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4 May 2022

Stella Rimington Q&A: “In another life I’d be home secretary”

The former head of MI5 on Soviet espionage in the UK during the Cold War and the key advice she received from her father.

By New Statesman

Stella Rimington was born in London in 1935. In 1992 she became the first female director-general of MI5, and the first to be publicly acknowledged by the service. The New Statesman published the first photo of Rimington in the role. 

What’s your earliest memory?

Leaving London at the outbreak of the Second World War. We went to Essex and then to Barrow-in-Furness, which was the worst place to be: it was bombed because of the shipyard up there.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was Georgina, or George, from The Famous Five. She had freckles and I wanted to be like her. Now my hero is President Zelensky of Ukraine. I admire his determination and charisma.

What book last changed your thinking?

It was a long time ago that I read a book that changed my thinking. In the 1960s I read Behind Mud Walls by William and Charlotte Wiser. It changed my mind about Indian villages, of which I’d always been rather scared. I went out to India as a diplomat’s wife and took part in a scheme to teach English, inspired by that book.

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Which political figure do you look up to?

Nelson Mandela, for his tolerance and long-sightedness. It’s chilling to think of the length of time he spent in prison.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Soviet espionage in the UK during the Cold War. Though I might have to give them the questions as well.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

In London in the 1920s, provided I was rich. I’d be a flapper in the city with a large country house – for parties, of course.

What TV show could you not live without?

I hardly ever watch the television. The only one is the BBC News channel.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’ve had my portrait painted too often to be interested in having it done again. It was most recently painted by June Mendoza. 

What’s your theme tune?

According to my family it’s “In the Bleak Midwinter”, the carol. I wasn’t aware of this but apparently I sing it at times of stress.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

From my father: “Do your best and never give up.” He needed it – he was in the First World War and was injured, and when the Second World War broke out he was very depressed. It’s a version of, “Keep buggering on,” I suppose, but he was more polite than that. I think I’ve followed it.

What’s currently bugging you?

The war in Ukraine. Obviously because it’s so awful, but also because it brings back to me all my own experiences of living in air-raid shelters during the war.

What single thing would make your life better?

A cure for macular degeneration, which I have inherited from my mother. I know that my eyesight is going to get worse and worse as I get older.

When were you happiest?

When I was in India. I went in 1965 with my quite new husband. It was there that I joined MI5, as a part-time clerk-typist. I didn’t have much to worry about, and everything was interesting and exciting.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Strangely enough, home secretary. It’s a terrible, really difficult job, but one I feel desperately needs sorting out. But I’ve never wanted to be a politician, so I’d have to just move in and do it.

Are we all doomed?

Yes. Humanity will be wiped out eventually. We might as well get used to it.

“The Devil’s Bargain”, a spy thriller by Stella Rimington, is published by Bloomsbury

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This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future