Dame Stella Rimington - In Conversation with Judith Roberts

by Judith Roberts on 28 February 2018


From MI5 to Crime NovelistDame Stella Rimington

Stella Rimington was the first female Director General of MI5, serving from 1992-1996. She was born in London and spent her childhood years in the North of England and the Midlands, where she attended Nottingham High School for Girls. She went on to read English at the University of Edinburgh and Archive Administration at the University of Liverpool. She later travelled to India with her husband and after two years began working at the High Commission in Delhi as assistant to one of the First Secretaries, who was also the representative of MI5 in India. Dame Stella is a published author, having recently completed her tenth novel. She was the Chair of Judges for the 2011 Man Booker prize.

What is your connection with Lucy Cavendish College? Do you think that a dedicated women’s college still has a part to play in a university that is keen to present a modern image?

I am an Honorary Fellow of the College, invited to the role by Veronica Sutherland, whom I knew from her time at the Foreign Office. I first heard about Lucy Cavendish College when I met Pauline Perry, who was at that time the College President, and I quickly recognised its value in supporting women who want to return to study.  As a dedicated women’s college, it will always have an important role to play in understanding the needs of women students, many of whom have quite complex lives, often with dependent children.

You read English at University, I believe. Did a study of literature played any significant role in your Secret Service career?

There was no direct connection, but the value of studying arts subjects is that they give people an ability to organise material, order one’s thoughts and to write critically. This has been particularly important in a career where it was necessary to be able to sift information, to select what is relevant, to present a coherent argument and to make a case.

In retrospect, was there anything in your childhood or adolescence that indicated the path your career would take – e.g. a fascination with spy books, secrets or role-play?

When I was growing up women were not expected to have careers. With my family background it seemed inevitable that I would go into public service – my father had a strong sense of duty. Actually, I only became involved with MI5 by chance, through working as the clerk/typist for the MI5 representative in India.

I have always enjoyed reading spy novels and crime stories, especially Georges Simenon, who has a very convincing understanding of the criminal mind. I am also a great admirer of the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers. I read Rudyard Kipling’s Kim in preparation for going to India, where I was initially in the role of ‘diplomatic wife’.

What were the most rewarding aspects of your MI5 career – and the most daunting?

My time in India was often very exciting – for instance we once drove from New Delhi to Kabul over the Khyber Pass, a journey which wouldn’t be possible now.

When I returned to Britain I began a full-time career with MI5. In those days women were very much in a support role and I could not have expected to have a significant career. I worked first in counter espionage, trying to detect Soviet and East European spies and later against terrorism, mainly, in those days, from the IRA who were attacking targets on the British mainland. Terrorists were less difficult to detect in those days than they are now. Then, they tended to work in structured organisations that are easier for intelligence services to detect than the isolated individual or small group, radicalised on the internet, apparently working alone and planning attacks from the anonymity of their bedrooms, which are a feature of today’s terrorism. Working to counter terrorists is a stressful job. Our intelligence services can never know everything and it can be very depressing if something is missed and the bomb goes off. However it is also very satisfying if an attack can be prevented.

Was being a woman a help, a hindrance, or was it irrelevant in your career in the Secret Service?

I think it was definitely a hindrance at the beginning of my career in MI5. I met those who believed that women hadn’t got the necessary skills or personality to be anything more than helpers. In their minds there would have been no question of a woman reaching senior positions.

Gradually, however, the world began to change and sometimes being a woman added a ‘rarity value’ which helped one to stand out and be listened to. Unfortunately, it’s still difficult for women, particularly those with children, to work at a high level and they have to work extremely hard to keep everything together and overcome these barriers.

How have you developed the skills to cope with personal criticism, which has sometimes been very sharp and very public?

This is always difficult for people in public life. It is important to have the support of those around you, personally and professionally. One also needs to be satisfied with what you’ve done: the decisions taken and actions carried out. Other than that, we just have to put up with criticism as part of the job; there’s no point in wilting or complaining when things get tough. I rarely read reviews of my work, but I did value the opinions of those around me, which sometimes led me to sit back and consider my decisions and actions.

Has it been a welcome change for you to leave the ‘actual world’ of MI5 and immerse yourself in writing fiction, creating the character of Liz Carlyle, based on your personal experiences but without the responsibilities of your own career?

Writing my novels has been liberating, especially as I’ve grown older. I find writing fiction so satisfying and it has led to many interesting experiences. I travel to literary festivals and meet a wide range of interesting people; to meet readers who are really interested in my characters and ask what’s going to happen next to them gives a great sense of achievement.

Many of our readers are under- and post-grad students at the beginning of their careers. What advice would you give to aspirational young women as they face their future?

The most important advice I could give is to be yourself – don’t try to emulate men in order to succeed in your chosen career. I also believe that it’s really important for girls to resist being stereotyped while they are still at school or university, as there are many possible careers out there, many of which you won’t have even heard about. Avoid turning down possibilities that present themselves, as often they can lead on to interesting futures. Look at what you can offer and don’t underestimate your positive qualities.

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