Dhaka, Bangladesh
The enigmatic life of Lady Trumpington

The enigmatic life of Lady Trumpington

Ninety-one-year-old Jean Alys Barker, better known to you and me as Lady Trumpington, aka Trumpers - or, as the Daily Mail has it, "the gameshow-loving, Nazi code-breaking, sex pest-defying peer who (literally) stuck two fingers up at convention" - was brought up not to let people down. Not even nosy journalists from the Observer. "I felt so awful about having put you off last week," she says, arriving at the door of her Battersea flat with the help of two sticks. "So yesterday, I discharged myself from hospital. I've got pneumonia, you see, and I just couldn't cope here any longer. Off I went to A&E. Five days in the Chelsea and Westminster. I used to be a junior minister in the Department of Health, yet I'd never been in hospital as a patient. Well, not unless you count my false knees, which I don't. That's not ill. That's just… maintenance. So it was an interesting experience, actually." Were the nurses kind? "Some were nicer than others. Some hated me because they don't like Conservative lords. I had to tell one to stop calling me darling. 'I'm not your darling!' I said, which shut her up." We stand awkwardly in the hallway, and for a moment there is a slight logjam. It will take her a while to turn around and head in the other direction, and in the meantime here is the caretaker of her building come to check she is OK, swiftly followed by a neighbour bearing smoked salmon for her lunch. "Oh, you're all so kind," she says. There follows a certain amount of joshing - "Aren't you posh?" says the baroness, as I slip off my orange coat - after which she helpfully points me in the direction of her loo, "a very interesting room". She's right about this. The wall is resplendent with cartoons, including an excellent caricature of Trumpers smoking a cigar, drawn when she received her Oldie of the Year award from the Oldie magazine in 2012. However, as she doubtless knows, it's the loo itself that catches the eye, a fine bit of navy porcelain hidden decorously inside what I can only describe as a painted wooden throne. Yes, indeed. Rather like its redoubtable owner, the Trumpington lavatory is quite, quite splendid. By the time I emerge, Trumpers is on another throne, a high-backed chair she keeps in her kitchen, which we might call her centre of operations. "Do you mind if we're not posh, and sit here?" she says. Her drawing room is pristine, all side tables and perfectly plumped needlepoint cushions, but her kitchen is a clutter of random bottles, papers and radios. Nevertheless, she seems to know where everything is. "The boring thing [about old age] is the eyes," she says, picking up what looks like a paperweight, but is in fact a magnifying glass. "I've got letters to answer and writing is extremely difficult. But I got this wonderful thing from the eye hospital. It's invaluable for me, though I constantly lose it and practically have the whole of the House of Lords on their knees looking for it." She considers it for a moment. "They lend it to you, and when you're dead, you're meant to send it back." She grins. "Quite right too!" I'm here to talk to the baroness about her new memoir, Coming Up Trumps. However, this may be tricky. "I don't understand all this excitement," she says. "I didn't write the damn book, and I haven't read it either." Well, I tell her, she should read it. Her ghost writer has done her proud. It's heaven, and everyone who opens it will fall in love with her. "Are you sure?" she asks. "Really? Good lord. I'm so glad. But what do you think they'll make of it in the House of Lords? Will they be deeply shocked?" No. They'll adore it, too. "Oh, my God!" she says. She smiles broadly, revealing the gap between her two front teeth. Believe me when I tell you that Trumpers, whose face is quite intimidating in repose, has one of the best and most gratifying smiles I've ever encountered. The approbation of her fellow peers means a lot to Trumpers, for she believes that it's the House of Lords, which she still attends every day when it's sitting, that has kept her going all these years. She was made a peer in 1980, taking the title Baroness Trumpington of Sandwich (she was a Conservative counsellor for Trumpington in Cambridge, and once owned a beloved house in Sandwich, Kent), and thereafter enjoyed a late-life political career courtesy of Margaret Thatcher (joining the Department of Agriculture in 1989, she became the oldest ever female minister, an experience that made her feel like the female equivalent of Lester Piggott). "Well, she had to have somebody to tell her what was what," she says. "Willie Whitelaw was a great friend of friends of mine, and they pushed him and he pushed her [to give her a job]… Oh, he was frightfully nice to me. One of the things I cherish is being brought breakfast in bed in the Lake District by the deputy prime minister and two cocker spaniels." But Thatcher famously didn't care for other women. How ever did she dare contradict her? "Listen! The answer is that I thought: if I'm not true to myself, I might as well not exist. Therefore, I'll say what I think and if that's wrong, she can sack me. We fought each other verbally and I would stick to my guns and she would provoke me on purpose, and that was useful to her. It meant she was ready for other opponents." She attended cabinet only once, when her boss was stuck somewhere after the 1987 hurricane. "I only had to say one thing, which was: 'We would like to employ Professor X and the Department of Agriculture agrees.' So I said it three times, after which ridiculousness there was silence." When the meeting was over, Thatcher patted her on the shoulder and said: "We'll see your professor gets the job, dear." How did Trumpers feel about that? "I thought it was very odd to treat someone who is 6ft high like a child. But I didn't care. I felt so lucky." She liked Thatcher. She knew how to manage her, even if she did almost faint when, much later, the former PM once kissed her goodbye. "But I found it very hard to deal with Edwina Currie. What a bitch! She's so pleased with herself. I thought she was dreadful. The eggs! I was always having to pick up her pieces." Seeing the shock - or do I mean delight? - on my face, she loudly and merrily repeats the b-word, after which we both fall quite silent. For a moment, all that can be heard is the faint