Getting to Know You - Tom Arthur MSP
SNP MSP for Renfrewshire South Tom Arthur chats to Kate Shannon about music, shrunken ties and why he won’t be eating offal hotpot any time soon
What was your earliest memory?
I must have been four or five and whenever Margaret Thatcher came on the television, my mum would ask me: “What is she, Tom?” and I would reply: “She’s a bad egg.” This is probably the nicest thing anyone in Barrhead had to say about her.
What were you like in school?
Unconsciously individual, that’s how I’d describe myself at school, in the sense that I tended to do my own thing. I never liked groups. I didn’t like that kind of hierarchy or pecking order you got at school. There were always people who would agree with whatever the person at the top said and I was always quite resistant to that. I ploughed my own furrow and did my own thing. In high school all I wanted to do at lunchtime was go down and play the piano and drums. That was my passion, rather than standing around trying to look cool.
Did you enjoy school?
I did. Like anything, there were highs and lows. Generally, it was a good time and I had some cracking teachers who inspired me, though there were also some who I wondered why they ever became teachers.
What musical instruments did you play?
I played piano; it was my original passion. I did keyboard and drums and other percussion too. By the time I went to uni, I was composing as well. I enjoyed writing music, performing music, it was one of those things which takes over your life.
Is that what you studied at uni?
Yes, I did a bachelor’s and a master’s in music at Glasgow. I got offered a place at the RSAMD, as it was then, but I wanted to do a more general degree. I really enjoyed it because I got to write music too, rather than being seven hours a day behind a piano, practising.
Do you still find time to play and compose now?
Unfortunately, no. The keyboard sits and gathers dust, though I try to go and play it occasionally. During summer recess when I’ve got a few weeks off I will play, but it’s one of those things which takes a lot of practice to get any kind of form. When I sit down at the instrument, it’s frustrating, because the mind is willing but the body is not quite there. It’s also about getting into the right head space for it. I’m going to try and make more time for it, but I’ve been saying that for the past 12 months.
Who would be your dream dinner date?
Probably someone like Christopher Hitchens. You might not necessarily agree with what they say, but I enjoy conversation and I enjoy being challenged. Anyone who would offer that would be welcome.
What are you scared of?
I would have to say flying. I think part of the problem was I watched too many episodes of Air Crash Investigation to get over my fear. My thinking was that if you really understand how safe flying is, it should take away a lot of the fear, but now I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of what might go wrong.
Do you ever fly?
Yes, I make myself fly because I don’t want to let it hold me back. I tend to be fine when the flight gets going but take-off and landing are the problem.
What’s the worst thing anyone has said about you?
When I was making my first speech in parliament, Jamie Ross (Buzzfeed’s Scotland reporter) tweeted that ‘Tom Arthur has come to work in a child’s tie’. In my frantic rush to get into the chamber, I tied my tie, didn’t look at the length of it, buttoned my jacket, went into the chamber and unbuttoned it and didn’t realise I looked like Oliver Hardy. My phone then starts rattling on my desk, after I had made my speech, with Twitter notifications and part of me was hoping that it was because I was saying something worthwhile in my speech, but no, it was because I looked like an absolute muppet.
What is your most treasured possession?
All my books, some of which I haven’t read yet. But I’m an obsessive book buyer. I particularly like second-hand books; you often find old bookmarks or notes in them. It’s like lived history.
What do you dislike about your appearance? Nothing which couldn’t be resolved by more exercise.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Karaoke. I am a big fan – George Adam [SNP MSP] and I have a karaoke rivalry/partnership. We’ve not quite worked out who is Frank and who is Dean yet.
Do you have a favourite karaoke song?
Anything by Sinatra, I’m a Sinatra anorak in that regard. Conference karaoke is always a highlight.
If you could go back in time, where would you go?
I’d probably go back to the 1920s or 1930s. It was a golden age for concert pianists and a lot of the recordings are really scratchy or they weren’t recorded at all, but you had these giants like Schnabel, Rachmaninoff and others. Either that or 1940s New York to see the start of bebop.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever had?
One is don’t spectate, participate. And the other is if you’ve had a setback or a failure, don’t go to work on other people, go to work on yourself – so don’t blame others or look for excuses, take responsibility for it.
What skills should every person have?
Everyone should have a capacity to listen, to seek to understand and to try to improve self-awareness. Also, to be able to understand why someone might think a certain way, so an open mind.
What’s the worst pain you’ve ever experienced? I’ve been really fortunate, I’ve never had a broken bone or anything like that. I don’t think I’ve even ever been stung by a wasp. What should have been the worst was I had really bad toothache and had to have root canal treatment. I thought it was going to be agony, but it wasn’t that bad. What preceded that treatment was much worse.
What is your least favourite food?
I was in China and I had a hotpot which had all sorts of bits of anatomy from various different animals in it. We’re talking hearts, lungs, brains and other things. When in Rome, give it a shot and try new experiences, but I’d never eat that again.
What’s your favourite film or television programme?
My favourite film is probably Citizen Kane. It blew me away when I saw it. My favourite television programme has to be The West Wing – for many people it was a great escape during the Bush years and it’s becoming that again.
What was your best holiday?
When I was younger, I spent a month in New York with two friends. We saved up all year and rented the ground floor of a townhouse in Brooklyn and it was amazing. The city blew me away. I’ve not been back since and I really want to. Having that experience at 22 years old was mind-blowing.
What was the last book you read?
I am terrible for starting books and then starting more – I end up with a dozen on the go. Currently, I’m reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. Also, a series of Oxford Very Short Introductions. I collect them and I have about six of them on the go on different subjects.
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