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Maggie Chapman MSP: Getting to Know You

Photo credit: Ric Lander

Maggie Chapman MSP: Getting to Know You

Maggie Chapman, the Green MSP for North East Scotland, chats to Margaret Taylor about visits to South Africa as a child, her musical family and how a four-year trip to Scotland turned into a lifelong visit.

What’s your earliest memory?

I had open-heart surgery as a baby in Johannesburg. My mum and I spent a lot of time in hospital and I have a very, very clear memory of the hospital corridors – the lino on the floor. It was before I was two, but I know it is a real memory because when I went back to the hospital for check-ups when I was older that was to a different place.

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

I think one of the things I’m most grateful to my parents for is instilling in me a very, very clear sense that I would have a purpose. Not necessarily what that purpose would be, but that there was a purpose. Also, that there are few things that are unfixable.

Do you get to see your parents often?

My dad died in 2014 but my mum still lives in the house I grew up in in Harare. I haven’t seen her since Christmas 2019 because of Covid. I’m hoping that she will come here – which will probably be for the last time – later this year. My sister and her two kids live in England and my mum would love to see them again. She’ll be 85 in September. My dad became very home based in his old age. My mum tells the story that after they got back from his final trip to the UK she went into the bedroom and he was sitting on the edge of the bed talking to their dog. He said ‘I’ll never leave again’ and he never left Harare ever again. It was their home. They were both born and brought up in South Africa but they moved to Zimbabwe in the year of the civil war when everyone else was leaving. My dad took a job in Harare for two years to see how it went and my mum is still there.

What were you like at school?

I was probably a bit of a nightmare. I was incredibly earnest and incredibly intelligent. I always did everything right – I was one of those. In my final year of primary school I got sent out of class for talking and I thought it was the most unjust thing ever because I wasn’t talking. I was angry at the injustice. I must have been insufferable. I was also lucky because school came very easily to me so it was easy to be the teacher’s pet and a goody two shoes.

Did you ever rebel against that? 

No. Moving to a new country and continent as a 19-year-old was a shift and a big change. I wanted to study zoology – I thought I’d end up in a hut in the bush somewhere – but you couldn’t study zoology in Zimbabwe. I could have gone to South Africa but because we made regular trips to South Africa it felt like home. My mum and dad said ‘if you’re going to leave home do it properly and go somewhere completely different’. I thought I’d come to Scotland for three or four years and then go back to the bush but here I am.

What’s your greatest fear? 

I don’t have any phobias and I’m not easily intimidated but I do have a concern around not doing enough to make the world a better place. It seems trite but it’s genuinely felt. It can be a perpetual motivator or a perpetual depressor, depending on context – it does depend on what’s going on. I liken it to a feeling of helplessness and I’m not good at being helpless.

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

Objectively, I’ve had rape and death threats – being a woman in politics it goes with the territory. Otherwise, it’s when people have said they feel let down by me. That probably has the biggest emotional impact on me, if it’s someone I care about.

What’s your most treasured possession? 

I’m a hoarder but I don’t think I’m materialistic. There’s a conundrum in there somewhere. The thing I’d probably be most grief stricken about losing would be my violin. It’s a 202-year-old French violin that was found in an attic in Zimbabwe. It had been in this person’s family for a long time and she’d forgotten about it. I got it because my father was a musician and she got in touch with the music college where he was director. It’s a beautiful instrument – it was a very special find.

Do you play it often?

I used to play every day, sometimes all day every day. Prior to being elected I played in a folk group every week, sometimes two to three times a week. I thought music would be my career when I was a teenager, but I would have had to leave Zimbabwe as a 12, 13, 14-year-old and I had no interest in doing that at that stage. I was more than ready to leave at 19 but five years earlier I wasn’t. I don’t play that often now but I’m trying to carve that out.

You said your dad was a musician – is your whole family musical? 

My dad was a pianist and a conductor and dabbled in the bassoon. I was a violinist and a singer. My mum said she just turned the pages. She took piano lessons when she was a kid and loved the idea of it but found it hard work. She loves music though – there was always music around the house when I was growing up. It was classical music and opera – we didn’t have pop music on the radio ever. My sister didn’t do as much music as I did, but we both learned piano and she did violin and then viola.

What do you dislike about your appearance?

I don’t tend to spend a lot of time on my appearance. It’s not something I value, if that makes sense. I’ve probably got beyond the stage of caring. I’m not sure I ever did. I’ve been bullied for being grey, for being overweight, but it’s so low down my list of priorities. I was told a few years ago – by another woman – that as a woman in politics I should dye my hair because it makes me look old. It didn’t cross my mind to. 

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

Rather than travelling back in time I’d like to be able to have some sense that what we are doing now actually makes a difference in the future. It’s about looking forward. I’d like to see the impact, see what we got right and wrong and then come back and fix it.

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

I imagine my open-heart surgery was pretty painful but I don’t remember that. It’s not a pain, but I had to have a lumbar puncture a few years ago and I’d never understood the difference between pain and discomfort before. That was the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever experienced though it wasn’t painful.

What was your best holiday ever? 

In terms of happy memories, we went to South Africa every year, sometimes more often. One of my dad’s sisters lived on the KwaZulu-Natal coast in a little fishing village called Pumula. We had family outside Johannesburg, in Pretoria and in other cities but when we got to the coast it was just brilliant. I loved the coast and I loved the sea. There was one holiday when we didn’t get down to the coast and that was my worst holiday ever. 

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