Breakfast with epiphanies
Alexei Sayle's new novel is a combination of the sombre and the screamingly funny - much like the man himself, as James Kidd discovers
PICTURE THE SCENE. Alexei Sayle - comedian turned actor turned short-story writer turned novelist - is sitting in the Russell Hotel in London. He's here to discuss his latest novel, The Weeping Women Hotel, but is reminiscing about performing stand-up in the 1970s. 'It was terribly difficult,' he says in a mellow Liverpudlian drawl. 'Because people didn't know what the f*** I was doing. Two of my early gigs ended in violence ... extreme violence.'
Almost everyone in the hotel bar stops what they're doing and starts paying close, if surreptitious, attention. Sayle is hard to ignore at the best of times, but in these austere surroundings, it's nigh on impossible.
'There was basically a riot at the Hornsey Art College,' he says. 'They had organised this mixture of Northern Soul disco, an avant-garde dance troupe and me and my mate Bill doing our double-act. All these punks and skinheads turned up for the disco, but were locked out for the dance troupe. They let them all in again for our stand-up.' And? 'They threw things and I attacked somebody. We did this bit where Bill dressed as a woman. He's quite hard, though, and he comes out and says, 'Do you want us to go on or not?' Bill was wearing a boiler suit, but when I looked down, I noticed he's wearing high heels and fishnet stockings underneath,' Sayle says, laughing like an outboard motor chugs. 'They asked us to stop.'
It's disconcerting to witness this self-portrait of the 53-year-old novelist as an angry, young comedian. On the one hand, it's recognisably a Sayle joke, combining rambling anecdote, aggression and surrealism - although it probably needs Mussolini or Trotsky in the avant-garde dance troupe to be perfect.
It's difficult to reconcile the two Sayles, which begs the question: What has the amiable, shy and distinguished-looking novelist who is present today done with the bald, sweating, young flesh-engine who electrified audiences in the 1980s? The transformation is striking. It's difficult to recall meeting a writer who looks more like, well, a writer. Rather than withering Sayle's intimidating physical presence, age has lent it gravitas. Dressed in black, his hair and beard flecked with white and grey, Sayle resembles a shambling grizzly bear fused with a pint of Guinness. The anger that drove his comic persona remains, but reveals itself only in brief, bright flashes - such as when his thoughts turn to the US-led invasion of Iraq.
The contrast shouldn't come as a surprise. Sayle has always thrived on contradiction and relished thwarting expectations. His acting career is proof of that. Having made progress in Hollywood (he appeared in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade among other films), Sayle scuppered major auditions with Adrian Lyne, Barry Levinson and Gene Wilder. 'I don't have that drive to be big in the States,' he says. 'When I had those auditions, I wouldn't learn the part. Other people will do anything to get a film - facial surgery, taking their clothes off, sitting in the director's lap. Well, f*** it. Spielberg offered me a part without any of that s***.'
Forget writing and comedy - perhaps career sabotage is Sayle's true calling. Here's a British example: 'I was asked to say something about the fifth anniversary of [television station] Channel 4. I said, 'When Channel 4 was launched, Jeremy Isaacs [its founding chief executive] said he wanted it to be a channel where Alexei Sayle can perform unrestricted.' So, I said, 'Where's my f***ing series, Jeremy?' I'm sure that did my career no f***ing good whatsoever. I just thought it was a funny thing to do.'
This lighthearted bravado only just fails to paper over the cracks of deeper insecurity. Sayle says his wife scolds him for telling journalists that he's a failure and for saying that 'everything I have done is a complete catastrophe', but he seems unable to help himself. 'When you're 50,' he says at one point, 'all hope has died. Hope of anything: romance, a better life, happiness ...'
Sayle being Sayle, you take these gloomy expressions with the same pinch of salt as for his bravura proclamations of nonchalance. He seems to relish setting out indications of depression in one sentence, only to whip them away with the next. 'Everything I say is always tinged with irony or reservation,' he says. 'You can say, 'I wake up every morning and want to die', but you can say it in a jolly way.'
