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by Peter Urpeth
17 June 2019
Getting to know you: Adam Tomkins

Image credit: Holyrood

Getting to know you: Adam Tomkins

What’s your earliest memory?

I don’t know, I’ve forgotten – that’s a joke in a Tom Stoppard play isn’t it?  In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which I did at A Level.

My earliest memory is when my parents and I moved house when I was two years old. It was to a new house. We went to visit it and the back garden was just mud. That was in Dorset and the mud was really thick and clayey and I walked into the middle of that and my wellington boot got stuck. I remember my mum shouting at me about that.

What were you like at school?

I was quite eager to do well. Early on I saw school as a passport. If I did well at school, then I could go to university, and if I went to university then I could do well elsewhere. This is not a word I would have used at the time, but I regarded school as transactional. So, O levels and A levels and all of that, they were just a means to an end. Everything was just a stepping stone on the path. I just wanted to get on and get out.

Who would be your dream dinner date?

You should never meet your heroes, because they always disappoint you. I don’t really have heroes, but the nearest I do have to a hero is Leonard Cohen and I never wanted to meet him, so he would be my nightmare dinner date.

So, I’d say Oliver Cromwell. He’s fascinating, and I would really like to know what motivated him – was he really motivated by religion or was he really motivated by politics? Or, in his world were religion and politics two different ways of seeing things?

What was 1642 really all about? What were the civil wars all about? Were they really all about religion or where they all about the relationship between parliament and the king? Or were they really about those two different ways of seeing things?

In our world, religion and politics are quite divided, but in the middle of the seventeenth century religion really was the most potent political question.

What is your greatest fear?

Snakes. I hate snakes. I can’t watch snakes on TV. I can’t go into a reptile house in a zoo. If I take my kids to the zoo and they want to go to the reptile house, then they have to go on their own. 

What’s the worst thing anyone has ever said to you?

I genuinely don’t know, but people probably say terrible things to me all the time on Twitter and I don’t get to see it because I have made liberal use of the mute button. That tends to be what I do in real life as well. If people say terrible things to me, then I don’t take them very seriously. Constructive criticism is so much more effective than just saying shitty things to people.

But we live in that age…

We also live in an age where you can mute it. And I do. Liberally.

What’s your most treasured possession?

I’m not really a possessions kind of guy. People are more important to me than possessions. I would never describe my children as possessions, but I treasure my kids more than I treasure anything else. Possessions? I don’t know. My guitar.

What type is it?

I shouldn’t have said that because now you are going to ask me a lot of question about my guitar playing. I play the guitar badly and in private. It’s what I do to calm myself down, and it’s not for public consumption.

Acoustic or electric?

Yes, it is an acoustic that plugs in. I play a lot of Leonard Cohen songs – to cheer myself up.

Cohen’s music wouldn’t be the first choice for many to cheer themselves up with… That is what a lot of people misunderstand about Leonard. He was very, very, funny.

Do you sing as well as play?

Badly. I’ve got quite a deep voice. He had quite a deep singing voice, so I find Leonard Cohen songs quite an easy thing.

What do you dislike about your appearance?

My teeth. They are not very neat and tidy.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure?

Certainly not running through wheat fields. I’ve given up all my vices. I’ve been getting fit. I gave up chocolate. I gave up cheese. I gave up smoking a long time ago. Probably, these days, it’s gin. I drink far too much gin.

Artisanal, craft gin?

Any gin.

If you could go back in time, where would you go?

1642. London and Oxford. For reasons already given.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever had?

That’s two-fold. You can say no to things very easily, but never say yes to things without sleeping on them twice. And, keep a list of all of things you’ve said no to. Because when you feel really busy and really stressed and really frantic you can look at that list and think, God, it could be so much worse.

I started my academic career when I was very young. I was still in my early twenties when I got my first lectureship in London and I was very well mentored by some brilliant professors of constitutional law both in London and later in Oxford, and this advice came from them.  To be successful in academic life you have to say yes to a lot of things, but never say yes to any of it without sleeping on it twice.

What skill should every person have?

To be able to tie their own shoelaces.

What’s the worst pain you’ve ever experienced?

The death of my sister.

Physical pain?

Not much. I’ve been pretty lucky. But the worst thing that ever happened to me was the death of my sister, Stella. 

What’s your top film or TV programme of all time?

Well, I don’t watch TV. I do have a TV, but only so that the kids can play computer games on it. My favourite film is Withnail and I. The best film ever made.

It’s the quotability of it… 

We’ve come on holiday by mistake!

Talking of which, what was your best holiday ever?

The best holidays I had when I was a kid were in Cornwall, and a couple of years ago I took my kids to Cornwall. They hadn’t been there before and I hadn’t been there for twenty-five years, and for me it was just pure nostalgia and my kids enjoyed precisely the same things that I had enjoyed when I was a kid. And it was just perfect.

We got lucky with the weather. We were in Cornwall for two weeks and it rained once, and it was brilliant because my kids didn’t need anything. My kids have iPads and phones and tablets, and they didn’t need any of that. All they needed was a big beach and a ball and they made their own fun just like I used to.

What was the last book you read?

How Democracy Ends by David Runciman. I’m reading books at the moment about the challenge that liberal democracy faces from national populism. The last one I finished was Runciman’s book. It isn’t very good.

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