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by Andrew Learmonth
08 November 2021
Getting To Know You: Elena Whitham

Getting To Know You: Elena Whitham

What is your earliest memory?

Sitting on the back step of our council house with a stalk of rhubarb and a wee poke of sugar, and an overwhelming feeling of being content and happy. I can absolutely remember that like it was yesterday. I can remember the step feeling really cold, but just being happy because I had this poke of sugar and this bit of rhubarb. 

What were you like at school?

Pretty outgoing. I attended no less than five primary schools across two countries and two Canadian provinces. Always being the new girl meant that I was going to sink or swim so I had to go in and make pals quite quickly. I think the adaptability of that is a big part of who I am today, finding it easy to walk into new situations and talk to folk. 

Why did you move around so much?

We emigrated to Canada when I was six. I did primary one here and then we went over there and then subsequently went to four different schools because we moved a couple of times and then we moved up to Quebec. That involved a French school for a period of time and then a bilingual school after that, all before the age of 11.

Who would be your dream dinner date?

I spent my whole teenage years as a punk and I would absolutely love to have a dinner date with my all-time punk idol Jello Biafra, who was the lead singer of Dead Kennedys. His influence on my political leanings and my sense of social justice is immeasurable.

What’s your greatest fear?

I’ve got an abiding and terrible spider phobia, but I think that anything happening to my kids probably would be my greatest fear.

I think you’re the fourth MSP I’ve asked this question of who has a fear of spiders.

In Canada, you used to get spiders that would jump off the big ceiling fans and shoot down onto you.

Jeezo.

I broke umpteen remote controls just flinging them. When I was expecting my son, I said to my mum, ‘what if I’m holding the baby and I see a spider and I chuck him’. She’s like ‘seriously, you won’t’. But you don’t know because it’s just a ridiculous fear.

And did you throw the baby at the spider?

I didn’t. I didn’t throw him, no. Now that I’ve got the flat up in Edinburgh, I’ve had to actually put two spiders out myself, which took me about an hour and a lot of sweating and a lot of near fainting. 

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

I’ve been part of anti-fascist and anti-racist movements since my teens, and during one campaign, a couple of years back, somebody called me a Nazi on the doorstep, because of my belief in Scotland’s right to be an independent country. I was absolutely incensed. 

What’s your most treasured possession?

In my family, I’m the keeper of the history. I’ve got hundreds of photographs going back generations, and I can match them all up with a family tree. I think it comes down to being fascinated by photos ever since I was little because we were in Canada for so long and the photographs were the only link I had with everybody we left behind. Getting the new batch of photographs or sending the batches of photographs home with the letters became such a huge part of my life.

What do you dislike about your appearance?

That’s a really easy one for me. I’ve got alopecia, and I really wish I had a really good thick head of hair. But, probably, years of shaving my head as a punk means I can cope. It doesn’t mean I like it too much. 

What’s your guiltiest pleasure?

The first one, and it’s a weird one but I share it with one of my best pals, is an abiding fancying of Gene Hunt from Life on Mars. So wrong, but so right, I can’t even tell you why. It makes no sense in my sphere of equalities and working for Women’s Aid for so long. And I absolutely love root beer and I’m always on the hunt for root beer anywhere I go.

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

I feel absolutely privileged to have grown up in 1980s North America and I think I would teleport back to the days where I had 50 cents in my pocket, my bike, a squad of pals and not a care in the world. I don’t think there was any better time. It was a brilliant time to grow up in 1980s North America.

You were quite contented as a kid?

Probably if you’d asked me at that time, I would have told you I wanted to go back home and be in Scotland with all the family. But now as a grown up, I can see that it was a really good childhood.

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

My grandfather always told me, my brothers, my mum, our family that the biggest responsibility that we had as human beings was to amplify the voices of those that are seldom heard. He was a farm labourer and then a tenant farmer who saw his family being taken advantage of over the years. He was a real champion of social justice, so I’ve inherited that from him. 

What skill should every person have?

The ability to empathise. I think that’s a fundamental skill that we should all possess, and it would make for a much kinder world.

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

I suffered a spinal injury 12 years ago and that’s left me with constant neuropathy in my left leg and foot and that feels like a thousand stinging wasps because the nerves misfire all the time. Some days it’s just low-level background all the time and then other days it’s just absolute agony and I could cut off.

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

I love all those Studio Ghibli films, my kids love them as well, but My Neighbour Totoro is just a classic film about hope and optimism in times of hardship with brilliant animation.

What was your best holiday ever?

We never went on holiday when I was growing up, my mum used to laugh and tell us that our whole move to Canada was one big holiday. We lost her at the age of 58 about eight years ago, really suddenly.

A year and a half before that, me, my husband and the kids joined her and dad on a holiday to Carcassonne in France. We stayed in an old farmhouse surrounded by fields of sunflowers and lavender and vineyards and took loads of trips into the medieval walled city. 

What was the last book you read?

I’ve actually just finished reading a book called The Young Team by Graeme Armstrong. It’s all about growing up in teenage gangs. For me, it really resonated with my own experience of being a punk and engaging in running street battles with Nazi skinheads in Montreal. And I think it’s just a super book that lays bare the feelings of belonging and loyalty in the face of deindustrialization and poverty.

Read the most recent article written by Andrew Learmonth - SNP minister's 'disappointment and loss' over Derek Mackay texting scandal

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