It was sheer heaven

Bee Wilson

  • Exceeding My Brief: Memoirs of a Disobedient Civil Servant by Barbara Hosking
    Biteback, 384 pp, £9.99, March, ISBN 978 1 78590 462 2

Barbara Hosking was eating chicken curry in a bungalow in Tanganyika one day in the 1950s when she felt the room shaking. She was lunching with her old schoolfriend Mary, and this was the bungalow they shared. Both women were then working as office managers for a British-owned gold, copper and silver mine in Mpanda. Pieces of plaster were falling off the wall, the room was juddering and, outside, their houseboys were shouting at them to get out of the building. Barbara suggested it might be an earthquake but Mary disagreed and said that the boys were ‘overreacting’: it was only a ‘tremor’. So they went on with their chicken curry and its accompaniment of cucumbers, tomatoes and nuts. As a split opened down the wall, Hosking ‘felt a strange sensation, rather like standing on a platform on the Underground in London when another train is passing underneath’. Yet still they carried on as if nothing was happening. Then they heard a screeching of car brakes and one of the British mine engineers rushed in to see if the women were all right.

We reassured him that we were, and I remarked that it was quite a violent tremor … wasn’t it?

‘Violent tremor?’ exclaimed Stanley. ‘It was a bloody great earthquake! Force eight on the Richter scale. There’s one dead and several hurt at the dukas, and you just went on with your lunch!’

The engineer stared at them ‘in a mixture of shock and admiration’ as they shook the plaster out of their hair and remarked that they were ‘just being British’. Hosking knew that they already had a reputation for being ‘unusually intrepid young women’ in this huge country with its ‘very small white population’.

Hosking felt that the white European men in Africa admired the women’s ‘spirit’ and their working so far from home and always seemed ‘delighted’ to be asked to drive them somewhere. At the time, she said, they were ‘an outpost of feminine civilisation in this remote corner of Africa’. To be in Africa was itself an ‘extraordinary adventure’. As Henry Gardiner, one of the mine’s bosses, remarked, ‘we have the whole of Africa at our disposal.’ The white population in Tanganyika was tiny, so news of Hosking’s bravery at the time of the earthquake quickly spread ‘from airstrip to airstrip’. Hosking doesn’t tell us what the local black men thought of her and her friend: the Africans who carried their guns for them on hunting trips, who cooked their chicken curries (‘it was sheer heaven to have our housework and cooking done for us’), who washed and ironed their clothes, who made her Cornish pasties and saffron cake to remind her of home, who tended her bungalow with its pink and purple bougainvillea and who had tried to save her life during the earthquake only to be accused of ‘overreacting’. But spirit was not a virtue that Europeans attributed to Africans, only to themselves.

Throughout her 92 years, Barbara Hosking – born in 1926 – seems to have aspired to this notion of ‘spirit’; if she were spirited enough, she could prove herself the equal of any man, and would no longer be patronised. ‘Spirit’ in this sense is something close to ‘pluck’, which carries with it a sense of tenacity, the refusal to panic in trying circumstances. It means taking risks and having a lark but not making a fuss about it. Other than the earthquake incident, Hosking’s other salient memory of her three years in Africa was the time she saved Mary from a snake, catching it by the tail and pretending not to be scared, though she was actually terrified. When she returned to England and entered political life, working first in the broadcasting department at Transport House, she felt ready for it. ‘Life at the mine had made me strong and self-reliant. I felt sure I could cope with misogynistic politicians and, indeed, with the snakes that one finds hidden in all political parties.’

Hosking – who started out as a Cornish scholarship girl and rose to become a senior civil servant under Harold Wilson and Edward Heath and, later, a top executive at breakfast television – has written a memoir of her rise to the top of the British establishment. Sentence by sentence, her story is likeable and impressive but never very exciting to read. Most of the great turning points in her life are expressed in cliché or convention: ‘I was 21 years old, and I was on my way to seek fame and fortune in London’; ‘The Reform Club had opened its heart to me and I worked hard to repay this honour.’ Yet the book is compelling, not least because it is a portrayal of the collective values of the British establishment in the postwar decades, as conceived by a woman who was gay and who didn’t come from one of the ‘right’ families, and was thus an insider and an outsider at the same time.

Hosking wants us to see her as a pioneer or a rebel, as someone who, as her title has it, ‘exceeded her brief’. Yet her ‘spirit’ comes across as tribal and obedient as much as individual. She seems to have been more troubled by having once stumbled into the Travellers Club by mistake – women weren’t allowed – than she was by the earthquake. But perhaps this accurately reflects the values of the world in which she was trying to make her way. Had she happened to show fear at the time of the earthquake, no one would have held it against her. To step foot in the Travellers Club as a non-male, on the other hand, was a gaffe that couldn’t be allowed to pass. She was ‘politely but firmly shown the door’.

