From the archives: Che interviews Alexei Sayle for Black+White

 March 30, 2010         Leave a comment

Due to some weird database shenanigans that have been going on, it’s been impossible to get what remains of Black+White up on the net in any kind of sustainable or useful way.

First it wasn’t indexable by Google, as the pages are generated dynamically, then we lost the CMS (we think it’s in Toxteth) and now all the internal linking structure has gone to cock.

So, I’ve given up on ever getting it on the web in any kind sustainable fashion, and decided to simply cannibalise some of the choice stuff on the blog. I’ve run out of time and patience and lost the inclination to faff about with it any more – even though I retain a lot of affection and pride for that time in my life and the people who made it what it was (I’m pouring out a metaphorical beer for my homies as I type this).

If you don’t know what the hell I’m on about, I used to edit a Liverpool in magazine that kicked the arses of all the other ones. If you’re of a mind to, you can still flick through the site by changing the number on the end of the article URLs to anywhere between one and 300. Think of it as a kind of lucky dip. Well, mainly lucky.

I’m about to embark on another, similar project, which has the advantage over B+W of starting its life online, and therefore not costing tens of thousands of pounds. Think of it as a new ship leaving a dry dock, passing the rusting hulk of its predecessor on the way out.

Anyway, here’s one of the highlights of those old B+W editions; Che’s gonzo, strangely but aptly troubled interview with Alexei Sayle.

Picking up the rumbling mobile, the ‘1 new message’ read “How ’bout Alexei Sayle he’s got a new book out + said some dodgy stuff bout Hillsborough,” and thus the assignment began.

Having already polished off his previous collection of short stories under the title of The Dog Catcher, confidence was high that a novel was quite achievable, even if there was less than a week to get through it.

Jocasta, whose name had decreed since birth that she had to work in media, had arranged to send the new novel by Friday, and the interview would take place on the Thursday.

Friday became Saturday morn as the wonderful postal service had, in their almighty wisdom, sent the book to a sorting office selected at random from their list of ‘not on any map’ sites. Now there was five days to get it read, actually four as Saturday would be taken up with other work, no, actually two as the ‘1 new voice message’ informed me that the interview would now be on Tuesday. Great.

That weekend every available waking moment was spent studying this book, from the unsettling grinning clown on the front cover to the smiling Alexei on the inside back sleeve. A variety of public transport – coaches, buses and parents – all aided the process and, finally, on the 86 to Smithdown Road the last page was turned.

Tuesday rolled around with an equal amount of giddiness and fear, the sort associated with getting to have sex with someone so stunning you’re sure you’ll screw up but are just glad of the chance.

“Hi, it’s Che, I’m supposed to be doing an interview with you.” Pause.

“Er yeah is this for the Jewish Chronicle?” Good start.

After the confusion, the dialogue began stutteringly as a rhythm was sought, general questions about how much was based on Alexei’s own experiences. The fact that since he came from Liverpool and that the book is primarily based in and around the area it would seem to be a lot, but in reality it’s fiction based and the views of the characters. Especially Kelvin – the main character – who does share some of his views and experiences. But is essentially a character in a book, he added.

So what of his own views, I thought, was the famous Comrade Sayle now becoming more conservative in his opinions as seems to happen with age?

“In my case no” he laughed. “I think I’m less condemnatory of right wing people in that I think their views are wrong but I’m sympathetic to how they become like that, I mean that’s part of the subtext of the book.”

But why writing rather than comedy now?

“I like writing more than comedy as it’s less judgmental it’s never just black and white.” Mentally I note the cheap plug that could be drawn from this.

“It’s a deliberate attempt from me as I’m interested in being much more ambiguous and try to make the reader think.”

Was this where the problems arose regarding the Hillsborough disaster and his comments about ‘sentimentality’? Hesitantly and wearily he answered that he was trying to make a much more complex point which got boiled down.

“I was talking about the main character in the book, who suffers a catastrophe. Football has always consoled him but when he goes back to a match after this catastrophe he finds it doesn’t console him any more. That was why I made reference to Hillsborough. It wasn’t a joke.”

I debate whether to push the point further, but realise that the majority of people will have already made their minds up no matter what angle I pursue. Would the fact that his brother-in-law was missing at Hillsborough for over 5 hours gained understanding from those who hate him or just add to their hatred. Grey areas?

“Bad fiction, bad TV, bad movies: it’s all too easy for the viewer, bad guys dressed in black and the like, whereas life and fiction is much more complex and less constant. What I’m trying to do is get at the truth, which sounds pretentious, but I’m always prodding.”

We talk more about the investment you make when paying to enjoy yourself and dislike of state sponsorship of the arts, how he now understands the importance of winning the culture bid is to Liverpool, prodding away and opening up grey areas for people to think about.

In closing we talk about the book and how it tries to show coping with the randomness of events, loss of control and how difficult it actually is to come to terms with.

I thank Alexei for the interview and agree to come down to his book reading, but illness prohibits the encounter. I’m left with more grey areas and thoughts of the pies, the pies!

• Written by Che Burnley for Black+White in 2003

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