Exceeding My Brief: Memoirs of a Disobedient Civil Servant | Barbara Hosking



When their day’s work underground was done and they made the long ascent to the surface, Cornish miners used the phrase ‘coming up to grass’. I came up to grass when I was seventy-five years old and my years of work had finally finished. Or so I thought…

I write this memoir as I look back on an unplanned career which took me light years away from the sea and the Cornish cliffs and moors of my childhood. My ambition always was to write, and to have writers as my friends. I never imagined that cinema advertising, parliamentary press releases or speeches would flow from my pen. My ambition was to be a ‘real’ writer, like the authors I met when I invited them to speak at our school or interviewed in the Isles of Scilly, or whose manuscripts I typed up at Miss Wesley’s secretarial college. Now, I have many authors among my friends, and I know first-hand how hard it is to face a blank page and write every day.

Cover cI had never expected to be professionally involved in politics, or to be a Cornish Liberal working for – indeed, becoming a supporter of – the Labour Party. I didn’t foresee that I would be offered a marginal parliamentary seat, or come to admire and like many Conservatives, both within and beyond government. And I certainly never expected to receive an honour, yet I ended up with two, first an OBE and later a CBE. In ordinary social life, there is never an opportunity to wear honours, and I envy the French who wear little ribbons in their buttonholes to show that they have been awarded the Légion d’Honneur. I think this is why the French have such good eyesight – they are trying to see what rank the recipient holds!

I had always assumed that, like the rest of my family, I would die young. Yet there I was in the early autumn of 2016 planning my ninetieth birthday party in November. For my seventy-fifth birthday, I commissioned a piece of music from Judith Bingham. It was played by the Ambache Orchestra – of which I was a board member – the only orchestra at the time run by a woman, at a party at the Reform Club. Edward Heath came along and made a speech: ‘I always did what Barbara told me – and see where it got me!’

I did not embark on this memoir with publication in mind, but because I wanted to set down my experiences of a world that has changed beyond recognition over my lifetime; in particular the world of British politics and government of which I enjoyed a worm’s-eye view. Perhaps, too, I was drawn to a nostalgic revisiting of my life, and to saluting the many extraordinary people who have populated both my working and my personal life. It is difficult to become a published writer today; the financial risks are high in an age of electronic reading, and I’m neither a celebrated cook nor a top footballer, or even famous for being famous. However, I have achieved my ambition: I have written a book and, one way or another, I will see it in print. It may not have quite the impact of the Atlantic breakers on Cornish cliffs, but I hope it will amuse my friends, and perhaps others who would like to ascend the greasy pole of the political world.

My story is, I believe, proof that life is a lottery. Health, success and love are all a matter of chance, and I grabbed the many unexpected chances which came my way. But, above all, I have been blessed with so many true friends, the sort of friends who not only enrich one’s life with their company, but give support and withhold judgement.

My life is fuller than it has ever been. In retirement, I anticipated a life filled with friends, travel, and the arts, but a life lived essentially alone. Once again I was wrong. I had known Margaret from my membership of the 300 Group, the 1980s movement founded to encourage more women to become Members of Parliament, and we were also both on the Council of the Royal Society of Arts. We became friends, but the possibility of a closer relationship had never occurred to me. Not only had she been married, but she was twenty years younger than me.

Happily, I was wrong about that, too, and in the words of the old music hall ballad:

When I thought that I was past love
It was then I met my last love
And I loved her as I’d never loved before.

I am, indeed, a fortunate woman.

Exceeding My Brief: Memoirs of a Disobedient Civil Servant | Barbara Hosking