This pervasive irony notwithstanding, he does seem to have found genuine peace in the relatively solitary life of a novelist (although he doesn't forget to turn this into a problem). 'I am very happy by myself - perhaps too happy. Nobody else mediates my output. When I write a book, I have complete control, which I never had as a stand-up.' Openly contemptuous of comedians who 'knock off a novel in between hosting quiz shows', Sayle takes writing fiction seriously, putting his acting career on hold as a signal of his intent.
The Weeping Women Hotel, his latest (and second) novel, justifies the effort. An unsettling blend of levity and pathos, it tells a convoluted story of dead-end lives desperately seeking redemption. Somehow it manages to be sombre and uplifting, and it's unlikely that this year will witness a funnier prose passage than Sayle's history of Li Kuan Yu - a fictional martial art created in Kowloon's Walled City that fuses ballroom dancing and moves learned from the Robin Hood television show.
Pressed to describe the novel, Sayle calls it a morality tale, albeit reluctantly. 'I think it's about how people take neutral things and twist them to their own ends. That's what happens if your moral sense is askew. It's like with Jesus. I doubt Jesus would have been very keen on the Spanish Inquisition. So, the hotel is a metaphor about living a moral life. They look after Harriet [the book's protagonist] and at the same time, she provides this great breakfast. That's all that you can do. Make sure you're all right, then give somebody a really nice breakfast.'
Sayle knows, from his own experience in Marxist groups, that fanatics are nothing without the right context and a twist of fate. 'What struck me was how many people were there because they met somebody with a nice hat, you know? That can lead you to being a suicide bomber, or to nothing. But it's a lie we tell ourselves that you need strong convictions to become a Wahabist. Often it's just some s*** you've fallen into. Himmler, the head of the SS, was a chicken farmer. I'm sure he was never a nice guy - people never said, 'He's a f***ing great guy.' But he couldn't have murdered six million people if the social conditions hadn't allowed him to express the worst aspects of his character.'
Sayle was the victim of this inadvertent fundamentalism some years ago, being placed under police protection after an 'Iranian man in Liverpool threatened to kill me'. He says now that 'it was just some crap, really. I did a documentary about great railway journeys and I think it was critical of the Syrian government, though I'm fiercely pro-Arab.'
It was frightening enough for Sayle to 'understand about a thousandth of what Salman [Rushdie] went through'. And for once he confesses gratitude for the police. 'The Special Branch guy told me, 'Our colleagues on the Merseyside police saw the guy, and if he ever had any plans to kill you, he doesn't have them now'. I was like, 'F***ing great'.'
Sayle has come a long way from the riots of his youth (even if the Russell Hotel is only round the corner from his Bloomsbury home). These days, this mature man of letters prefers more civilised ways to fight fear and oppression. There's the political: he was among the millions who marched through London to protest against the invasion of Iraq. There's the creative: putting your reputation on the line to be a serious writer, for instance. But, above all, there's his human desire for new experience. 'You can either say the world is a dangerous place, therefore I will withdraw from it. Or you can say, the world is a dangerous place, but I can engage with it. What's the worst that can happen? I can get killed. Well, that's going to happen anyway. Things could always be worse.' Sayle pauses. 'And don't forget to make a good breakfast.'
Latest book The Weeping Women Hotel (Sceptre, $195)
Born Liverpool, England
Family Married to Linda Rawsthorn
Lives London, England
Other works Barcelona Plates (Sceptre, 2000), The Dog Catcher (Sceptre, 2001), Overtaken (Sceptre, 2003)
Other jobs Stand-up comedian, actor, journalist.
Next project Fragments for a short novel.
What the papers say 'I found myself thinking, between bouts of laughter, less about Irvine Welsh and Mike Gayle and more about Suskind and Houllebecq.' - Jonathan Coe, The Guardian
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
'I love Evelyn Waugh. The part where the son dies is the best piece of writing I have ever seen. A wonderful book.'
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
'A story about a mad bird. I'd love to write like this. I wish I could.'
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
'There are lots of nods to this in The Weeping Women Hotel. It's a magnificent piece of work.'
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Jane's Guns Recognition Guide
'It's a guide to firearms. It tells you everything you need to know. A sort of 'name that gun'.'