How We Met: Stella Rimington & Alan Judd: 'We had to catch one of these Bulgarian spies'


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Dame Stella Rimington, 79

Joining MI5 in 1969, Rimington rose to become its director-general in 1991 until her retirement in 1996. She is now a bestselling novelist, having written eight titles to date following the life of fictional MI5 Intelligence Officer Liz Carlyle. She lives in north London

It was 1976, and I'd just come back to MI5's Gower Street offices after an 18-month sabbatical in Brussels with my then-husband, who was the UK representative to the EEC. It was the height of the Cold War and I had a desk job in counter-espionage, working on the threat from the Warsaw countries.

I met Alan as he was a colleague working on the same subject. I recollect this sunburnt, red-headed guy always in short-sleeve shirts and light-coloured jackets. In those days women did paperwork and men did the front-line field work. He came into my office to report on what he'd found and I noted it all down. He was about 10 years younger, one of a number of glamorous young men on the sharp end of intelligence work.

At the time we were in hot pursuit of a Bulgarian intelligence officer, and Alan and his colleagues were always coming up with schemes, such as ways of masquerading as an informant to catch these guys; I seem to remember some of those ideas being pretty hair-brained. I was initially envious, though, I must say, seeing him doing things I would have liked to have done.

I didn't see much of him at all after that until I became director-general of MI5 in the 1990s, and he was working for my opposite number [in the Foreign Office], as a private secretary. Whenever I went across and had a discussion in Whitehall, he was there.

I retired from the service in 1996 and he took early retirement at the same time. I next met him some years later at the Cheltenham Literary Festival; by then he was a well-known author, and I'd written an autobiography. We found ourselves by chance on a panel discussion about the espionage and terrorist threat of the time and the effect of the 2003 Iraq War. Alan was the same as he looked in 1976 – though greyer, wiser and more serious: we all get that when we're middle-aged and weighed down with responsibilities, I suppose.

We often talk about how strange it was that we've both ended up in the same situation, as authors. I've read a couple of his books – I particularly liked one about Northern Ireland: it was a subject we both took close interest in, as when I was director of counter-terrorism in the late 1980s, the main threat was from Northern Ireland; Alan had been at the sharp end, serving as a soldier there before we met.

Peter Wright's Spycatcher was one of the most boring books that I've ever read, which shows that it's quite an art turning something you know about into fiction and doing it well. And as a writer Alan has quite a direct style: factual and very exciting.

Alan Judd, 68

A former soldier stationed in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, Judd worked for MI5 in the 1970s before joining the Foreign Office as a diplomat. He is now a security analyst and author of nine novels, including the 1981 Booker Prize runner-up, 'A Breed of Heroes'. He lives in Sussex with his wife and daughter

When I see Judi Dench as "M" in the Bond films, I always think of Stella: not one to waste words, gets to the point quickly and obviously a human being; stern but compassionate.

My first memory of her is of when she was a desk officer at MI5, in counter-espionage, and I was working in the field. The Bulgarian [spies] were part of our responsibility: to monitor if they were up to no good here. Stella had access to a lot of information about individuals and intelligence services and she had good judgement and a lot of insight into those subjects. She'd been abroad with her husband [who served as First Secretary for the British High Commission in India], so was familiar with diplomatic life, and had a good idea of what was appropriate behaviour for a diplomat in London, and what behaviours indicated they were not all they seemed.

We had to try to catch one of these Bulgarian [spies] at it in some way. I'd have an idea or suggestion for catching one, and she'd point out the problems and then smilingly say something funny and tease me over it.

After a while she was re-posted and the next time I dealt with her on a work level, she was a director at MI5 and so had very senior responsibilities for counter-terrorism activities. I saw a lot of her in the 1990s after that, when she was the director-general and I was a private secretary [in the Foreign Office]. A lot of the work then was dealing with Irish terrorism – we'd talk about intelligence that she was running over there. It was also the beginnings of Islamist terrorism; serious matters that meant we no longer had much time for having a bit of a joke.

She was determined to restructure what had been a disjointed British response to Irish terrorism in a more coherent way. It sounds bureaucratic, but under Stella, for the first time the threat was dealt with in a systematic way and I felt we were in good hands.

I took early retirement, around the same time she left, and I watched her launch into publishing. Her novels are very good on the details. Like my work, I place Stella's writing in the realist tradition started by Somerset Maugham; giving it a more studied, thoughtful approach rather than Fleming's Bond.

When we meet up now we reminisce about those early days. I know Stella has suffered for her career; family life for a woman [in security services] in particular can be tough. Although you couldn't tell, it must have been a strain.

Alan Judd's latest novel, 'Inside Enemy' (£12.99, Simon & Schuster), is out now. 'Close Call: A Liz Carlyle Novel' (£12.99, Bloomsbury), by Stella Rimington, is out now