Alexei Sayle, actor, author, stand-up comedian, television presenter, on a T-34-85 Soviet tank.
GB Tell me why you chose this tank.
AS My love of militaria is not the traditional kind of stance of somebody on the left. Militaria has been colonised by the right in a way. Military museums are not full of socialists. It’s hard to know how much of this is an affectation but I think it’s relatively genuine. My parents, even though they were communists and believed in violent revolution, also shared these kind of slightly Bertrand Russell-y pacifist ideas, so they always refused to let me have toy guns.
GB You never made an Airfix kit of a T-34?
AS I did later on. I fought quite hard against it, and they relaxed the ban a bit. I mention it in my memoirs, how we used to have these kind of disarmament talks; so I was allowed toy guns but not rocket launchers or anything, just cap pistols, which always meant I was outgunned by everyone in the neighbourhood.
GB So your fascination with militaria was a thing that kicked in when you were really young?
AS Yes and when I did get my Airfix kits I would get bored and I’d take a warship and a hovercraft and mix them up together.
GB What’s particularly beautiful about a T-34?
AS I’ve been invited by the Tank Museum in Bovington to go down there and make a video for them on my top five favourite tanks. Normally when you watch those videos, it’s just straightforward admiration. There’s no consideration of the moral and political aspects of these things, whereas I will talk about the moral and philosophical implications if they’ll let me. Clearly, all military devices are a complete waste of time and money in a way. And you see this incredible ingenuity which goes into these terrible, terrible things and this gives them a weird kind of twisted beauty, the sheer awfulness of them, because they’re devices whose only function is to kill. They’re weapons of oppression. A T-34 tank shares a lot of traits with a bulldozer or a piece of construction equipment. but there’s no museums of construction equipment. Handguns share similar characteristics with nail guns but Americans don’t fetishise nail guns in the way that they fetishise firearms.
GB Do you think that’s because people want power?
AS I don’t really know. It’s partly about their ability to wield power. But there’s something very sick about it as well, that the entire nation is enslaved by these terrible things. Even though I suffer from it myself, I don’t entirely understand it.
But to come on to the T-34 in particular: when Germany launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Red Army was huge, but very badly equipped. They’d also been torn apart by purges, and Stalin had killed something like 35,000 officers so they were decimated but nevertheless, there was still, extraordinarily, a lot of thinking going on about warfare. This particular tank was a massive step forward in tank design. It was much better than most of the German tanks and it was five times better than any Western tank.
GB Wow. Why?
AS It was a combination of the suspension system, which is actually designed by American engineer called Walter Christie whose designs had not been adopted in the West, but were adopted in the Soviet Union; but one of the main things is that the armour on the T-34 is sloped. So if you have a piece of armour that’s 50 millimetres thick when it’s upright, then a shell can still hit it and go through it. If you slope that armour, then it means that the shell will bounce off, because effectively, you’ve doubled the thickness. So, that was an innovation, that it was sloped. And then the other thing was the gun, which was certainly bigger than anything in the Western US. Nevertheless, by 1944, with the introduction of new German tanks like the Panther with 88 millimetre guns, the original T-34-76 was proved inadequate, so they managed to up-gun it to an 85 millimetre.
GB Are tanks still much in use?
AS They were used extensively in the Gulf War but they’ve essentially come to the end of their development. We’re entering an age when weaponry will become very different and there have been no advances in the development of main battle tanks since the ‘80s. In the Second World War, there were these amazing advances in tanks happening every few months, but the last significant tank was probably the US Abrams. There’s been nothing after that – and even that proved extremely vulnerable in Iraq.
GB Did you choose a Soviet tank because you have a romantic view of the former Soviet Union?
AS Well that iconography kind of pervaded my childhood. So there’s this the heroic idea of the T-34 in the Great Patriotic War, but of course, it was also the tank (or its descendants) which put down the uprising in Hungary. I spent a lot of my childhood in Eastern Europe with my parents and on every roundabout in every town, there was a T-34 left as a kind of symbol. I think it was partly as a memorial to the sacrifice of the Soviet Union in the Second World War but also a reminder that if you fucked with them, they’d be back.
GB When you think about beauty, is it always quite political for you?
AS My inclination and also my job is to try look for a greater meaning than just saying, that looks nice; it’s to look for the political and social meaning in things – and it’s always there. It’s not compulsory, but it’s always been my inclination.
GB Why did you want to study art?
AS Because if you’re working-class, and unacademic, it’s a way to get yourself educated. I was good at drawing and painting.
GB It’s not because you thought art was a great political force?
AS No, no, it was just a way to get out of Liverpool and get an education. I took the art school attitude and transposed it to a popular art form.
GB Do you find beauty in nature?
AS I like a nice desert, a big landscape like in Southern Spain, like the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada I find intensely beautiful.
GB And do you do look at the military opportunities when you see a landscape like that?
AS Yeah, I always try to live in a village that can be held by two men with a machine gun.
GB What makes something worthy of the word beauty to you?
AS It’s a thing which is full of complicated meaning.