A farewell to Trumpington
| Interview: Rob Orchard |
On 10th November 2011, Baroness Trumpington of Sandwich, Dame Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, was caught on camera sticking two fingers up at Lord King of Bridgwater after he made a joke about her age in the House of Lords. It was to this moment of spirited retaliation that the baroness attributed her invitation to appear as a guest on Britain’s most popular satirical panel show at the age of 90.
“I first saw Jean on the telly, on Have I Got News for You,” says Georgina Morley, non-fiction editorial director at Picador. “I thought, ‘Christ, you’re marvellous. I love you to bits.’” The appearance – in which Trumpington sparred with comedian Jack Whitehall, asked if she could go home midway through and joked about enjoying cigars after sex – captured the public imagination and gave Morley an idea. “I wrote to her at the House of Lords. I said, ‘Dear Baroness Trumpington, perhaps you would like to write a memoir.’ So I then got this letter on House of Lords notepaper, in a rather quavery blue Biro, saying, ‘Dear Miss Morley, you may buy me lunch in the new year. Yours, Trumpington.’”
The lunch went well. “She whirled in, all six foot of her, sat down and pointed at my glass and said, ‘Is that white wine?’” says Morley. “I said, ‘No, but we can get some.’ ‘Thank God for that!’ she said. Then we were off. She had so many stories to tell about her life. At one point she pulled an enormous medal out of her handbag that she’d been given by the Mongolian government when she visited the country as a minister, just after the revolution in 1990. She liked Mongolia. She said ‘The air was marvellous. It was like champagne.’”
Morley introduced Trumpington to writer Deborah Crewe, who would ghostwrite the memoir based on interviews with the baroness. “Deborah would cycle down to Battersea to meet with Jean, and occasionally be shouted at because she didn’t know who Jean was talking about,” says Morley. Ground rules were laid down: Trumpington did not want to talk about the detail of her political life and would not discuss the Queen, for whom she had been a baroness-in-waiting.
The memoir, Coming Up Trumps, tells the story of a woman who packed an inordinate amount into her 96 years. She was born into a wealthy family that lost almost everything in the Wall Street Crash when she was eight. Her parents sent her to a seemingly endless procession of different schools where, as a teenager, she rebelled against the hearty, jolly-hockey-sticks atmosphere. “I used to go with the local boys into the woods…” she wrote. “There was no sex, but a lot of smoking.” At 15 she was packed off to a finishing school in France, which marked the beginning of what Morley describes as “that sort of rackety, Mitford-y existence which was possible if you were middle class and privileged.”
“There was also this wonderful freedom she had to be absolutely herself. Complete authenticity”
When the war came, after a short period as a Land Girl on the farm of former prime minister David Lloyd George, Trumpington was recruited aged 18 to work at Bletchley Park, at the heart of the Allies’ intelligence operation. Here she was set to work transcribing German naval codes. The experience, she wrote, was “a mix of the deathly dull and the thrillingly exciting. When we weren’t working hard we were being extremely naughty.” When things got quiet she and her friends would push each other down the corridor at great speeds in the laundry basket on wheels that was used to move secret files around the complex.
After the war, Trumpington embarked on a series of adventures. She worked in Paris for an organisation created to repair Europe’s destroyed infrastructure, in London for a Tory MP and in New York at an advertising agency. She met Jackie Bouvier, future wife of JFK, at the running of the bulls in Pamplona, made Nancy Mitford laugh by accidentally dropping one of her own earrings in a bowl of soup and had dinner with the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy, a “loud and unlikeable” man. “She certainly landed on her feet in lots of places,” says Morley. “But she also made her own luck.”
In 1952, Trumpington met her future husband Alan Barker, a master at Eton. They were married and in 1955 had a child, Adam, before moving to Cambridge where Barker took up a job as headmaster in a private school. “This was undoubtedly her happiest time,” says Morley. “She told this wonderful story about one Speech Day, all the formal bits had happened, and she jumped in the swimming pool fully clothed, and all the boys followed her. People used to come up to her in the street, donkey’s years later, and say, ‘Mrs Barker, I’m Miles Minor. I was in the fourth form when you jumped in the pool.’ She loved it.”
Trumpington became a magistrate, a city councillor for the Conservatives and later mayor of Cambridge. She failed to get selected as a parliamentary candidate, but was made the UK delegate to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, a job she particularly enjoyed, she wrote, because “it gave me a friend in every country in the world”.
In 1980, Margaret Thatcher made Trumpington a life peer. She chose a French phrase for her official motto: ‘gagne tout, sans atout’ – ‘win everything, no trumps’ – and selected the title Baroness Trumpington of Sandwich (the other option, which she rejected, was to take the name of her home village, Six Mile Bottom).
“Jean said that Mrs Thatcher was always very kind to her,” says Morley. “Thatcher admired the fact that Jean got on with things. And Jean admired the fact that Thatcher made the party electable when it really hadn’t been. And of course a lot of blokes were frightened of Thatcher, and Jean wasn’t.” Thatcher invited Trumpington to join the government as a whip in 1983, and she accepted, later becoming a minister. The work, she said, gave her a sense of purpose after her beloved husband, Alan, died in 1988.
Later, when Thatcher had been forced out by her cabinet and elevated to the House of Lords, she would sometimes be shunned by people she had sacked while prime minister. Seeing this, Trumpington would make sure always to go and keep her company on the privy councillors’ bench. When Thatcher died, Trumpington was invited on Have I Got News for You once again but pulled out at the last minute when she realised the plan was to make fun of her friend and mentor. “I did have to cause a terrible scene, but sometimes you have to stand up for something,” she wrote.
Baroness Trumpington died on 26th November at the age of 96. “Jean’s gift for friendship and her loyalty are two of the key things that stood out for me,” says Morley, looking back on their time together. “There was also this wonderful freedom she had to be absolutely herself. Complete authenticity. Whatever life dealt her she made the best of it – and found a way to have a laugh.”
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