For anyone who came of age in Britain during and directly after the war, pluck was part of the national self-image. To be spirited or plucky in the British sense was to be able to suppress your own desires as circumstances required, without inflicting your emotions on anyone else – though there were times when being spirited simply meant having drunk a lot of spirits. One of Hosking’s jobs in Tanganyika was to buy the drinks for the dinner parties held by the mining community – the rations consisted of a crate of beer or a bottle of whisky per person. ‘It sounds more than excessive to write this today,’ Hosking notes, ‘but no one seemed to get drunk.’

Hosking – her family called her ‘Bobbie’ – was born (by candlelight) to a modest family in Penzance who lived above the dairy where her father worked. Her arm was broken at birth, probably the result of a botched forceps delivery. As soon as she was old enough, she started wearing an iron splint. Every year she had to be fitted with a new splint at a clinic where three nurses broke the adhesions in her elbow by pulling hard. ‘The upside,’ she wrote, ‘was that I now have a very high pain threshold.’ Her parents’ marriage was unhappy and she learned to keep quiet when ‘Daddy’ was in a bad mood. ‘“All this laughter will lead to tears,” he would say, a self-fulfilling prophecy as he cuffed one of us about the ears.’ Her way out was getting a scholarship to West Cornwall School for Girls and from there finding work on a local newspaper on the Isles of Scilly.

Another thing she needed to be brave about from an early age was the fact that she was lesbian and couldn’t tell anyone about it, until she eventually met a woman called Robin who worked for John Lewis and they moved in together. She had fallen in love for the first time aged six – with a fair-haired girl called Melvina – but it was only when she arrived in London to find work as a secretary that she was able to acknowledge, in limited circles, that she was ‘queer’. As late as the 1980s, she was amazed to discover one night on holiday in Spain that her group of closest friends, which included the journalist Katharine Whitehorn and the Conservative peer Heather Brigstocke, had had no idea about her sexuality until she mentioned it. ‘If I had produced a gun and fired it through the roof the reaction couldn’t have been stronger.’

Just to have been a woman who worked in 1950s Britain required a certain amount of pluck. There were trying circumstances to face every day: rules and assumptions that needed to be swallowed or risen above, or silently raged against. Hosking’s first London job was in the typing pool for the Odeon and Gaumont cinema chain. Men were allowed to smoke in the office; women were not. Men could come and go as they pleased; women had to clock in and out. ‘You could talk quietly to your neighbours but real conversations and laughter were discouraged.’ Given all this it’s hardly surprising that Hosking’s examples of ‘exceeding her brief’ often come across as rather mild. When you’re treated as a rebel merely for being a woman in a position of authority, you start to lose your bearings about what is and isn’t a rebellion. She entered the Civil Service at a time when many men let it be known that women were exceeding their brief just by being there.

She tells a story of a time when she accompanied Edward Heath on a trip to Bonn, where he was due to give a pro-Europe speech. She rushed to a department store to buy a hat for the occasion, choosing a black and white sombrero-style number with a wide brim. The hat was so large it largely obscured Heath from the view of the crowds as they sat together in the limousine. ‘I’m so very sorry about the hat, prime minister,’ I apologised when we reached the airport. ‘The Foreign Office told me I had to wear one.’ She heard Heath laughing at her as she turned away. This hat incident happened 49 years ago. Who cares if a crowd could get a full view of Heath’s face through a car window? Yet Hosking still writes about her choice of sombrero as if it were a grave transgression.

In the course of her career as a civil servant, Hosking held positions at Transport House, at the Department of the Environment and as a senior information officer in the prime minister’s press office. She is always very keen to impress on us what a ‘trailblazer’ she was in having risen through these various positions. Yet at a certain point, a woman who shows the same establishment spirit as a man is not subverting the culture but shoring it up. At one point she remarks that the implementation of government policy was much ‘smoother’ in the days when politicians and civil servants had often been at the same school at the same time, apparently oblivious to the fact that returning to that sort of arrangement would make it so much harder for future Barbara Hoskings to get on in the Civil Service. One of her proudest moments occurs when she invites Heath to join her for lunch at the Reform Club. ‘What a lark!’ is his response. He orders lemon sole, pronouncing it to be sweeter than Dover sole. She says how ‘kind’ it was of him to lunch with her and give her ‘standing in the club from the start’. After the Heath lunch, Hosking finds herself effortlessly rising through the club’s committees. Again, she has passed the test. She has shown spirit.

