Monday, November 5, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“OPEN SECRET -  The Autobiography of the former Director General of MI5” by Stella Rimington (first published 2001; written 1998-99)
            By their very nature, security (i.e. spy) services are secretive and their operatives fairly anonymous – more like the grey, seedy bureaucrats of a Le Carre thriller than like that flashy fantasy figure James Bond.

            So when, a few years back, I sat down to read Stella Rimington’s memoirs, I wasn’t expecting a jolt a minute. But I was surprised at how incredibly bland and dull the book was.

            Famously, Rimington was the first woman to become director-general of MI5, in which role she served from 1992 to 1996, supervising Britain’s counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism. She got there because, for some years, the secret service had been working very hard to shuck off its image as a boys-only outfit dominated by the Old School Tie of the better-known “Public” Schools and Oxbridge – the background that furnished Burgess, McLean and Philby among other embarrassments. A respectable number of women were now being recruited, including some who dropped their aitches or had regional accents. Rimington wasn’t from Oxbridge, but had been educated at Edinburgh and Liverpool universities.

            The secret service was also under much pressure to become as “open” as was consonant with being a spy service. Rimington was the first head of spooks to give regular TV interviews during her tenure.

            When she got to writing this memoir, she apparently had to do a little battle with the Official Secrets Act and she made some public fuss about how she had to self-censor. For all her noise, though, the result is fairly anonymous. Especially in its closing chapters, it is also fairly repetitive. Rimington treads and re-treads the same ideas about necessary secrets even in an open society; about security services as the protector and defender of democracy; about the need for as much openness and transparency as is consistent with security; about the glibness and distortions of the press; and about the glass ceiling for women, which lingers in both private corporations and the government sector.

            There is a clear tension between the frequent “girls-can-do-anything” theme, and the author’s more conservative instincts as a patriot who likes order and method.

            She is very careful not to betray any party-political biases or tendencies. She pleads that the security services serve and brief impartially any democratically-elected government. She refutes the rumour that (long before her time as boss) MI5 in any way sought to undermine Harold Wilson’s Labour government. However she does make it clear that MI5 had evidence of opportunistic Soviet infiltration of the anti-nuke “peace” movement (Greenham Common etc.) and of the National Union of Miners at the time of Arthur Scargill and the miners’ rolling strikes. Nowhere does she say these movements were dominated by Soviet infiltration and her testimony is credible. That most of her stories of interface with the prime minister are with John Major is presumably simply indicative of the fact that he was PM during her tenure. Even so, given her background (lower-middle-class, later diplomatic service in India) and some of her attitudes, it’s hard not to think of her as a Tory in something of the Margaret Thatcher mould.

            As in all memoirs, there are big gaps. She became estranged and separated from her husband without the two of them divorcing, but the marriage break-up is passed over in a few sentences. Most disappointing, there is virtually nothing specific about any of the espionage she oversaw– obviously self-censorship and the Official Secrets Act at work. The only revelation to me was that Peter Wright was such a flake in his Spycatcher book. I was also a little rocked by the naivete of Rimington and her service in cuddling up to ex-KGB personnel when the Soviet Empire collapsed.

            When I first read Open Secret, I could have sworn that it was written by a ghost-writer, so dully did its prose thud along. On second thoughts, it could well have been written by a woman used to filing official reports. I say this because,  since her retirement and the writing of Open Secret, Rimington has published six spy novels. She has also been one of the “celebrity” judges for the Booker awards and was one of those who made a fuss about how unreadable so many long-listed literary novels were.

            It is interesting to read on-line reviews of this book. They divide evenly between those outraged that she hasn’t said more and those congratulating her for holding the line. The Guardian got Labour MP Chris Mullin to review it. He disputed some of Rimington’s facts but generally approved of the book. When it first appeared, parts of Open Secret ran as a serial in the Guardian, its distaste for Tory attitudes being no match for its hunger for topicality.

1 comment:

  1. I read Rimington's first novel "At Risk" and it was the least thrilling thriller I've ever read. Every "twist" was exactly what you'd expect, with chapters from the point of view of the terrorist... and yet without anything like an attempt to understand the terrorist's point of view.