Housewife Superspy: Stella Rimington

Stella Rimington, former director-general of MI5, has been called Britain’s most famous spy. She’s also rumoured to be the inspiration for Judi Dench’s character M, in the James Bond franchise. But Rimington is not a fan of Bond; she says it’s ridiculously unrealistic and that anyone who tries to join any intelligence service inspired by 007 ‘should be rejected at the first hurdle’.

John Le Carre’s George Smiley is more her style. ‘The intelligence service of John Le Carre’s Cold War books really is quite reminiscent of the MI5 I joined,’ she told Kerry O’Brien on her last visit to Australia, in 2009. ‘There were people around quite a bit like Smiley … And the closed nature of the community he creates is also something that I can relate to.’

Tapped on the shoulder

Rimington was ‘tapped on the shoulder’ to join the MI5 (as a clerk) while living in India, with her husband. The invitation came at a cocktail party, which sounds impossibly glamorous. She accepted because she was bored, passing her time doing ‘amateur dramatics and running jumble sales’. When she moved back to Britain, she approached an MI5 recruiter and asked for a job, which she got.

It was a ‘two-tiered system’, she recalls, with very separate careers for men and for women. ‘The men did the sharp-end intelligence work and the women’s job was to sit at the desk and deal with the papers.’

Spying in the pub

Things changed in the early 1970s, when the women mounted a ‘quiet revolution’ and asked why they couldn’t do the same work as the men. ‘Our bosses of the day had to scratch their heads for an answer, because there wasn’t one,’ she told a Dymocks Literary Lunch in 2009. ‘If you think about it, some of the skills you need to deal with human beings who are often in difficult and dangerous sitations requires just those skills we think of today as ‘female’ skills: warmth, empathy, the ability to encourage and bring people along, an understanding of people, and a certain degree of ruthlessness, which I think is also a female quality.’

Rimington was the first woman allowed to go on the training course that taught the skills needed for on-the-street work, with ‘human sources’. The course was geared for men, she says: the trainees were assigned pubs, where they had to create a cover story for themselves, then engage patrons in conversation and find out about them. Her pub, she recalls, was a ‘sleazy dump’ full of ‘men in dirty macs leaning on the bar’. She duly chatted up one of the men, who was ‘very surprised by the approach from a seemingly respectable lady, who he then thought was something other than a respectable lady’. That was the beginning of her career as an ‘agent runner’; it got better from there, she says. For one thing, she could pick her own venues to meet agents.

Liz Carlyle and the modern MI5

The MI5 heroine of Rimington’s four espionage novels, Liz Carlyle, is partly drawn from Rimington’s own experiences, but is operating in a very different world. ‘Liz is a modern MI5 officer,’ she says. ‘She didn’t have to wait to be tapped on the shoulder; she could look on a website (which now exists), see what jobs are available and apply online. And she did.’ Like her creator, Liz’s adventures in espionage are juggled with a private life that always seems to come off second best.

While Liz finds it hard to hold onto her lovers, Rimington divorced in 1986 and brought up her two daughters as a single mother. It was the kind of life where she got phone calls about umbrella stabbings while cooking dinner and was faced with decisions like whether to rush to hospital, where her young daughter had been taken seriously ill, or meet a defecting Eastern European agent at a London safe house (in the latter situation, she did both – ‘the safe house was quite near the hospital’).

‘All working mothers – and nowadays many fathers too – find themselves struggling to juggle things and I suppose I did have a few dilemmas like everyone else,’ she told the Australian.

Life in danger

Rimington began writing novels after the publication of her 2001 autobiography, Open Secret, a publication her former employer tried to stop. The MI5 still vet all her novels, to ensure she’s not revealing state secrets.

It’s ironic, given that it was MI5 who outed her in 1992, when she was the first director-general to be publicly named (resulting in the tabloid nickname ‘housewife superspy’), with little warning given. It was the only time Rimington ever felt her life was in danger, she says; the IRA were still active in London at the time, and the media quickly found out where she lived. She had to move house, along with her younger daughter, who was still living with her.

Liz Carlyle’s latest adventure is Rip Tide, involving Somali pirates and Islamic terrorists. What next for Liz, and Rimington? The 77-year-old author says she’s not sure how much longer she wants to keep it up, though there will definitely be at least one more novel.

Her many fans will be hoping that idleness appeals as little now as it did when, many years ago in India, she was tapped on the shoulder at a party …

Stella Rimington will be appearing in a double bill with Hisham Matar on Wednesday 16 May at 6.30pm, at the Comedy Theatre. Tickets are $35 for the two back-to-back events. Book now.

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