THE funeral of Barbara Gatehouse, former Lord Mayor of Oxford and Labour member of the city and county councils for more than two decades, was held last week.

She was a powerful woman and you opposed her at your peril.

Tributes poured in. One stood out, from her local MP and friend Andrew Smith: “Barbara had a terrier-like dedication…she never let go until she had done absolutely everything to get a result.”

She and I crossed swords and I felt that ‘terrier-like dedication’, but we also embraced.

Barbara Gatehouse had a shrewd political mind that led her from representing the Blackbird Leys estate in 1979 to becoming one of the first women leaders of Oxford City Council in 1987.

I interviewed her at the time she reached the pinnacle of local power when she had just beaten Dr Phyllis Starkey to the top job as leader of the Labour group. She winked at me and said: “Not bad for a coalminer’s daughter to defeat someone with a doctorate, eh?”

She was passionate in her campaigns for better housing and worked at the Oxford Housing Aid Centre. It was this subject that put us on a collision course.

When I put a shark crashing through the tiles of my roof in Headington, Barbara was almost apoplectic.

“He had a perfectly good roof and he destroyed it on purpose. We have to remove this thing. It’s a disgrace.”

She was on the planning committee and chairman of the recreation and amenities committee of the city council. She had clout and people listened to her.

I remember one diatribe when she stood up in the council chamber after I had spoken and said: “I don’t listen to the words of this silver-tongued fox. I listen to my neighbours and the people I sit next to on the bus. They say that shark must come down. It is an insult and they are right.”

She was so convincing I half felt like rising to my feet and applauding.

Then about four years later when the council decided ‘yes, the shark must fall’, Barbara was instrumental in throwing a lifeline to the shark. As chairman of the recreation and amenities committee she took up the suggestion that when the shark sculpture came down, it could be offered an alternative home, as a mark of its artistic merit, and she suggested putting it at one of the city council-owned swimming pools.

It was a generous gesture even though we all know how well swimmers and sharks get on. I declined to take her up on her offer and as a result there was always a certain tension between us.

That tension came to the surface during one of my first interviews 25 years ago on BBC Radio Oxford. Barbara and two other guests were debating Oxford’s housing crisis, with me as the presenter. As usual Barbara was passionate about the subject and once she was in full flow it was hard to stop her.

She showed that ‘terrier-like dedication’. During the end of the programme we were coming up to the top of the hour and I had to ‘hit the pips’ at six seconds to two.

I indicated to Barbara she should wind up. She ignored me. I started gesticulating with both arms to get her to finish. She carried on.

Finally I picked up a copy of the Oxford Mail which was on the studio desk, opened it and rolled it into a long wand and hit Barbara on the head. That did the trick. She paused, in shock. I was able to nip in, thank all my guests, say goodbye and ‘hit the pips’.

I’m not proud of it. She is the only guest I’ve ever attacked. But sometimes ‘needs must’.

Years later I was walking down New High Street in Headington to my house, when I saw this car parked in front of my drive with some people who had got out of the car and were standing by my door having their picture taken in front of the shark, which is not unusual.

But this time there was something out of the ordinary. There was Barbara Gatehouse and her lovely and loyal husband, Roy.

Barbara looked a bit sheepish and said: “I’ve brought our guests along to see the sights of Headington.”

Then she threw her arms wide open and gave me a big hug.

I could see in her eye that special spark of fun and mischief; and I knew that over all the years when we had our differences, there was one constant thread – she had my respect.