From Barbara Hosking’s personal collection
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“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.

“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 The red cardigan has been replaced by a light wool duck-egg jumper today.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.


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.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Blood, blades and bitter: how ice hockey bloomed in 1980s Britain

In ailing northern towns, amateur ice hockey brought violence and validation to a generation of young men.

If you scarfed your evening tea – cold Sunday lunch meats, a scoop of pease pudding, perhaps – and got down early, you could claim seats so close to the action that you might feel on your face the cooling spray of tiny ice chips cleaved by gleaming blades suddenly braking. Here, in the front row of a semi-dilapidated, sub-zero warehouse nicknamed The Shed – where there were no Perspex protective barriers, and where a six-ounce black puck of vulcanised rubber once shot over our heads and into the jaw of a woman behind us – you could see blood from broken noses and split lips, dripping a brilliant trail of red across the cold blue mirror of Durham Ice Rink. In the recession-hit north-east of England in the 1980s, life didn’t get more thrilling.

The Pyeongchang Olympics, with its ramps, sleighs, rifles and Lycra-coated bodies being hurled down mountains with almost suicidal abandon – and where heroes retain an air of mystery behind mirrored masks and goggles – has reminded us that the winter Games offer a much more surreal and glamorous spectacle than their sweaty summer cousin. North and South Korea can unite on one issue at least: ice hockey, with the two countries fielding a women’s team simply called Korea.

Watching the Games has prompted a Proustian deluge of memories in me, to a time when a grubbier, more knockabout domestic incarnation of the sport enjoyed a rapid rise in popularity following the formation of the British Hockey League (BHL) in 1980, an era now regarded as the glory years.

This chapter of recent sporting history has barely been told, and I know why: the popularity of UK ice hockey existed predominantly away from the gaze of London’s media, and took seed in those ailing post-industrial provincial heartlands suffering the most under Margaret Thatcher’s government. Its top outfits came from places such as Billingham, Whitley Bay, Dundee, Kirkcaldy and my home town of Durham, where the club Durham Wasps enjoyed a golden run. Second-tier teams came from Telford, Gillingham and Sunderland while London Raiders (formerly Romford Raiders) rarely troubled the BHL’s Premier Division. Crucially, its stars were working men who held down jobs – if they had them – during the week. They were mechanics and electricians. They drove forklift trucks or sold wet fish on the markets. Some were just out of school, teenagers intent on glory among peers. They got paid little, took cold showers.

With hindsight, the success of Durham Wasps and their arch regional rivals, Whitley Warriors, was clearly tied in with the collapse of the key industries of coal mining and shipbuilding. Durham may be known for its university, but beyond the city were miles of mining heartland, where entire communities had been devoted to divining the dusky diamonds. Coal was the currency that fuelled an empire, while the shipyards at the mouth of the River Wear in Sunderland had built vessels that sailed the world.

During the Wasps’ 1980s boom-time, that all changed. The year-long miners’ strike of 1984-85 had failed to halt Thatcher’s hostile closures of the pits, while employee numbers in the British Shipbuilders Corporation dropped from 87,000 in 1977 to 5,000 in 1987. Fit and functioning men now found themselves without purpose, victims of an ideological vendetta.

“Geographically, the north-east became a ghost town, haunted by absences – of jobs, factories and pits, and people, as folk moved away to find work elsewhere,” says Katy Shaw who, as professor of contemporary writings at Northumbria University, has written extensively on the miners’ strike and its legacies. “Once the industrial heartlands had been ripped out of the region, the anomie that followed forced the working class to reassess their identity and purpose in the face of an uncertain future.”

***

The sport of ice hockey reflected the toughness of these collapsing worlds, and the anger of their disenfranchised. Games were violent and nasty, perhaps the closest the country ever came to a legitimate blood sport before cage-fighting offered an alternative outlet for working-class rage. The ice rink was the arena in which heroes and villains were made, each week a new drama. A player for Ayr Bruins in Scotland once reportedly faked a heart attack in the dressing room rather than return to a particularly bloody battle.

