People passing by would stare at the nutcase with the headphones giggling to himself as he walked along.
The reason for the perambulatory mirth was one Mr Alexi Sayle whose collection of short stories, My Lucky Pig, was jostling for favourite status between Snow Patrol and Dolly Parton on the transistor radio’s great grand-child.
Sayle, I always considered a hit and miss standup comedian. Doing comedy is hard enough but doing comedy and whacky and politics is trebly hard to sustain, but the stories in the Liverpudlian’s book of short stories verged on, and then tumbled into, the brilliant.
Inventive and scary and really funny, the stories meandered from the tale of a cross-dresser out to kill a cyclist, a man who has found the cure for death, a dodgy, murderous voice-over and the Only Man Stalin was Afraid of.
The deceased Russian dictator also made an appearance last night too as Sayle read from his autobiography, Stalin Ate My Homework, at the Assembly Rooms in Belfast as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.
The title refers to the comic’s ultra-Communist upbringing in the sidestreets of Liverpool in the 1950s/60s. This was a family where the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, the USSR was everything any self-respecting country should aspire to be and that meant that Alexei has a somewhat unorthodox upbringing.
Everything other children enjoyed had to go through an ideological dialectic before it was decided whether young Alexei could participate.
Last night he read a chapter from the book, describing the imminent arrival of Walt Disney’s Bambi at the local cinema. As Uncle Walt was a strong supporter of Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch-hunt of the 1950s, Alexei was banned from seeing the cartoon but to make up for it, he was taken to see Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, a historical film about the attempted invasion of Novgorod in the 13th century by the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire and their defeat by Prince Alexander, known popularly as Alexander Nevsky.
It was while watching this that Alexei knew he would never be like the other boys!
His father didn’t support Liverpool or Everton, he supported Moscow Dinamo.
Christmas was time to watch the Russian State Circus on TV and a concert usually meant going to listen to the Red Army Ensemble, “a group of KGB torturers who swayed jauntily and sang songs about the Volga.”
In his rebellious teenage years, Alexei became a Maoist to wage ideological battles across the breakfast table, taking up the cudgels for Chairman Mao against his parent’s espousal of Stalin.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, how did his parents feel about Communism now, someone asked during the Q&A session after the reading. Sayle quoted JK Galbraith who said “When the facts change, I change my mind” but in a cult like Communism, it’s almost impossible to change. All his mother would say is “mistakes were made.”
Sayle is obviously a well-read man, and isn’t shy about saying which comedians he thinks are “shit” – Alan Davies, Michael McIntyre – and he seems a little despondent about comedy.
He’s also scathing about news or, as his psychologist friend calls it: “what the personality disorders have been up to today.” S
ayle’s memoirs are hilarious and intelligent and tender. When I got home from the gig, Alan Carr was on TV asking the girls from Made in Chelsea if the liked “a bit of rough”.
The contrast with Sayle was heartbreaking. You have to weep for TV comedy sometimes.
Stalin Ate My Homework by Alexei Sayle is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £8.95 for the paperback (2011)