*

In its cover design and the way it is marketed, Exceeding My Brief is a clone of Coming Up Trumps by Jean Trumpington, which was first published to great acclaim in 2014. On the surface, Hosking and Trumpington have little in common beyond their age. Where Hosking is left-leaning, Trumpington is a Conservative (she went to the Lords in 1980 under Mrs Thatcher, her great mentor). Hosking is gay, Trumpington was heterosexual – the happiest years of her life, she tells us, were spent with her late husband, ‘Barker’, who was headmaster of The Leys school in Cambridge. Hosking’s family was humble; Trumpington’s grandfather was surgeon general in India and her mother was brought up ‘as a sort of American princess’. And yet the two women share a certain diction and a set of values and a sense of how the horizons for British women were opening up in the postwar era, at least for women who moved in certain circles. Where Hosking writes of ‘spirit’, Trumpington writes of being ‘brave’. She was brave, she recalls by ‘going to Paris at 15, Bletchley at 18 and New York at 29, each time on my own and knowing no one’.

Coming Up Trumps is a far more entertaining book than Exceeding My Brief, in part because Trumpington is secure enough in her status to care much less what other people think about her. She still seems to feel a deep obligation to put her best foot forward. There are plenty of clichés here too – but there’s more life to them. Trumpington is either ‘dying with boredom’ or she is having ‘jolly good fun’, and sometimes both at once. In the course of her life she tells us that she met Lloyd George, Beaverbrook, Jackie Kennedy and ‘every single postwar prime minister, from Clement Attlee (whom I met at the theatre) to David Cameron’, as well as other ‘formidable and extraordinarily interesting people, despite being rather dull myself’.

She was born, as Jean Campbell-Harris, in 1922 to aristocratic parents who sent her to a series of schools where she was ‘dreadfully homesick’ and ‘almost suicidally miserable’. But she insists that ‘it wasn’t my parents’ fault. They were born in the 19th century and brought up by Victorians.’ After years of glamorous living during her early childhood, her parents lost their money in the crash of 1929, which meant that they had ‘nothing’; by ‘nothing’ she means that they had to move out of London to a house in Kent that had ‘only one field’ (there was also a wood and a hard tennis court). They were still rich enough to send her to a French finishing school, where she played ‘an awful lot of tennis’ and nearly went to dinner with the French tennis champion Jean Borotra, until her parents forbade it.

She was 18 when the war started, and went to work at Bletchley typing out ciphers. The job was ‘deeply tedious’ but she was desperately happy there: the weekends were ‘heaven’ because she and her friends would rush up to London and dance all night. She had a spell working in advertising on Madison Avenue in her late twenties, and developed a reputation for tap-dancing on tables at parties. ‘I was frightfully good at it in those days.’ And then she met Barker on a visit to Yale, where he was a visiting fellow. To her great delight they bought a dachshund called Sherry-Netherland, named after a big hotel near Central Park. They had a son called Adam. And then Jean became a Tory councillor in Cambridge and later mayor of the city. Eventually, she entered the House of Lords as a life peer – calling herself Lady Trumpington – and Mrs Thatcher made her a minister in the Department of Health. And they all lived happily ever after, except for Barker, who had a stroke and died in the 1980s.

She claims in the first paragraph of Chapter 1 that, ‘quite frankly’, she’s been happy ever since Bletchley. And, the way she describes it, everything that ever happens to her is either jolly or marvellous or divine or heaven or glorious or riveting or thrillingly exciting and even when something happens that is dreadful or dull, it doesn’t trouble her for long. There is an awful moment when Barker becomes the headmaster of The Leys and Sherry-Netherland is run over and killed on the very first day they arrive at the school: this is one of her ‘black moments’. Another of her ‘flies in the ointment’ is that Barker disapproves of her political career and tells her at first he wants nothing to do with it. And then there is the time when she makes her maiden speech in the House of Lords and decides to use the speech to talk about incontinence, and the lack of facilities for dealing with it in old people’s homes and everyone starts to laugh at her. But even that is soon forgotten, as she leaves for dinner and ‘a hell of a party’.

The two memoirs end on very similar notes. Trumpington, four years before her death, looks with gratitude on the fact that she still has ‘the most wonderful life’ and still behaves ‘rather badly’. Hosking feels ‘amazed’ and hugely grateful and relishes the life she leads, which is now enriched by the company of her partner Margaret. She rejoices at the increasing number of women ‘in all walks of life’. Her book, she says, is a record of ‘the now changed world that has so enriched my long and fortunate life’. But at moments, the pluckiness both women exemplify can be wearing, going along as it does with a failure to question the values of the world they find themselves in. Sometimes ‘spirit’ is nothing more than denial, projected outwards as jolliness. But some things, at least, have improved since the 1950s. Women now are allowed to be depressed, allowed to be gay, allowed to wear a hat that makes a man look and feel small, allowed to go to a party and admit they had a terrible time. When they feel the earth shake, they are allowed to stop eating and run.