grew up in a millennial cult myself, after all – but I also satirise it."
He's been influenced, he says, by "writers like David Lodge and Evelyn Waugh", particularly the latter because "he satirised a society that he lived in and belonged to, and he adored it, but he could see how ridiculous it was – and how ridiculous he was too. That's why his novels are so funny. But they're also true."
Funny and true is not a bad description of Sayle's own fiction. But there is also that bleakness he mentioned earlier. There are scenes of bone-splintering violence in Mister Roberts. One always gets the sense that his characters are never quite safe, that disaster could strike any of them at any time.
"Well, it's the job of the true artist to make people face up to the reality of such things," he says, leaning forward in his chair. "Don't forget that violence is inherent in our society; it's always just below the surface. Say, for instance, I decided to go around without any trousers. Men would come and physically arrest me, and if I resisted, they'd hit me with sticks." He mimes the action of a truncheon raining down blows. "And then I'd be thrown into a place where all kinds of terrible things could happen. And that's just from not wearing trousers!
"And then there's our politicians," he goes on. "Let's take someone in power, someone who's not too bad: the least worst of them..." Sayle scratches his beard thoughtfully. "Margaret Beckett," he says finally. "I'm not saying she's my favourite, but you wouldn't describe her as an evil person. But she has sat around in cabinet meetings where she's taken a collective decision to send some wonky Tornado bombers to go and bomb somewhere and she knows people will be killed as a result. Not just soldiers – she must know that innocent people, babies, will die. And there she is, this horse-faced woman who goes caravanning, she sits outside her caravan having a drink and she's perfectly happy with herself, and we're happy with her too – and she's killed people!"
The subject is a serious one, of course, but Sayle's delivery is so good I can't help laughing, and he joins in.
"I want my fiction to draw attention to that side of things," he resumes. "I was reading a couple of the Orange prize shortlisted books recently, and I said to my missus, what neither of these women can do is to have a bad character without reforming them. For me the challenge is to present a bad character who stays bad, but at the same time show their humanity. That's what the best fiction does. Like Anna Karenina; she's a frightful narcissist really, but Tolstoy shows her humanity and makes us sympathise with her."
Sayle's next project is an autobiography, still in the planning stage. "Since doing the Liverpool documentary [BBC2's Alexei Sayle's Liverpool] I've discovered that I do want to write about growing up there – I'm more of a media whore than I thought. It'll be about my life until the age of 18, and there's a lot of funny stuff, but it won't just be that. I want it to be about the nature of being a believer, of growing up in a belief system."
If the result is like his other books, it will have a moral centre, there'll be bleak bits – and it will be very funny indeed.
Mister Roberts, By Alexei Sayle (Sceptre £12.99)
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