Book review: Coming Up Trumps by Jean Trumpington

Coming Up Trumps by Jean Trumpington
Coming Up Trumps by Jean Trumpington

She may be a wartime code breaker and a distinguished Conservative politician but a lasting memory of Baroness Trumpington will be her barely disguised V-sign to a fellow member of the House of Lords in 2011.

The then 89-year-old peer became an internet hit with her rude gesture to Lord King when he made reference to her advanced age during the course of a Remembrance Day debate.

Jean Alys Barker, the 6ft daughter of an officer in the Bengal Lancers and an American heiress, is what is often termed ‘a real character,’ a woman of immense wit, inner strength and resourcefulness who still retains a beguiling air of vulnerability born out of her loveless childhood.

In a typically forthright and honest memoir, Baroness Trumpington, now aged 91, relates her extraordinary life story, including war work at Bletchley Park, a spell with advertising’s ‘mad men’ on New York’s Madison Avenue and a career in politics.

Jean Campbell-Harris (as she was then) was born into a world of wealth and privilege in October 1922 and, with her typical trenchant humour, recalls that her birth announcement in The Times appeared on the same day that friends of her parents announced the ‘thrilling news’ that they had changed their telephone number.

Her early years were physically comfortable but emotionally sparse. There were no demonstrations of love and certainly no hugs, and she never confided in her remote parents, practically having to call them ‘sir and ma’am.’

When the 1929 Wall Street Crash entirely wiped out her mother’s fortune, their expensive London home was sold, their money and wonderful lifestyle disappeared and suddenly they had nothing.

However, in the aristocratic circles of 1920s London, being poor was merely relative with Jean’s family retaining a boy to clean their shoes and a gardener cum chauffeur living in a mews at the back of their new home.

‘We used to say my mother’s idea of being poor was going to the Ritz on a bus,’ recalls the baroness.

Leaving school at fifteen, without ever taking an exam, Jean, who had two brothers, was the girl that her parents ‘didn’t quite know what to do with’ and was packed off to Paris to study art, French and German.

Two years later, with the outbreak of the Second World War, she became a land girl on the Surrey farm owned by former Prime Minister and family friend David Lloyd George but, after completing a secretarial course, she joined naval intelligence at Bletchley Park where she spent the rest of the war in a team devoted to German naval codes.

After the war she worked first in Paris where she met the mysterious ‘American,’ a man she fell desperately in love with but who only regarded Jean as a firm friend, and then in New York, on Madison Avenue, with advertising’s notorious ‘mad men.’

And it was in New York that she met her husband, the historian and schoolteacher Alan Barker, and their marriage in 1954 was the prelude to the happiest period of her life as the mother of her only son Adam and a not entirely conventional headmaster’s wife in Cambridge.

After building up a portfolio of voluntary work, Jean embarked on her long political career as a Cambridge city councillor, Mayor of Cambridge and, finally, in 1980, a life peer.

And the woman who has met every post-war prime minister from Clement Attlee to David Cameron and almost every world leader from the Queen to Fidel Castro and Robert Mugabe reckons she ‘stumbled into fascinating events without really trying’ and met formidable people ‘despite being rather dull myself.’

The truth is, of course, that the baroness is far from dull. Her irrepressible sense of fun, her love for life – and dancing – and her natural optimism make Coming Up Trumps a wonderfully entertaining and memorable account.

Even a decline in her health has failed to dampen her spirit. ‘Secretly I am still hoping for one last stately little tap-dance in top hat and tails up on a table,’ she reveals in a mischievous last word.

(Macmillan, hardback, £16.99)