FOR a man who recently underwent heart surgery, Michael Martin, the Commons' speaker, is looking remarkably well. A combination of convalescence and exercise has put colour in his cheeks.

Sitting in the splendour of the Speaker's Palace office, Martin is extolling the virtues of early-morning walks, reading "with a clear conscience" and building a "state-of-theart" bird house only to discover that bluetits actually prefer something rather more modest. "It was nice to have rest, " he says. "I think of the doctors almost being like mechanics looking after a car. I have had what they call a 'fine tune'."

The mechanics were called in February, when 60-year-old Martin was at home in his Glasgow North East constituency and woke up feeling unwell. "I felt a twinge, it was like indigestion, but I knew something was not correct, " he says. Martin had suffered a mild heart attack and was told he needed angioplasty - a procedure where small balloons are inflated within the artery to clear the blockage and restore blood flow to the heart. He had to spend four days in hospital in February and was discharged with strict instructions not to undo the good work the doctors had done. "Before the operation, exercise was an option, " he says. "Now it's compulsory."

Fortunately, Martin describes walking as one of his joys. "In my younger days I was a hill walker, " he says. Now he spends 40 minutes each morning strolling along London's south bank. "I love it, " he says. "You can walk unimpeded and I get a good walk. Being isolated, as I am, when I go out in the morning I can speak to the police officers and the cleaners and I can pick up all the stories that have been going on. Taking that exercise every day is so important. It gets your circulation going."

Martin rises each day at 6.45am and is out of the door for the walk by 7.15am. "There's no other part of the day I'd be able to do it because responsibilities mount up. It's good from the point of view of not only the walk but it clears your mind and you're able to think about things."

For the first three weeks of his recovery, Martin spent all his time at home with his feet up. "My officials kept me up-to-date, but mostly I just switched off, " he says. "Twice I watched PMQs on TV but that was more by accident than design."

The former Rolls-Royce metal worker took long walks along the Forth and Clyde canal and took up carpentry. "You wouldn't believe it but I took the notion of a nesting box for the bluetits and I built this stateof-the-art box. "I cheated a wee bit because I was in a garden centre and I took measurements. But what I can say is this: It was the best of wood, even the best of paint, waterproof. I put it up and still to this day there's not a bluetit that's gone near it.

"But my wife Mary saw a bargain. A bluetit box for GBP2.10, and guess what? We just hung that up, put a nail in the fence and the bluetits are nesting in that. The moral of the story is don't spend too much time on it, but it was great just to sit in the garage and get the tools out and carve away at a piece of wood."

Martin also caught up with a lot of reading for pleasure. "Bear in mind I'm an MP as well as the speaker. If you sit reading a book, you always have a guilt thing - I should be looking at that piece of correspondence or I should be phoning a constituent - but when I was told to rest, that was it; I could read several books with a clear conscience."

"The serious side of that is that you do realise that family is so important, particularly Mary, my wife. It was alright for me. I was resting. I was very touched by the support I got from my constituents, and also the members of the House and by strangers, and a lot of them did phone, which was lovely, but there's Mary looking after me and fielding the calls and then the visitors to the house. I had the easy part of it. She did all the work."

MARTIN glows with pride when he talks about his two grown children, Paul, who is MSP for Springburn, and Mary, and his three grandchildren. "They're the focus of our life, " he says. "We spoil the grandchildren. With your own children you worry a bit more about how they behave and how they conduct themselves."

Martin says it was his "built-in desire to try to help people" that first attracted him to politics. "The two great influences in my young life were my mother and my grandmother. I was brought up in a tenement community in Anderston. I was there until I was 14 and then I moved up to Springburn, so it was Anderston and Springburn that meant so much to me.

"The tenements that I lived in weren't so pleasant. The rain used to come in. There were outside toilets which other families had to share, but there was a tremendous community spirit there; if someone was in difficulty, neighbours helped.

"Although I had many aunties and uncles close by, there were men and women in our tenement and up the next close who I considered almost as a relative because I knew if the family was in any difficulty, they would come to help. I was brought up with that mentality that you help other people."

Although his position as speaker means he is supposed to remain politically impartial, Martin is clearly proud of his Labour roots and of becoming the first Catholic speaker since the Reformation.

"I came from the ranks of the Labour Party, " he says. "My mother and my grandmother both had to live through the terrible depression years and they taught me to appreciate the fact that political decisions were made to improve the quality of life for men and women, and they did.

"Mum used to talk about the family allowance. She used to say that in her mother's day there was no family allowance. Now that was a political decision. Gran spoke of the National Health Service, whereas in her day there was no National Health Service, you were a charity.

"Both of them taught me that political decisions and political activities did make a difference. I joined the Labour Party to help those people who made political decisions. In the days when I then could run up and down stairs much easier, I'd put leaflets through doors, stand at schools, get people to the polling stations, but I liked it and I also listened to political debate."

On October 23, Martin will have served six years as Commons' speaker. In that time, much has changed. A concrete wall has gone up around the Palace of Westminster and armed police are slowly replacing the "men in tights". "Security has to be far tighter, " says Martin. "We all realise that. There have been measures taken that perhaps 20 years ago would have been unthinkable. It's manifestly clear from the outside of the building that you see barriers and police officers who are armed and that's sad in a way. But we now live in a society where security is something we must think of all day and every day and that's meant changes for me.

"When the public look at the House of Commons they see MPs, but it's not only MPs. My responsibility goes to the members, the officers, the staff - it's a place of work for so many hundreds of people - and of course the hundreds of visitors from all parts of the world. The whole of the Palace of Westminster has to be protected."

Aside from security concerns, Martin concedes the job has become easier with time. He now brushes off criticism of his gruff Glaswegian accent and has learned to live with sketch-writers who describe him as "Gorbals Mick".

"I think, for me, things have changed in that all my working life - I left school at 15 to become an apprentice - I have learned things in a practical way. Therefore, the speakership has changed for me in that every day I've been learning something, so that six years of experience has made things easier for me."

Asked about the prospect of retirement, Martin grimaces and refuses to be drawn. "I'm here as long as the House and my constituents want me."