Politician Dennis Canavan: 'I dream most nights and I very rarely have a happy dream'

There will always be a pain, a void, for the rest of my life. I'm resigned to that

DENNIS Canavan wipes his eyes. He's told his story before, he's been to bereavement counselling, leaned heavily on his faith, and he's fathered a new generation, but nothing can dull the grief of a father losing three sons, not even the catharsis of committing his woes to paper.

That's what he's done: dragged every last memory out of the bank, summoned every emotion, let it all out. The maverick's autobiography is out next week, and a good chunk of it charts his third of a century in the political bear pit, details his life as a firebrand socialist orator. But mostly Let The People Decide is about the three boys he loved and lost.

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We often complain that our politicians are faceless apparatchiks interested in little but their own advancement and the next expenses cheque. Not Canavan. He's old school, a dyed-in-the-wool radical for whom candour is as natural as breathing. The result is a book in which he bares his soul with coruscating honesty.

"I started writing the book not that long after the death of Mark, my oldest son, and my emotions at that time were very raw," says Canavan, his voice brittle with grief. "I found those chapters dealing with the illness and death of my three sons particularly hard. I was in tears writing it so often that I'd have to stop to try to control my emotions before I could continue."

But why do it? Why would he want to relive the hurt and grief which, he candidly admits, almost consumed him?

"I found writing the book a very cathartic, therapeutic process," he says, the political bruiser disappearing, to be replaced by a bruised father with a thousand-yard stare. "I had all that stuff bottled up inside me because at the times of my sons' death I couldn't afford to break down emotionally because I had to put on a brave face for the rest of the family. I felt later, when writing the book, a lot of that bottled-up emotion coming out. It was probably good for my soul and my own mental well-being.

"The grief will never go away entirely. There will always be a pain, a void, for the rest of my life. I'm resigned to that. You learn to cope with that, but putting it all down in writing, particularly the prologue to the book where I deal in detail with the death of my three sons, I think it has helped me psychologically."

His sons' death put paid to the career of one of the great political non-conformists and is a chilling wake-up call for any parents, a worst-case scenario with bells on. He tries to deflect pity by claiming that many of his constituents have suffered worse, but that's difficult to imagine.

When Canavan entered Westminster in 1974 as the 32-year-old MP for West Stirlingshire, he and his then wife Elnor had four children – his sickly six-year-old daughter Ruth and three boys: Mark, Dennis John and Paul, aged eight, three and two. Today, just Ruth remains; ironic really, because in 1974 she was the one who was in hospital.

The boys were in rude health, especially Paul. He was only 15 when his sister noticed a strange patch on his shoulder and Canavan took him to the doctor. At first the family couldn't believe that a malignant melanoma might be potentially lethal; but when the localised chemotherapy failed and the cancer spread to his brain and made him dizzy, he faded quickly. Full of life one summer; dead by the spring. Canavan was touched by the stoicism with which he faced the end; by his equanimity, his utter lack of self-pity and his dogged refusal to cry. "He wasn't just my son, he was my greatest friend," says his father quietly.

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Canavan's sense of devastation was on an almost incomprehensible scale, so acute that it "felt like part of my gut has been ripped out and could never be replaced". But worse was to come. His eldest son Mark, who had married an Australian, Sandra, emigrated and started his own family, had some devastating news. On a trip back to Scotland in 2004 he told his dad about motor neurone disease, the disease that would disable and kill him.

Mark's brother Dennis was also distraught, but had problems of his own. Four months after he had been a pall-bearer at the funeral of Canavan's brother Ian, who had died of pancreatic cancer, Dennis also suffered from dizzy spells and could no longer cope with his work as a nurse. His colleagues soon identified an aggressive brain tumour that the surgeons tried to remove. Dennis died in hospital, aged 35, in December 2006, his father stroking his hand as he slipped away.

It had only been a matter of a weeks from the dizziness to his deathbed, and it fell to Canavan to ring Mark to let him know of his brother's demise. By now the eldest of his boys was in a wheelchair, completely immobile, too ill even to speak. When Canavan broke the news, Mark broke down. He couldn't cry, but the terrible gurgling that came back down the phone almost broke Canavan's heart. Mark eventually died last year at the age of 41.

It is a tale of pure, uncut tragedy. Looking at Canavan as we sit in the small lodge house in rolling fields just outside Bannockburn, he seems smaller than I'd imagined. But then the stress has taken its toll, with debilitating bouts of depression, insomnia and nightmarish nocturnal visions. "The depression hits the worst at night," he says. "The sleeplessness can be terrible. I've always been a bit of an insomniac, but now I often wake up after three or four hours and usually after a bad dream that makes me feel guilty and anxious.

"Some of them are understandable, where I'm going all over the place trying to find this child who's lost, and I don't find him – and it's always a him – and I wake up in a sweat, all worried and can't get back to sleep. I can understand that, but there are others that don't make sense to me at all. I dream most nights and I very rarely have a happy dream; all the dreams have a sad ending or a situation where something awful is about to happen and then I wake up."