Built in 1940 from mottled corrugate, concrete and wood from unused coffins, the home of Durham Wasps was a notoriously rough building pitched by a river the colour of over-stewed tea. It was just half a mile from the Norman cathedral, a World Heritage site and architectural masterpiece, but when the autumn river mist drifted in through its many broken windows there was an ethereal quality to the on-ice conflicts, watched by more than three thousand tightly-packed people and several cooing pigeons. Its owners were the Smith family – headed by the near-mythical entrepreneur JJ “Icy” Smith, who made his money selling blocks of ice during the 1930s – with the team established in 1946 by Canadian airmen stationed nearby during the war.

The family were frugal, pocketing large gate receipts from overcapacity crowds evenly split between men, women and children. In the early days, a dog behind the goal would frequently bite the opposition’s shirts, and even in the 1980s overhead heaters were lit with a burning rag attached to an old hockey stick.

I played a little hockey myself, training midweek with a junior team called the Midges, and then hitting the rink’s disco on Friday night (key song: “Opportunities” by Pet Shop Boys), where the cafe sold half-cooked chips and the ice-skates that newcomers hired were so useless they were dubbed “death wellies”.

Ben Myers in ice hockey gear aged 11 in 1987

Most fans would readily admit that the match highlights were the fights enjoyed at close quarters. There was none of the theatrics of Saturday wrestling, which had enjoyed a resurgence a decade earlier thanks to odd and often unathletic personalities such as Big Daddy or the Yorkshire pig-keeper, Les Kellett. Ice hockey was more accessible than boxing, too, and there was no room for prima donnas as in football. When two players decided to go at it, officials let them.

These battles were ritualistic, the combatants initially circling on the ice like two starved bantams thrown into a medieval cockpit, before the frantic wrangling of shirts pulled over heads, helmets tossed aside and fists thrown.

In these moments, ice hockey entered a strange, lawless hinterland, the referees gauging the grapple to allow just enough violence to provide catharsis for a crowd baying for their man to knock out his southern opponent, wipe the smirk off his handsome Canuck face, or rip his balls off and shove them down his Scottish throat. And all the while soundtracked by over-amplified jingles such as Gary Glitter’s “I’m the Leader of the Gang (I Am!)”. Referees would halt fights shortly after one or both plucky scrappers were hurt. It was ugly but honest, the players fearless superheroes providing colour in a monochrome world of dole queue drudgery.

***

Few such communal spaces in which the northern working man might verbalise his anxieties, doubts or depression existed 30 years ago. Hockey was one popular outlet. “Heavy industry offered a culturally specific form of masculinity, one that was decimated with the closure of the pits and shipyards,” says Katy Shaw. “The resulting social, political and economic crisis meant that sports – particularly team sports rooted in working-class communities – became a significant source of male identity.”

The language surrounding depression and what we might today broadly identify as a “crisis of masculinity” was entirely different in the 1980s.  My grandfather, a shopkeeper in nearby Houghton-le-Spring, a mining town where the pit closed in 1981, kept his depression a secret outside of the family and took his own life shortly after retirement in 1985. Antidepressant medication was in its infancy, too; anyone suffering from a loss of self-worth did so in silence.

The game fulfilled a need for heroes you could relate to, people who ached and creaked when they rose for work on Monday. Crucial to the team were a selection of Canadian imports. While millions of Britons were at home watching Songs of Praise, we were putting our faith in the likes of the stately, stoic defenceman Mike O’ Connor, or industrious goal-stealer Rick Brebant, decent-looking compared to the local players who had moustaches, missing teeth, and diets of stodge and Newcastle Brown.

During televised games, the Canadians brought speed, guile and a weight of sporting history with them, yet always with an unspoken awareness that their exotic otherness was perhaps tainted with failure back home. Why else would anyone move to the north-east of England in 1986? Had they not seen Auf Wiedersehen, Pet?

The Wasps won a string of trophies into the next decade, and some foreign players built lives in England, though my own short-lived hockey career ended when I lost a kidney in an unrelated injury.

A corporate buyout and attempted relocation to Newcastle in the 1990s killed Durham Wasps. The importance of localisation – so key to the identity of the team’s supporters during times of economic turmoil – was lost on its new owners. After turbulent years of perilous finances, the sport continues in the Elite Ice Hockey League, though it receives less media coverage. Durham Ice Rink became a bowling alley and was then razed in 2013 to make way for an office block. There is no trace of it today.

Ben Myers’s latest novel, “These Darkening Days”, is published by Moth/Mayfly.

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia