Agnes Chambre sits down with parliamentarians to find out more about the human side of politics. This week, Labour’s Mike Gapes on his recurring nightmare and facing down Twitter trolls.
“I've got some people on Twitter who don't like me. I use the block button a lot.”
What is your first memory?
I can remember sitting at the top of the stairs when I was two or three, waiting for my dad to come from work. He was a postman, he used to go out very early in the morning and I used to sit and wait and wait and wait for him to come home.
What were you like at school?
I was very talkative. I wanted to show people how to do things. My mum tells a story of when I was six at the 1959 general election and I asked my dad if I could go and vote with him and he said "no, no, no, I've got to do it on my way home from work." So I said to my mum, "can I come with you?" My mum never voted but that year she did. She said "I can't, I've never voted." And my Dad said: "Don't worry ask Mike, he'll tell you what to do."
Do you have any recurring dreams or nightmares?
I do get some. When I was very ill last year and I was in hospital, I was on liquid morphine and I had some particularly vivid dreams. I had them several times about fighting with the Finnish railway militia against the Nazis and the Soviets during the 1930s and '40s and being wounded and being holed up in a safe house in my constituency because the Baltic Sea had frozen over all the way from Finland to East London…
I had the same dream three times – it was all about my life. It was about flashbacks and conversations and all the places I'd been. I guess I might have been on the edge because I'd had major heart surgery, it's possible it was me struggling. It was very strange but I haven't had the dream since, I'll put it down to all the drugs.
What mistakes did you make when you were younger?
Loads. I think my personal life hasn't been a great success but I won't go there. I don't know, it's difficult to be sure. I think I've been very lucky in my life – I wanted to work in politics and I've worked in politics. I've been reasonably successful, I chaired a Select Committee, and if you can't be foreign secretary, the next best job is chairing the foreign affairs select committee.
But I've made wrong political calls and judgements on occasions. In 1975, I was against the Common Market, I was campaigning for us to leave. That was a terrible mistake. I've subsequently realised the world had changed, it’s a pity that Britain as a whole hasn't.
But clearly the biggest mistake I've made is not looking after my health well enough, putting on too much weight. But overall I wouldn't have taken a different direction, I've been very fortunate.
What really annoys you in other people?
Being late. I always worry about being on time. I often get to events and I'm early which can be a problem in my constituency because there are quite a lot of sub cultures from all across the world and you never know whether you're working on British time of Sub Indian Continent time.
If you had a superpower, what would it be?
I don’t think I want a superpower, but if I was able to, I'd like the ability to time travel. I'd like to be able to go forward, not back, to go forward several hundred years and see whether this planet is still here and to come back to tell people whether they have a future or not. I think that would be distressing but potentially reassuring. It probably wouldn't make any difference; they'd all think I was bonkers.
What’s the best advice you've ever been given?
When I was first elected, I was chatting with a very senior Labour MP about the kind of problems you have dealing with constituents and he said: “You have to understand, probably about a third of the people who come to see you are mad. Your problem will be you won't know which third.”
Have you found that to be true?
I don't think it's a third, but sometimes you think there's something in the water on a particular day. I've had people come to see me who say they are being pursued by aircrafts who are sending lasers down. I've had someone who gave me a book with about 250 registration numbers of motorbikes who have been following him.
There are people who you engage in a conversation, you spend a long time trying to discuss a problem and then they go completely off the wall with something. And one of the problems that MPs have to deal with is sometimes these people also have got complex, real problems and you've got to disentangle the things that really do matter from the things that don't and that can take a long time. Someone could arrive in an advice surgery with seven or eight carrier bags full of unopened envelopes and somewhere in there is something important, but you've got all these other things.
What's the best present you've ever received?
An engraved watch from my daughter and a signed West Ham shirt that my party members got me on my 20th anniversary as an MP. That was special.
Do you have any regrets?
Yes. Personally I lost my daughter, which is a big regret in my life. I'll never get over that. That's with me all the time. I wasn't successful with my marriage, that's another regret. My mum and dad lived as a married couple for 58 years, and my brothers been married for 40, so I think that is a personal regret. But there's nothing you can do about that so you have to move on.
If you could chose three dinner party guests, dead or alive, who would you chose?
Tony Blair, just to stir them up! And because he's got interesting things to say. Bobby Moore. And the last one has got to be a woman, this would be an interesting mix, but Boudicca.
What's the most embarrassing thing you've ever done?
There's so many...When I was with the Defence Select Committee in Iraq in 2004, we went onto this small boat in order to climb to the oil terminal. It was very, very rocky and windy and the rope ladder was very, very difficult, and we had to wear these special trousers, and as I was climbing up the ladder, the trousers fell down and I was left with only my underwear. I remember Dai Havard and a couple of other members of the committee roaring with laughter.
Have you ever broken the law?
Yes. I lost my licence for speeding, I had a ban from driving in 2005 for accumulating points. I've been very careful ever since.
If you weren't famous for being an MP, what would you be famous for?
I don't think I am famous, I'm infamous; I've got some people on Twitter who don't like me. But seriously, if I wasn't doing this, I would have liked to work in some international peace or security organisation. That's the kind of thing I would have enjoyed. A roving, problem solver. But I'm quite happy where I am.
How do you deal with Twitter trolls?
I've had some abuse, there were some people last year who were wishing my dead when I was in hospital. I didn't know about it at the time. My brother kept it all from me, but I've developed quite a thick skin. I use the block button a lot, I use the mute button, but I always call people out. When there's something said that's completely stupid or unacceptable, I just say this is nonsense.
What would be the title of your autobiography?
Forever Blowing Bubbles, I think, because of the West Ham connection. I haven't written it yet but I keep promising to write an autobiography and I've tentatively started doing some preparation. When I came out of hospital I decided I would, just in case I wouldn't have any time to do it properly.