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Monday 21st November 2011 | 14:59
The refined red benches of the House of Lords have never seen anything like it. When the 89 year-old Conservative peer Baroness Trumpington let Lord King know precisely what she thought of his slight on her age, she unwittingly became cult online viewing: the two-fingered salute has rarely been so effectively, or surprisingly deployed.
I met her a few days later, with the Baroness telling me that she spent part of the previous day sitting with Lord King and "telling each other naughty stories, much to everyone’s amusement". However, that gesture appears to have caught the imagination.
A passing colleague flicks a jocular v-sign in her direction, prompting Baroness Trumpington to respond in kind, but her celebrity status has left her baffled.
"It’s embarrassing – particularly the reason," she explains, before admitting that the gesture was precisely what it looked like.
"Yes, I’m afraid it was, at the time, but when the first telephone call came in, I just said: ‘Oh, good gracious no, my hand must have gone up.’"
The calls haven’t stopped: twice during our interview an attendant drops by with a message from a national newspaper.
"When the first telephone call came through I thought this will go away. It can’t possibly do anything but go away."
Because, as she promised when I asked her for an interview: "There’s more to me than this, you know?"
Jean Campbell-Harris was born in 1922. As a schoolgirl her ambition was to "leave school", and her mother luckily obliged.
"She was very sensible, and thought that as there might be a war, it was important to learn languages. So I went to live in France, where I painted, played tennis, and learned to be a good French daughter."
She left Paris when the Second World War began, and was in Canterbury Cathedral when war was declared. "There was a siren 20 minutes later, and you should have seen the clergy skip down to the cellars."
When her family home in Kent was requisitioned, she was sent to stay with a friend of her mother’s, the daughter of former prime minister, David Lloyd George.
"I was sent to be a land girl, and I lived with the then Miss Stevenson, who married him in the end. I’d have lunch with the old boy when the family were there." She describes Lloyd George as "gaga in bits, and brilliant in others – but I think he was a bit scared of going to London because he didn’t like the bombs". However, age did not entirely wither the old man. "I was very young, but he had a certain reputation with the ladies," says the Baroness.
Even in his 80s? "Especially in old age," she adds.
The Baroness next stayed with a great uncle in Sunningdale, where, after a German squadron had dropped a cargo of bombs, she spent six terrified months sleeping under the stairs. Then, after secretarial college, she joined the team of code-breakers at Bletchley Park in 1941.
She describes her time there as "a very unnatural kind of life – you did your job, you had great friends with the people you worked with, but you didn’t really have friends outside". Worst of all, the Baroness adds, weekly shift timings left it impossible to settle on a sleeping pattern.
However, she still found the energy to "rush up to London – either hitch-hiking or by train. Cigarettes cost nothing, men paid for your drinks, and I danced all night."
She recalls an "incredible" atmosphere when the German U-boat codes were cracked, even if Bletchley’s geniuses weren’t overly gregarious. "The specialists, who were probably in crossword puzzles, weren’t terribly sociable.
"After the war, I walked past one of the men who had been in the same hut. In a horrible, schoolgirl way, we used to tease him. He took one look at me and ran."
Throughout, secrets were never shared. "It was so drilled into you, that I still can’t talk about it," she admits. "I can when I’m with the others, and we all feel the same way." She says herformer colleagues provide a "safety valve of brotherhood.
We used to meet once a year, but I’m afraid they are nearly all dead now. I only know two who are alive."
After the war, the Foreign Office sent the Baroness to Paris, with an organisation charged with "putting the transport of Europe back on its feet." It was, she says "two marvellous years – I organised their flats, parties, hotels, and transport." She then returned to the UK and worked as a secretary to Lord Hinchingbrooke, then MP for South Dorset – a time when bomb damage meant MPs sat in the Lords – and later the Earl of Sandwich, whom she describes as "one of the best looking men I have ever seen".
Her husband’s teaching took the couple from Eton to Yale, and then Cambridge, where the Baroness’s involvement in local politics saw her become mayor of the city in 1971. She also knew the local MP, who for a time served as PPS to Harold Macmillan. She describes the former prime minister, whom she met often, as "an unhappy and nervous man", but despite moving in political circles, the Barones says she was "far too busy" to stand for Parliament.
Instead her career took in the board of visitors at Pentonville, the UN, a mental health tribunal at Broadmoor, and a stint as chairman of the Airline Users Committee.
But in 1980, Margaret Thatcher made her the only woman in her first honours list. As the newcomer, the Baroness gave speeches at the state opening – "the typists, who were my pals, sweetly typed it up and left out the bit about the Queen… sweat poured from every pore" – and later at a dinner for Thatcher. "I tried a joke and she didn’t laugh because she had no sense of humour. After that it was terrible."
However, the two women developed a mutual respect.
"If I didn’t agree with her I told her, and we would have terrible arguments. I remember a man sitting between us at dinner who thought we would hit each other. But she never fired me."Indeed, after steering an "enormous social security bill which I hardly understood" through the Lords, the Baroness was summoned to see the PM.
"I had just ordered 21 Pimms for the civil servants, but you should have seen me run down the corridor," the Baroness recalls.
"We talked about the fact that Alec Douglas-Home wouldn’t accept a government car and that I drove him home in my battered Ford because we lived in the same block of flats – quite ludicrous – and I then said something sucking-up like ‘you are a pretty super prime minister’. She tapped me on the shoulder and said: ‘You’re not so bad yourself old girl.’ I have always treasured that."
After working as a junior health minister alongside the intriguing pairing of Edwina Currie – "God help us" – and John Major, the Baroness became the oldest female minister ever when she switched to Defra at 69. She was moved to the whips’ office by John Major, and describes her final government job as "absolute heaven – I was doing the arts, so I took advantage of every opportunity I could to go and see all the places I had longed to see – and as a VIP.
"I went up in a cradle to the top of the Albert Memorial, and my woman driver said she didn’t like it. I told her to jump or shut up. It was all just a wonderful opportunity."
Her husband, who passed away in 1988, enjoyed visiting the Upper House, "putting drinks on my bill and being called ‘My Lord’". The Baroness then adds, laughing at the memory: "There was a slight frisson when a Mr Barker and Lady Trumpington shared a room in a hotel."
At 89, she attends the Lords most days, and is determined to see "the disappearance of those tents in Parliament Square", and, for health reasons, the legalisation of brothels. "We’re crazy not to. I went round one in Singapore, though it was very hard to tell which was the man and which the woman."
She laughs again. It’s the laugh of someone who has had the most entertaining and interesting of lives. It may have taken a splendid put-down to have brought her to attention again but, as she promised, there really is so much more to Baroness Trumpington.
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Summaries and transcripts from TV and radio
25/05/2013 on BBC News
25/05/2013 on Week in Westminster, BBC Radio 4
25/05/2013 on Week In Westminster, BBC Radio 4