August 14, 2012

GENTLEWOMAN BEHAVING BADLY:

Baroness Trumpington: 'At my age I don't give a damn what I say' : From cracking U-boat codes to flicking a V-sign in the Lords, the formidable 89-year-old Baroness Trumpington has done it her way (Elizabeth Grice, 14 Aug 2012, The Telegraph)


At nearly 6ft tall, dressed in a pale grey suit and black patent shoes and trailing a cloud of Paloma Picasso perfume, she is almost too magnificent for domestic life, gracious though her style of domesticity is. People like to caricature her as stentorian, and it's true that her voice leaves no corner of the House of Lords chamber unscoured, but in her quieter moments I have never heard anyone speak with such a lovely intonation.

Where most people have family photographs, she has a storyboard of modern British history: a warmly signed photo of John Major, a picture of her with Ted Heath, a framed letter from Gordon Brown, thanking her for "the vital service" she performed for the country at Bletchley Park during the war. In another photo, resplendent in Royal Mail red, she is next-but-one to the Queen at a state banquet. What was Her Majesty like to talk to? "Cosy."

Then there is the black-and-white image of her inspecting raspberry canes with Lloyd George, when she was a land girl on his Sussex farm in 1940. "I hated being a land girl," she says. "There were only old men there. The young ones had joined up. And it was all apples. No animals, which I love. I lived in Miss Stevenson's bungalow [Lloyd George's mistress and later wife]. I liked her very much."

The land girl episode was mercifully brief, releasing Baroness Trumpington -- or Jean Campbell-Harris, as she was then -- for more exciting duties at the cipher intelligence centre at Bletchley Park. She is free now to talk about how she helped to crack the German U-boat code, but decades of imposed silence have calcified into habit. "You can -- but you can't," she says. "None of us can because we have kept quiet for so long. The shifts were the worst thing: nine to six, four to midnight, midnight to nine. You could never get a sleep pattern. I was tired all the time."

That didn't stop her hitch-hiking to London on 48-hour leaves and dancing all night.

Just as it seems as if the subject of Bletchley has run out of steam, she remembers a "very unsuitable" incident from those days. She and her small group specialising in the analysis of German naval signals were punished for singing the Horst-Wessel-Lied, the Nazi Party's anthem. "You had nothing to do but work so you got up to mischief," she explains. "I know the whole thing."

Suddenly, she breaks into song: "Die Fahne hoch! Die Reiten fest geschlossen! Very naughty, but we were very young."

Anyone who has kept up with the long life and energetic times of the Conservative life peer will know that naughtiness has not been confined to her youth. Only a few months ago, she was captured on camera giving a two-finger sign to Lord King of Bridgwater when he unwisely (and incorrectly, as it happens) referred to her as looking "pretty old" during a Remembrance Day debate.

Twitter fans made her a celebrity overnight. At first she tried to pretend that her fingers had flown up involuntarily, or that she was primping her hair, but she knew it was no good. "It was entirely between him and me -- I thought. I wasn't conscious of there being television [cameras there]. I did that [she repeats the gesture with faux innocence] to his face. His family say he is famous now."

And her gesture has enriched the English idiom. Richard Ingrams, editor of The Oldie magazine, wrote of an obstructive female Morris dancer recently: "I couldn't resist giving her a Baroness Trumpington." Age and a certain bullying charm have licensed her to behave badly when she wants to get her own way in the Lords.


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Posted by at August 14, 2012 2:52 PM
  

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