hum of the drill in the street outside. As she explains in her book, Trumpington did not have a happy childhood, though she never told anyone this at time: people just didn't, then. "It was awkward," she says. "I was the only girl, but not very pretty, and my two younger brothers were adored by my mother. I was daddy's girl, but he wasn't there much. My first nanny was heavenly, but after that, they were just girls and they were horrid to me and nice to the boys." She clasps a hand to her chest. "Nobody loved you! There was absolutely no affection, and this inhibited me for a very long time: how to express affection and how not to overdo it. Well… I've always overdone it. It's in my nature. I've only got one child [a son, Adam] and you've got to be loving when you've only got one." Her father, Arthur Campbell-Harris, was a soldier turned businessman. Her mother, Doris Robson, the heiress to a paint business who later worked as an interior decorator, had been brought up a sort of American princess, rich and spoilt. They lived grand lives - they belonged to the "fast" set that included the Prince of Wales and Wallis Simpson - and wanted for nothing at their house in Cumberland Place, which they ran with the help of many servants (though not a butler). "Oh, W1 was very posh then. Whereas SW1 was all old ladies who'd been sent home from India, like my [paternal] grandmother." What she remembers most about her mother - apart from her mania for doing up houses, which used to distress the home-loving young Jean, and instilled in her a deep and lifelong yearning to own a place of her own - is her pluck. "She had more guts than my father. Before the first war, she had a motorbike, and when my grandmother went to some spa in Germany in a Rolls-Royce with a chauffeur, my mother rode alongside on her bike." Her father was a dreadful womaniser. During the war, his daughter arrived at a nightclub only to find her pa sitting at the next table with his girlfriend. "Oh, he was a bad boy! He couldn't miss a good chance. But my mother adored him, and was willing to overlook things - and in his funny way, he loved her, too, though he was much more sexy than her." After the Wall Street Crash in 1929, the family had to swap swanky London for rural Kent - though, as Trumpington admits, this new "poverty" was relative. The young Jean was now living in a house with no heating or electricity, but there was a still a boy whose job it was to clean the gas lamps, and while her frocks were secondhand, they still came from places like Chanel and Lelong. Boarding school, however, was truly grim. She wasn't academic, but nor was she hearty, and she was unpopular as a result. "All the other girls had crushes on each other, and on the games mistress, which I didn't understand at all," she says in Coming Up Trumps. "I didn't want to crush on a woman and I didn't want to be crushed on. I used to go with the local boys into the woods and smoke instead. There was no sex, but a lot of smoking. I was really a most unsuitable person for an English public school at that time." Afterwards, she was sent to an equally miserable-sounding finishing school in France. But then the war came along, and her parents were stuck: what on earth to do with Jean? The solution presented itself in the form of an old family friend, the daughter of Lloyd George, on whose father's farm in Sussex she would now work as a land girl. The arrangement was an odd one. Jean would live with Lloyd George's long-term and vastly younger mistress, Frances Stevenson, in her bungalow - this was where Stevenson stayed when the former prime minister's family were around, though as soon as they departed, she would hot-foot it back up to the big house - but she would take her meals with his secretarial staff. "Miss Stevenson was awfully nice: very cosy, I thought. She didn't look like anything of course. She looked like a governess. But she had jolly good taste and she was kind to me. But the secretaries didn't like me being there, and that's when I bit one. She said something rude, and I picked up her arm and I bit it! Oh, what a thing to do! She screamed, and then I had to walk back down to the bungalow on my own in the dark feeling frightened." Lloyd George, the old goat, used to make the young Jean stand against a wall while he measured her with a tape. "I suppose that was the nearest to flesh he could get with Miss Stevenson's beady eye on him. But then, there have been so many highly sexed prime ministers. As I once said in a speech to the Lords, my mother had a friend called Lady Winifred Renshaw who looked like Queen Mary, and sounded like Queen Mary, and one of her remarks to my mother which I've never forgotten was: Asquith was a man I'd never have cared to be alone with in a taxi. No, Lloyd George wasn't the first, or the last!" It was lonely and boring at the farm, but eventually she escaped, moving to live with her mother in Sunningdale and travelling up to London every day to do a secretarial course. In 1940, soon after she turned 18, her father arranged an interview with someone from Bletchley Park and, having revealed that she could speak French and German, she joined the team devoted to cracking German naval codes the very next day. The work was extremely repetitive. But she loved it all the same. Freedom! "Life only really began when I went to Bletchley," she says. "That's when I made my real friends, and it was exciting being a part of something important." The best part was hitchhiking up to London for a night out (her brilliantly posh and stentorian voice meant that her lifts tended to keep their hands to themselves, fearing serious consequences if they didn't). "We used to meet up in Claridge's, and throw bread at each other and sing and behave so badly. Five shillings was the most you could spend during the war, so it was as affordable as anywhere." She celebrated her 21st birthday at the 400 Club, and was such a regular at the Bagatelle, a French restaurant with a dance floor, that the band used to play a spec ial tune the moment she arrived. But her pleasure-seeking was, she insists, very pure: "We'd be hanging on to our knickers as hard as we could." That goes for VE Day, too. She picked up a lieutenant commander in the navy and spent the evening dancing with him, "but there was no love in the bushes or anything". (To be continued)

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