I HAVE known Martin Salter for just over 20 years and if I was asked to sum him up in just three words it would have to be "down to earth".

And true to form, he strolled into my house yesterday morning for his first interview since the shock announcement that he would be standing down as the Reading West MP at the next general election and said: "Hiya Ali, been stuck in traffic mate and I need some breakfast. Have you got any cereal?"

And so the interview began with Martin raiding through the Frosties and the Corn Flakes cupboard, quite happily sharing the occasion with our other companions of the day at my home workplace, two-year-old son Harry and Chip, our Golden Retriever.

If being interviewed with Fireman Sam on the TV in the background and a supply of biscuits and dog treats at the ready to keep the troops amused was out of the ordinary for him, then it never showed once and it is this ordinariness that has proved the secret of his success.

As a child growing up in west London Martin had no aspirations to become an MP, more to the point he had no idea what he wanted to be.

He said: "I have never been one of these people who have their life all mapped out. I was always the mouthy kid at school who would stick up for someone else if I thought it was unfair and I always spoke up in class.

"My mum always said I'd make a good lawyer because I could talk the hind leg of a donkey.

"When I was about 14 I had a fantastic teacher who taught British Constitution and he spotted something in me, a real interest and took me to the Politics Society in Kingston where I heard Tony Benn speak."

Martin, 54 , comes from a left-wing political background, with his grandfather George Baker sent to Wormwood Scrubs in 1914 for his outspoken political beliefs about the First World War, and his parents were active trade unionists.

He left school and went to Sussex University to study politics but decided the academic life was not for him - "I wanted to do politics, not study it" - and quit.

He worked on building sites and as a cargo handler at Heathrow Airport, along the way representing the workers and learning more about politics through the trade unions.

Redundancy from Heathrow and a £3,000 pay-off led him to Reading and ultimately on the political path that he was destined to follow.

"Me and a friend of mine used to drive to Reading to go fishing and I saw a man come out of his house in Elgar Road one day and go fishing in the river at the bottom of his garden. I decided that that was the life and, with £3,000 burning a hole in my pocket, I put down a deposit for a house in Elgar Road with my own bit of river at the end."

Settling into his new home Martin got himself a driving job, as well as working at the town's summer playschemes.

He said: "There were two things at about the same time that led to me standing for the council - the council banned angling at Reading Prom and the other was the council cut the playscheme budget. I started campaigns on both and we led a rally of five to 11-year-olds and their parents to the council in protest at the playscheme cuts.

"I turned to the Labour Party and said they weren't doing enough on this issue and Margaret Singh turned round and said, 'If you can do a better job then why don't you come and show us how it's done?' There was no way I could turn down that challenge, she was a very clever woman."

Martin was elected Park ward councillor and when he became leisure committee chairman his first act was to reinstate fishing on the Prom.

He is also very proud of the fact that he contacted the Rock Festival organisers in 1986 - three years after the Festival had been stopped - and asked them to bring it back to Reading, later followed by Womad.

And if he was forced to choose favourites among many achievements it would be the South Street reinvention into a community arts centre, the Passport to Leisure scheme, the Madejski Stadium, Prospect Park Hospital and the part he played in the publication of "Routes to Reading', personal stories of immigration from people who make up the town's varied population.

Being elected Reading West MP in 1997 was an incredible moment.

"I remember my opponent looking totally shell-shocked. We went out into Broad Street a few days later to thank everybody and it was fantastic, a great atmosphere. Being an MP gives you a massive platform to represent your constituents."

Despite announcing his intention to stand down he has pledged to work tirelessly as an MP until to the end and has no time for colleagues with outside interests'.

"Representing 75.000 people is a big responsibility, it's well-paid and a good MP should rightly be working 70 hour weeks. It is a full-time job."

He recalls his first speech in the House of Commons in July 1997 - but for all the wrong reasons.

"I wasn't nervous at all, it is like a big council chamber, but I was inevitably running a bit late, was writing my speech on the Tube, it was raining and I was wearing a black anorak. As I dashed into the Commons I was practically rugby tackled by one of the whips and told: "Get that !*?!* anorak off, you look like a lagged water tank!" and reminded of the dress code."

His decision this week not to stand at the next General Election was not taken lightly but one he is certain is 100% right.

He met his future wife, Natalie O'Toole (now Head of Communications at Which) 14 years ago when she worked in the Reading Borough Council press office and they married eight years ago.

"Natalie has never known me be anything other than a councillor or MP," he said. "She has been fantastic, very supportive, and I want to do other things with my life now, I want a bit of my life back.

"I've never had kids because I didn't want to be an absentee dad and so my political career has paid a price in other ways and I don't want to be rattling round in the House of Commons in my sixties.

"I've just celebrated my 25th anniversary and the time is right now. I can't see me sitting behind a desk 9am to 5pm waiting for my gold watch though.

"I'd like to write, I enjoy my Chronicle column and one of my teachers at school always said that whatever I did when I was older I should write. I'd also like to be involved with an environmental or a children's charity or organisation."

He is going to remain a governor at the John Madejski Academy in Whitley, continue working with the Whitley Excellence Cluster and maintain his charity work.

He said: "When I finish being an MP I hope that the people I've represented will be able to say that when I was their MP I was always there for them and gave them the best representation they could have asked for. I hope that I've achieved that."

And with that Martin switched the kettle on to make himself a coffee - down to earth, just like I said.