Kate Mortimer: Financial adviser of daunting intellect

 

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The Independent Online

Kate Mortimer was intimidatingly bright, with her scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, her first-class degree in PPE and her subsequent career starring in the Central Policy Review Staff, the Downing Street think tank, and Rothschild's Bank, of which she became a director.

But she was also a terrific cricketer who got a half-blue at Oxford and comprehensively bowled the ostensibly emancipated Marxist Master of Balliol, Christopher Hill. Hill was distinctly unamused. It was an end-of-term game between undergraduates and dons. Mortimer, who got a half-blue, was our ringer. She used to say that the university ladies' team was worse than a school side but she seemed good enough to me and she always bowled a tidy line and length. At any rate it did for Hill.

Kate Mortimer looked good too – strong-featured and dark-haired – and she enjoyed a drink and a joke. I remember once staying at her parents' literally palatial house in Exeter – her father was the bishop there for almost a quarter of a century – to find Kate and her mother at breakfast cracking jokes over the cornflakes in Greek. She always said I made that up but I'm certain it was true and if not it should have been.

Mortimer, in other words, combined a brilliant intellect with an amusing, flirtatious femininity. She was at the same time a formidable economic and political presence and also a funny, lovely woman with a highly developed sense of humour and a well-honed sense of the absurd.

She managed to be completely terrifying and utterly adorable in the same moment and without apparently drawing breath. Most people, men in particular, were devastated by her intellect, but won over by her warmth. She was unnervingly clever but also disarmingly nice. Unusual if not unique.

She was born in 1946, the youngest of the four clever children of clever parents. Her father, Robert, was an ecclesiastical academic who had a reputation for ascetic aloofness which was, I always thought, essentially undeserved. Her mother, Mary, though less well-known than the Bishop, was also well qualified, formidable and funny.

At Oxford Kate was to an extent overshadowed by her brother Edward, who was not only as tall as their father but got a First and became a Fellow of All Souls, and also by another precocious Somerville girl, her great friend Emma Rothschild. There was no disguising the fact, however, that Kate Mortimer was also very clever. She took a First in PPE, stayed on to do a BPhil in Economics and then walked into an ace job with the World Bank in Washington.

There she began her serious life's work of sorting out the Third World in the nicest possible way. The Ghanaians, for example, had acquired a sugar mill designed to deal with beet not cane. There is no sugar beet in West Africa but plenty of cane. Mortimer sorted that one out and then did something equally ingenious involving the breeding of bullocks in cyclone-ravaged East Pakistan.

After two or three years in Washington she returned to the Central Policy Review Staff, the Downing Street-based think tank run by her friend Emma's father Lord (Victor) Rothschild who, among other things, was a former cricketer who had once opened the batting for Harrow with the playwright Terence Rattigan. The think tank was presided over by Rothschild as a sort of gilded nursery full of bright young things. Two of them, Kate and Tessa Blackstone (now Baroness Blackstone) produced a report in 1978 profoundly critical of an anachronistic Foreign Office, bloated with inappropriate Rolls-Royces and grandiose foreign residences. This made "the establishment" apoplectic and earned the two women the sobriquet "Fabian teeny-boppers" from one parliamentary backwoodsman.The report now looks unexceptional and most of its findings have been implemented.

After this Mortimer retreated to the relative obscurity of the bank N.M. Rothschild and Sons where she rose to be a main board director culminating in a two-year period on loan to the infant Securities and Investment Board. There followed a quixotic and disastrous year, 1988-89, working for an old friend, Sebastian Walker, as chief executive officer of his successful Walker Books. Having hired Mortimer, he proceeded to completely disregard her financial advice, expressed with her characteristic bluntness, and the two parted in acrimonious circumstances.

The white knight who rode to the rescue was her old friend and colleague from think-tank days, William Waldegrave, by then Secretary of State at the Foreign Office and in the aftermath of the collapse of Communism responsible for the Know How Funds which were bringing former Soviet-bloc countries up to speed. I remember at the time, around 1990, asking a mutual friend who was in the Cabinet what exactly Kate was doing. "Oh, she's sorting out Poland," he replied.

For the next decade and more Kate Mortimer travelled widely in the old Soviet bloc. She advised Moscow and St Petersburg, restructured the Tirana Stock Exchange and helped the Polish Ministry of Finance to recover bad debts and dispose of bankrupt companies. You'd never have guessed that she was such a maker and shaker because when she reminisced about her experiences to a layman such as myself, she talked about meeting Lee Kuan Yew when she and Claus Moser visited him in Singapore ("like a rabbit transfixed by a snake") or about boar hunting in Romania with Evelyn de Rothschild or how her boss at the World Bank succumbed to gangrene of the intestine in Vientiane.

In later years she slowed down a bit and contented herself with a series of directorships, including the National Bus Company, South West Water and the Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851. She also retreated to a sprawling home in rural west Devon where she lived with her second, much-loved husband Bob.

I shall always think of her striding out across Dartmoor with a bounding dog, sometimes in a teeming downpour, sometimes in frosty, eye-blinding sunlight, the yomp always followed by a Scotch or two, a fag, a prolonged meal and interminable, laugh-filled talk.

Tim Heald

Katharine Mary Hope Mortimer, economic consultant: born Burford, Oxfordshire 28 May 1946; staff, World Bank 1969-72; adviser, Central Policy Review Staff 1972-78; staff, N.M. Rothschild Asset Management 1978-84; director, N.M. Rothschild & Sons 1984-88, seconded as Director of Policy, Securities and Investments Board 1985-87; chief executive, Walker Books 1988-89; consultant, Know How Fund for Eastern Europe 1990-97; married 1973 John Nicholson (one son, marriage dissolved 1986), 1990 Robert Dean; died Okehampton, Devon 15 July 2008.

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