Born into an aristocratic family in 1922, Jean Barker cracked codes in the Second World War and was a socialite in 1950s New York. She was mayor of Cambridge in 1971-72, joining the House of Lords in 1980. The Daily Mail called her “the game-show-loving, Nazi code-breaking, sex pest-defying peer”.
What’s your earliest memory?
Childhood was not my happiest time. I led a nursery life, with mother and father sweeping in to say goodnight, all dressed up to go out for the evening with their friends in the Prince of Wales’s set. I remember seeing the magnificent R101 airship flying over Hyde Park with my brothers, my nanny and my dog. I was seven years old and it was very exciting.
Who was your childhood hero?
Until I got too tall I wanted to be a ballet star and my hero was Dame Marie Rambert. I loved my tennis and Jean Borotra was also my hero. In France I met Borotra, and he asked me out for dinner, but my mother found out and, horrified, forbade me from going. I was very upset.
What was the last book that changed your thinking?
I spent many years refusing to write an autobiography, but when I did I realised how lucky I have been.
Which political figure, past or present, do you look up to?
Some might think I should say Margaret Thatcher: she put me in the Lords and gave me my jobs. While I will always be grateful for that, there can only be one answer, and that has to be Winston Churchill. While I met him a few times, the most memorable was when he spoke of Bletchley Park and said of us: “You are the geese that laid the golden eggs but never cackled.”
What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?
While I was very junior at the time, I think my knowledge of Bletchley Park will equip me to choose it as my specialist subject.
In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?
I would like to be very rich and live in London during the Victorian era.
What TV show could you not live without?
I used to demand to watch Neighbours in the House of Lords and frustrated male peers who wanted to watch Test cricket!
Who would paint your portrait?
John Ward was a wonderful friend, who in fact painted my portrait when I was mayor of Cambridge. He would be my first choice.
What’s your theme tune?
For better or worse it would be the “Chattanooga Choo Choo”. Indeed I sang it at various parliamentary music events.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
The police, when I was a justice of the peace, advised me to listen before I speak. I have followed the advice sometimes!
What’s currently bugging you?
My night-time carers. I could say more but they might read this!
What single thing would make your life better?
Getting my eyesight back. While I am stuck in a wheelchair now, the thing I miss most is being able to read.
When were you happiest?
In New York in the early 1950s when I lived above the Stork Club and had a ball.
In another life, what job might you have chosen?
A professional tennis player.
Are we all doomed?
I worry about our future but can’t reach a conclusion.
This article appears in the 04 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit