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Barbara Hosking on working in Downing Street and coming out at 91

“Coming out at 91!” chuckles Barbara Hosking, providing me a plate of chocolate digestives. “I think people want me to be out and proud, holding a banner!”

The former Downing Street aide’s sexuality is probably the least fascinating a part of the memoir she’s simply launched, Exceeding My Brief – amongst confronting spitting cobras whereas working at a copper mine in Tanzania, defying Ted Heath over a sherry in No 10, and internet hosting a celebration at the Munich Olympics whereas negotiating a hostage state of affairs. But that hasn’t stopped her being requested to talk at homosexual occasions now her story’s out. She has politely declined.


Barbara holds the spitting cobra. All photographs: From Barbara Hosking’s private assortment​

Five minutes from the Houses of Parliament, reminiscences of her political profession are by no means distant in her Westminster flat. Its inside is an image of cosy retirement pocked together with her high-powered previous: work of seascapes and fisherman from her childhood residence of Cornwall comply with a current portrait of Hosking in a scarlet cardie holding a fountain pen; The Economist perches beside a Radio Times on the espresso desk; and a floor-to-ceiling ebook case overflows.

“I just took all my diaries out and threw them away!”

Reflecting her portrait hanging in the corridor, Hosking wears wide-framed tortoiseshell spectacles, navy trousers and a faintly mischievous pursed-lipped smile. The purple cardigan has been changed by a light-weight wool duck-egg jumper at the moment. Her companion, to whom the memoir is devoted (“For Margaret, who has kept me on course for more than twenty years – so far”) brings us cups of tea.


Barbara’s 75th birthday celebration with Edward Heath.

Hosking’s revelations about operating Heath and Harold Wilson’s operations behind the scenes very almost didn’t make it into print. Ten years in the past, after two of her closest pals died, she threw all of her diaries out.

“I had to go and clear out a lot of their things; I found that quite an upsetting experience,” she tells me. “I don’t need different individuals to need to undergo all my stuff, so I simply took all my diaries out and threw them away!

“I’m inclined to go off the handle sometimes,” she says softly, sipping her tea and leaning again on the white couch. “It was in a fit of fury or something.”

Luckily, her reminiscence served her nicely sufficient to compile her recollections, which zigzag by way of her dizzying profession of native reporting, the novelty of London working life, three years mining in Africa, Labour HQ, Whitehall, Downing Street, and the cut-throat world of tv.

“We are still much too class-ridden”

But it was her troublesome upbringing that was best to recall. “We did have a miserable childhood,” she says. Living with out electrical energy, Hosking was not trusted to mild a match – for worry of losing it – till she was seven.

The second of three sisters and a brother, she writes of the “misery at home” in Cornwall after her disciplinarian father, who ran a dairy, went bankrupt in the Thirties and her elder sister Peggy returned from a Women’s Royal Naval Service task pregnant, single and dismissed after six months in service.

“And then it was a catastrophe,” Hosking says, gravely. She writes of her mother and father’ sad marriage (realising her father had been untrue), and how her mom used to flee to lectures and cookery demonstrations held by the fuel firm: “The gas cooker was also a convenient way out for those women who could no longer bear their often brutal lives… battered wives and beaten children.”

An early passport photograph.

This background makes her already exceptional profession much more so. She speaks of the graduates and upper-class individuals she encountered – and overtook – all through her years in politics and past. When a lady with an English diploma from Edinburgh turned her PA, she knew she’d “made it”, she grins.

Over seventy years since she moved to London at the age of 21, she sees the identical issues with social mobility. “We are still much too class-ridden,” she says. “You can see it in every one of our establishments, our institutions. It’s this feeling of entitlement.”

“I’d been bullied by Nye Bevan, I wasn’t going to be deferential to anyone”

Hosking’s profession gave her a eager sense of social injustice. “You can tell a person’s class or their background by their haircut, by their shoes, they don’t have to open their mouths,” she displays. “And it’s a horrible factor, in that it’s endemic in this nation.

She refers to her Cornish accent repeatedly in the e-book, from being teased for it as a scholarship woman at the native sensible Methodist faculty she attended, to her delight at it being admired by the No 10 switchboard women. It’s softer now, although you’ll be able to nonetheless hear the rhotic West Country “r”s.

But even many years in to her profession, when she was director of data at the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), she writes: “Tiresomely, I still found it difficult not to defer to an aristocratic voice.”

Hosking believes right now that this was as a result of her household “deferred to the local squire” – a lord who lived on St Michael’s Mount – throughout her childhood.


In the bush by Lake Tanganyika.

But she wasn’t intimidated by individuals’s backgrounds, which can be how she developed a unprecedented friendship with Heath – whilst a civil servant who had labored her method up the ladder by way of Labour HQ. “I’d been bullied by Nye Bevan, I wasn’t going to be deferential to anyone, which is why I got on with Ted Heath,” she laughs.

Yet working in a person’s world nonetheless introduced its challenges. “Women and boys” needed to clock in and out of her first London job, at the Odeon’s in-house journal, whereas males have been free to return and go as they happy (when she was promoted above this technique, she felt “I wasn’t a senior woman, I was an honorary man”).


With her Hudson Terraplane.

While working for the Labour get together (which she finds has extra of a “misogynist streak” than the Tories), she recollects males shouting out “petticoat rule!” throughout conferences about council candidate alternatives to rule out any lady making an attempt to face. At the IBA, she found her male deputy was paid a better wage, and was labelled a “suffragette” when she introduced it up. And she skilled an undesirable “very, very heavy pass” in one office she gained’t identify.

She believed she labored in “a climate of acceptance” when it got here to sexual misconduct. “A lot of young people felt – or took it – as flattery. You were being flattered,” she says. “It’s good that women are not now accepting abuse, though some of the terms are a bit difficult to understand. If somebody stroked my bottom as I was passing, I wouldn’t call that abuse. A bit out of order, maybe. Is that abusive? I don’t know.”


Barbara with the top of promoting at the IBA.

But Hosking is delighted by Britain’s progress in women’s rights – “in my day, if a girl got into university it would be in the local papers!” – and the “physical freedom” contraception provides women in the present day, boggling at the alternatives. “There’s one you can just inject for the year! Well, I didn’t know that. I never needed to know that, really!” she laughs.

“I didn’t know what I was, it took me a long time”

While she did have affairs with males throughout her profession, almost marrying a miner throughout a three-year stint as one among two women on a copper mine in Tanzania (“a super guy but it would have been unfair, a lie actually”), Hosking had favored women since falling in love together with her schoolfriend Melvina Sowden at six years previous.


With pals Katharine Whitehorn, Heather Brigstock and Mary Baker.

“I didn’t know what I was, I didn’t know what it was about,” she says. “It took me a long time.” Barring a humorously clumsy try at chatting up a land woman in uniform at a railway station, and nights out to the Gateways lesbian membership in Chelsea together with her two landladies who have been “cousins”, it was solely when Hosking was working for the Labour get together and met a librarian referred to as Daphne at its headquarters who made her realise “there were lots of people like that around”.

Even so, a few of her oldest associates have solely simply discovered out. “They looked at me and – ” she places on a comic book face of shock. “I’d always assumed that anybody who really knew me well would’ve known it,” she leans ahead on the couch, eyebrows raised. “I didn’t talk about it, it was just an assumption, because, you know, what’s it got to do with the price of fish?”

Exceeding My Brief: Memoirs of a Disobedient Civil Servant by Barbara Hosking is out on 21 November, revealed by Biteback Publishing.


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