From EL1 to MI5: Dame Stella Rimington – Elisabeth Peterson

Stella Rimington 2
Audience members at Dame Rimington’s keynote speech. Photo by Louise Spence.

Every humanities student has been asked at some point, “and what are you planning on doing with that degree?” Dame Stella Rimington provided a refreshing response to this question on Monday, upon returning to Edinburgh where she recalled finishing her English Literature coursework 55 years ago.

As the keynote speaker for the English Literature conference ‘Literature in the City of Words’, she credited her unpredictable career path (from working as an archivist, to being the General Director of MI5, and currently, to writing thriller novels) to her degree, in that she was constantly depending on her love of words and ability to use words effectively. Immediately, Steve Jobs’ reflection that “you can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards” came to mind. In “connecting the dots” between English Literature and MI5 in particular, Dame Rimington emphasized the importance of language being “efficient” and “precise”.

Dame Rimington’s account displayed her tenacity, as a woman in the workforce in the 1950’s and 60’s, as well as her humanity, as a self-described “mother of two with a house”, but not a housewife. Gender politics was a recurring theme throughout the lecture, which she addressed in terms of the gender roles designated by the two-tier structure of MI5, and in her dislike for James Bond, “because he’s a bloke”!

The takeaway of the lecture, however, was the importance of “seizing opportunities”, which holds a lot of weight coming from someone who has had dinner with the K.G.B….


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