When he is bitten by the black dog, he'll avoid lying awake in bed by reading, catching up on correspondence, going to the gym or walking. He's recovering from keyhole surgery on his knee so the sub-three hour marathons and the 30-mile treks that used to be a regular feature of his life are on hold, but he still uses strenuous physical exercise to clear his mind and cope with those weeks when he has to survive on three hours' sleep each night.

By writing his book, Canavan has confronted his grief head-on and tackled the fact that "in Scotland in general we're not very good about speaking about our emotions, or about death, particularly amongst men. There's almost a feeling that if you cry you're not a man, that somehow you're showing weakness, when we all know that a good greet helps you, provided you don't break down completely".

Canavan's attitude to death was shaped by his grandfather, who worked down the pit where death was ever-present and unmentionable. Every Sunday after Mass they'd visit his grandmother's grave together. His grandfather "had a very healthy attitude to death, which he saw not as an end in itself but as a transition. But he wouldn't talk about it, and that rubbed off on me."

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Canavan was a seminarian in his youth, and his travails haven't diminished his faith. If anything it's been rejuvenated by the support he received from his church and because of the strength Mark gained from his beliefs. "Mark had a great, great faith, a much better faith than me, and was a better person than me," says Canavan.

"I just take consolation from the fact that the church is for sinners as well as saints; I certainly wouldn't describe myself as a devout Catholic or a pious person. I've got nothing to be sanctimonious about." That verbal self-flagellation is a thinly-veiled reference to the most gut-wrenching aspect of his whole story, which isn't his grief: it's his sense of guilt. His tale is laced with the stuff; it seeps into every seam and join in his story. Like the bit where he wonders whether Paul's cancer was the fault of family holidays in Majorca and the Algarve. Or where Mark tells him about a long-standing family problem and Canavan asks why he never mentioned it before. "You were never there, Dad," said Mark. "He did not mean to hurt me but I have felt it in my gut ever since," says Canavan.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect is the way his regret has indelibly coloured his recollections of the good times. "The happy memories of walking the West Highland Way with Dennis and Paul, and of family holidays, are tinged with huge regret that I didn't spend more time with them because of my job at Westminster," he says. "I tried to compensate in the holidays, but you've got to have a continuous relationship with children. Just coming home at the weekends I found that I was at everyone's beck and call and that my own children were at the end of the queue. I was treating my constituency casework, which sometimes involved other people's children, with more priority than I was giving to my own children."

His feelings of guilt have ensured that he will always be there for his five fatherless grandchildren (Ruth's husband, the father of their two children, died in his early 20s). He's made a start with his book, which will be a record of their fathers' lives.

"I owed it to my sons to write this book," he says. "Although they died tragically young, their lives still had a special meaning for me and for others, and I wanted to describe that. I hope that one day my grandchildren will appreciate the contents and see it as a tribute to their dads."

As Canavan talks, the door opens and a cherubic little face appears. "Haven't you finished yet, Daddy?" says a mildly reproving Adam Canavan. The seven-year-old is dressed in a Real Madrid top and wants his dad to come and kick a ball about in the garden with him and Dennis Jnr's boys, Ciaran and Connor.

His fourth son, who he had with partner Christine, is "a source of constant joy", he says, smiling. "In fact, there are times when I wonder whether I could manage without him."

Canavan believes his relationship with Adam will be the biggest beneficiary from the book. "The book has helped me draw a line under the boys' death. It's helped me realise that I can't undo the past or change the mistakes I made as a father to my older children, but I can learn from them and hopefully be a better person and a better father for Adam."

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And just to prove the point, when Adam sticks his head around the door again, Canavan finally gives up and agrees to go out. "I've changed," he says. "Thirty or 40 years ago I'd have been crabbit and said 'away wi' ye, and leave me in peace.'"

Canavan is a deeply impressive, if deeply damaged, man, but he's ridiculously hard on himself. But it is understandable that he takes such pride in small personal triumphs; perhaps the only way to make sense of a life rent asunder by cataclysmic woe is to completely redefine your value system. "My priorities have changed," he says as we look at Adam. "You maybe don't realise what you've got till it's gone."

A wealth of experience

Dennis Canavan was born in 1942 and educated at St Bride's and St Columba's Schools, Cowdenbeath, and at the University of Edinburgh. He had been leader of the Labour group on Stirling District Council before his election as MP for West Stirlingshire in October 1974. Following boundary changes, he was MP for Falkirk West from 1983 to 2000.

A long-time campaigner for a Scottish Parliament, the New Labour leadership rejected him as an official candidate during the first Holyrood elections in 1999. He stood as an independent and won, with the highest majority of any MSP. He resigned his Westminster seat in 2000 and retained his Holyrood seat in 2003, again with the biggest majority in Scotland.

At his retirement before the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections, he was the longest-serving parliamentarian in the Scottish Parliament, having completed 33 years at Westminster then Holyrood.