Stella Rimington is the latest in a literary club that boasts the likes of Graeme Greene and John Le Carre as members: spooks turned spy novelists. Dubbed ‘housewife superspy’ when she was appointed director general of MI5, she was the first woman in the world to lead a major spy agency. Liz Carlyle, the intelligence officer heroine of her six novels, brings spy-lit up to date, out-thinking her enemies rather than shooting them. Her latest is Rip Tide, an adventure involving Somali pirates and Islamic terrorists.
Rimington joined us at the Comedy Theatre, speaking with Michael Cathcart of Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily. Their conversation covered Rimington’s life before, during and after her time at MI5, including:
- The beginnings of the British intelligence service, and her arrival there;
- The sexism she encountered;
- Why she joined MI5, despite no particularly patriotic bent;
- The ‘rather ridiculous extremes’ of a ‘need to know’ policy;
- MI5’s activity during the Cold War, and its approach to double agents;
- Balancing family life with the job of espionage;
- The effect of the 1970s' burgeoning feminism on the secret service;
- The myth of the ‘licence to kill’;
- Witnessing the demise of the Soviet Union - which came rather as a surprise to MI5;
- Opening MI5 to the public gaze;
- The effect of the September 11 attacks on the intelligence mindset;
- Dealing with terrorism, and the problem with America’s ‘war on terror’;
- Her entry into writing fiction, and the saga which accompanied agency clearance of her autobiography;
- Why ‘everything behind Spooks is wrong, actually, and it is very annoying’; and finally,
- The difficulty of concealing her working life from her friends and loved ones.
Sarah L’Estrange is a producer on Books and Arts Daily, ABC Radio National.
Michael Cathcart presents the radio show, Books and Arts Daily for Radio National.
Hisham Matar was born in New York City to Libyan parents and spent his childhood first in Tripoli and then in Cairo. His first novel, In the Country of Men, was published in 2006 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, The Guardian First Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the US. The Return, his latest work of non-fiction, won a Pulitzer Prize for biography or autobiography.
Dame Stella Rimington joined the Security Service (MI5) in 1968 and was appointed Director General in 1992, the first woman to hold the post. Her latest novel is Rip Tide.