Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Dame Stella Rimington, former MI5 boss

'I went to school in a pony and trap'
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The Independent Online

Dame Stella Rimington, 71, was the first female Director-General of MI5. Her autobiography, Open Secret, was published in 2001, and her second novel, Secret Asset, is just out.

Spying is one thing but a security service lives by its records and its storage and access. At school I had extraordinarily neat exercise books and a photographic memory. When I used to recite stuff I was learning, I would know whether my mother, who was helping me, was listening or not, because I knew when she should have turned the page.

My first school was in Ingatestone village, Essex. This was in 1940, when we had been evacuated from London. One day we came out of school and the buses never came; they had all been commandeered to help the troops after Dunkirk. The bank manager arranged for us to be taken home in a pony and trap and after that we went to school every day in the pony and trap.

Then we moved to be with my grandmother in Wallasey, across the Mersey from Liverpool. The Nazis were bombing the Liverpool docks and we were awake most of the night; we didn't go to school at all until the inspectors saw us playing in the park.

Then my father got a job in Barrow-in-Furness, where the Vickers dockyard was bombed. When I got to seven, I was sent to Crosslands Convent in Furness Abbey. I felt they were slightly weird but they must have been better than I thought because, when my father got a job just outside Nottingham, I got into Nottingham Girls High School, which was the best in the area.

I think they gave us a very sound, broad-based education, which has stuck with me. They were jolly well determined that we should know things. Frankly, I think I had a better education than my daughters, who went to similar schools and don't know half as much. I think I was taught history particularly well and got quite a clear impression of the sweep of history and how one thing led to another. I was also taught English well and went on to do English at university.

I took A-levels in English, History and Latin - and I failed Latin. I stayed on for another year and got it when I took it again.

I really did enjoy English language and literature at Edinburgh very much. My first year was easy, more or less a repeat of school, but you had to take two "outside" subjects - and the second bally one turned out to be Latin! I failed and went back at the end of the summer holidays to take it again. With my photographic memory, I learnt the set books by heart - a huge feat!

I enjoyed the whole 18th-century feel of the place: the Old Quad, the lecture rooms with wooden tiers of benches - and the "Battle of the Fish-heads" during the election for the rector when supporters of each candidate threw rotten fish at each other.

I got a second and did a postgraduate diploma in Liverpool on the study of records and the administration of archives. I had earlier been to the Careers Advisory Service. I was quite good at reading upside down and could read the notes the interviewer was making: "Ill-made face". She made only one suggestion that appealed, which was the Voluntary Service Overseas scheme; but, using my upside-down reading skills, I saw that the VSO interviewer had written "All nerves" on his pad. When I was in MI5, one of my annual reports in the Seventies said something like, "She is a pleasant colleague - even though she is a supporter of women's rights."

jonty@jonathansale.com

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