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17 November 2017

“I didn’t know what I was”: Barbara Hosking on working in Downing Street and coming out at 91

The former aide to Harold Wilson and Edward Heath reflects on her experience as a working-class woman in a man’s world.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“Coming out at 91!” chuckles Barbara Hosking, offering 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 possibly the least interesting part of the memoir she’s just released, Exceeding My Brief – among confronting spitting cobras while working at a copper mine in Tanzania, defying Ted Heath over a sherry in No 10, and hosting a party at the Munich Olympics while negotiating a hostage situation. But that hasn’t stopped her being asked to speak at gay events now her story’s out. She has politely declined.

Barbara holds the spitting cobra. All photos: From Barbara Hosking’s personal collection​

Five minutes from the Houses of Parliament, memories of her political career are never far away in her Westminster flat. Its interior is a picture of cosy retirement pocked with her high-powered past: paintings of seascapes and fisherman from her childhood home of Cornwall follow a recent portrait of Hosking in a scarlet cardie holding a fountain pen; The Economist perches beside a Radio Times on the coffee table; and a floor-to-ceiling book case overflows.

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

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 The red cardigan has been replaced by a light wool duck-egg jumper today.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

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Barbara’s 75th birthday party with Edward Heath.

Hosking’s revelations about running Heath and Harold Wilson’s operations behind the scenes very nearly didn’t make it into print. Ten years ago, after two of her closest friends 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 want other people to have to go through all my stuff, so I just 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 back on the white sofa. “It was in a fit of fury or something.”

Luckily, her memory served her well enough to compile her recollections, which zigzag through her dizzying career of local reporting, the novelty of London working life, three years mining in Africa, Labour HQ, Whitehall, Downing Street, and the cut-throat world of television.

“We are still much too class-ridden”

But it was her difficult upbringing that was easiest to recall. “We did have a miserable childhood,” she says. Living without electricity, Hosking was not trusted to light a match – for fear of wasting it – until 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 assignment pregnant, unmarried and dismissed after six months in service.

“And then it was a catastrophe,” Hosking says, gravely. She writes of her parents’ unhappy marriage (realising her father had been unfaithful), and how her mother used to escape to lectures and cookery demonstrations held by the gas company: “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 photo.

This background makes her already remarkable career even more so. She speaks of the graduates and upper-class people she encountered – and overtook – throughout her years in politics and beyond. When a woman with an English degree from Edinburgh became 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 same problems 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 career gave her a keen 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 reflects. “And it’s a terrible thing, in that it’s endemic in this country.

She refers to her Cornish accent repeatedly in the book, from being teased for it as a scholarship girl at the local smart Methodist school she attended, to her delight at it being admired by the No 10 switchboard ladies. It’s softer now, though you can still hear the rhotic West Country “r”s.

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

Hosking believes today that this was because her family “deferred to the local squire” – a lord who lived on St Michael’s Mount – during her childhood.

In the bush by Lake Tanganyika.

But she wasn’t intimidated by people’s backgrounds, which may be how she developed an extraordinary friendship with Heath – even as a civil servant who had worked her way up the ladder via 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 man’s world still presented its challenges. “Women and boys” had to clock in and out of her first London job, at the Odeon’s in-house magazine, whereas men were free to come and go as they pleased (when she was promoted above this system, she felt “I wasn’t a senior woman, I was an honorary man”).

With her Hudson Terraplane.

While working for the Labour party (which she finds has more of a “misogynist streak” than the Tories), she recalls men shouting out “petticoat rule!” during meetings about council candidate selections to rule out any woman trying to stand. At the IBA, she discovered her male deputy was paid a higher salary, and was labelled a “suffragette” when she brought it up. And she experienced an unwanted “very, very heavy pass” in one workplace she won’t name.

She believed she worked in “a climate of acceptance” when it came 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 head of advertising 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 gives women today, boggling at the choices. “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 men during her career, nearly marrying a miner during a three-year stint as one of two women on a copper mine in Tanzania (“a super guy but it would have been unfair, a lie actually”), Hosking had liked women since falling in love with her schoolfriend Melvina Sowden at six years old.

With friends 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 attempt at chatting up a land girl in uniform at a railway station, and nights out to the Gateways lesbian club in Chelsea with her two landladies who were “cousins”, it was only when Hosking was working for the Labour party and met a librarian called Daphne at its headquarters who made her realise “there were lots of people like that around”.

Even so, some of her oldest friends have only just found out. “They looked at me and – ” she puts on a comic face of shock. “I’d always assumed that anybody who really knew me well would’ve known it,” she leans forward on the sofa, 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, published by Biteback Publishing.