Unparliamentary Language: Thangam Debbonaire
Marie Le Conte speaks to Parliamentarians to find out more about the human side of politics. This week, Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire on bad advice, her book addiction and learning to interrogate herself
What were you like at school?
I was definitely a keener. I loved school, I couldn’t wait to go to school. My mother describes me not being one of those children who clung on to her the first day, I literally walked away without turning around, and that sort of continued, really.
What’s your earliest childhood memory?
My baby sister being born. I’m the oldest of three, and I can remember the smell of the bacon sandwiches that my dad made us. That was unusual, because my dad cooking us breakfast was unusual; she was born at home, it was breakfast time, and I went to see her.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
It’d be really easy to say I wanted to be an MP but I didn’t, but I did want to be part of changing the world in some way. I had been encouraged to think of myself as political, as politically involved and politically valid. I have very political grandparents, they were both very active in the Labour, Co-op and trade union movements. So while I didn’t spend my whole childhood thinking ‘I want to be prime minister one day’, I was aware of politics. But actually I wanted to be a cellist. I’d been playing it since the age of four. And then along came the fact that I was good at maths, and I actually started doing maths at university, and ended up trying to keep on several horses at once.
What’s the best present you’ve ever been given?
I mean, it’s probably a book, because books almost always are. I think this might not be popular with everybody, but an ex-boyfriend gave me Nancy Mitford’s Love In A Cold Climate and The Pursuit Of Love. I think we can count them as the best presents ever because I carried on reading them; they’ve been my comfort reading ever since. I have so many different copies in so many different editions and strewn around the house, so that if a moment of anxiety should strike me in a particular room, there will be a copy of one of them at hand, including the loo. I don’t know where he is now, we split up not that long afterwards, but that was a great present. So if you know who you are, and you’re reading this, thank you.
What’s your most annoying habit?
I can’t stop buying books. All books: new books, second hand book shops, charity bookshops, sales, school fairs, anything where there might be books for sale, I find it very hard to walk past, even if I am late for an appointment, on the grounds that there might be something in there that I need to get. There always is, let’s face it. It doesn’t annoy me and it does at the same time. It causes me bother. I remember a particular trip to Hay, when I left my husband in one bookshop, where he appeared absorbed, I went off and said ‘Oh I’ll be just around the corner’ and went off with several shopping bags, and they kept going back to the car and emptying the shopping bags in the car, so he didn’t know until it was too late. So I think that’s probably my most annoying habit to the world around me, but it’s nevertheless probably one I’m proud of.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Always consider it possible that you are mistaken. It’s from a small book called Quaker advices and queries. It has been my political piece of advice as an MP to myself on a not just daily basis, often hourly. Being sure that you’re right is, in some ways, a real problem. As an MP, you have to give across assurance, it’s part of your job, and at the same time, you have to question and interrogate your assertions.
What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
There is a lot of competition for that slot, because as an MP people often give you advice. But one of the worst pieces of advice I’ve been ever been given was, in my first year as an MP, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I was having cancer treatment. People were unnaturally fond of giving me medical advice without any possible cause, it wasn’t asked for, and from unqualified people, people who were not medical professionals and didn’t even know what sort of breast cancer I had in any way. One of them was that I should eschew all the conventional treatment and just drink orange juice. It made me very angry because I didn’t look at the Internet while I had cancer apart from two very well-respected websites, but I know people who are driven mad by just surfing the internet late into the night typing “what will cure my cancer”. And actually you get shit like that. And it really haunted me that this woman had taken this advice to heart and that she’d gone to the trouble of emailing someone with breast cancer.
If you had a time machine for one round trip, where and when would you go?
There are so many choices. Part of me would want to go to meet the first Labour women MPs, in the 1920s; they’re all really interesting women. They must have had extraordinary qualities to have got even as far as being selected, never mind elected and then some of them became cabinet ministers eventually. I’d go back to the day they were all invested in either one of the 1920s elections, and just take them out for a cup of tea and say ‘good on you sisters, and thank you ever so much for encouraging the rest of us’.
But actually my first thought was non-political. I would love to have been at a concert where a drunken or outrageously behaving Mozart was just improvising at some sort of court entertainment with lots of very, very fancy people who probably all smelt because things were not good in those days. And there’s Mozart, he’s laughing at them all, and he’s making up music, which is probably making fun of them.
The other one, this one would probably be too painful, but one of the most interesting phenomena I can think of is the performance of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony in Leningrad, during the siege of Leningrad, by musicians who were starving, to people who were starving. The Germans did not defeat the Leningraders, but hundreds of thousands of people died. I’ve played Shostakovich, and I know that symphony really well. Although it’s not his best, he doesn’t hold back, and the poor instrumentalists who were rehearsing in freezing conditions, they were living in freezing conditions, they were starving. And they had a conductor who kept saying ‘I’m sorry, you’re all starving, but that’s no excuse, you still need to turn that around, and work and play well, you need to uplift the spirits of the people’. And allegedly it blasted the roof off because it is monumental piece of music, and the Germans could hear it. And the myth is that this was part of psychological warfare, saying to the Germans ‘you have no idea what Russians will endure and we will defeat you’.
Although I would say that is very voyeuristic to want to use the privilege of time travelling, because I’d have to say, ‘all right, I’m off now’. But it’s an occasion which really haunts me.
Do you have a hidden talent or a party trick that your colleagues don’t know about?
A lot of them probably know I knit, but lots of my volunteers have Thangam Debbonaire fan mitts, which are fingerless mittens.
It’s not nice, it’s so they can leaflet and doorknock for me in the winter, and not complain about the cold. Oh, and I made my own sourdough starter. I’m such a cliché. I started it in October 2015 and I’m still making sourdough bread almost every weekend from the same starter.
That’s very Bristol.
Such a cliché!
Who would pay you in a movie?
Oh. Well, I’d love it if it was Salma Hayek. That would be nice. Could she please do that?
Sure! House Magazine will give her a call.
We’re even the same height, I think.
Thangam Debbonaire is Labour MP for Bristol West