Unparliamentary Language: Alex Sobel MP
Marie Le Conte speaks to parliamentarians to ﬁnd out more about the human side of politics. This week, Labour and Co-operative MP Alex Sobel talks video games, Lord of the Rings, and how to become cool at school
What's your earliest childhood memory?
My mum used to teach a summer school in Bergamo, and I remember being in Italy, I was probably four, and it being very hot and having lots of Italian women trying to feed me ice cream.
That sounds like a great holiday, to be honest. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Early on in my childhood, I wanted to be the normal things children want to be, so probably an astronaut. I remember seeing the space shuttle going up and thinking "oh, that's very cool".
But as I got a bit older and bit more realistic about prospects, we had this great tussle; my dad wanted me to be an engineer and go study engineering at university. My parents both studied languages and humanities, and they said, “there's no good career prospects, Alex, in languages or humanities”. I really liked history, but he was like "there's no way you're going to study history". So in the end I reverted to my love of computer games, and I went to do computing instead – which he was happy with, because he could see it was an emerging professional field. I wanted to go make video games, which I never did do because me and computer programming never really got on.
What were you like at school?
My son has just gone to high school, and I said to him, "when you go to high school, you can change who you are"; once you're there, you're set and that's who you are. So, at primary school, I was a small child with glasses, who was probably very typical of small children with glasses and viewed that way. I decided I wouldn't wear my glasses anymore in high school, so I ditched them, and I probably became a bit cooler. I started reading the NME, carrying a canvas bag, grooming my hair as far as the school rules would allow, went to gigs – I had a turn which was probably a fairly standard teenage turn for the 1990s.
I decided I didn't want to be the small, slightly intellectual child that I think my parents wanted me to be, I wanted to be much cooler. To be fair, my role models at the time were certainly not my role models now, so Morrissey, Shaun Ryder, Ian Brown... Ian Brown's alright actually. But what was a string between my changing personas was that I always played video games and I seem to have kept back all the way through and I still play video games now. And that's probably how I became the chair of the APPG on Video Games here.
Have you ever broken the law?
In the "have I been caught speeding" sort of way? Yes. In the "have I undertaken a bank robbery?" way? No.
What's the best present you've ever been given?
The most long-standing present, given that I still come back to it, is a 40th anniversary edition of Lord of the Rings, and I'm currently reading that to my younger son. It's a proper hardback, with really nice paper and lovely illustrations. And you know, it was well before the films came out, so it's proper Lord of the Rings; I must have read that book 20, 25 times.
What's the worst present you've ever been given?
Well, to riff on a theme, after the films came out, my wife and I went to see the very first Lord of the Rings film, and she fell asleep within about 40 minutes of the film, and she was not quiet while she was asleep in the cinema. So on my next birthday she gave me a copy of a book called Bored of the Rings which I've not read, but she thought was hilarious.
What's a habit that really annoys you in others?
Whistling, particularly the random whistling without a tune, because it has a pitch that just cuts through, and I've got low-level tinnitus and it doesn't help.
If you could make a trip in a time machine, where and when would you go?
The birth of democracy in Athens, when the Greek city state started to develop; maybe when Plato was alive.
What something your colleagues don't know about you?
I think I haven't talked about this to my colleagues and it isn't well publicised at all, but I was a witness at the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. I keep meaning to go up to Doreen Lawrence and have a chat with her but... you know, it's a bit like being an anti-apartheid campaigner and going up to Nelson Mandela and saying "Oh, I was also involved!" - I don't really know what I'd say, "Oh, I was a witness to your to your son's inquiry". I only got two or three questions, but it felt like you were doing something historic.
If you could meet one famous person, who would it be?
Yeah that's easy – Barack Obama. That's a really obvious one, but I'd like to meet Barack Obama.
Who would play you in a movie about your life?
So a lot of my friends think – and I'm not sure if I should be flattered by this or not – they think I look like Ben Stiller…
Okay, yes, I can see that.
I think I definitely look a lot more like Robert Downey Jr., about 20 years ago. Air America era Robert Downey Jr.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Encrypt all your messages.
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