January 25 1999
10 Forsythia Grove
CORSETTSHIRE ZY6 4GT
My Dear Ralph
I came across the above quotation by Eleanor Roosevelt the other day. It is completed by the sentence: ‘You can’t tell how strong she is until you drop her in hot water.’
And this reminded me of my rise through the ranks of MI6 – and final promotion to director general in 1990. Of course, at that time, I could neither confirm nor deny that I was under consideration for this position: the Secret Intelligence Service was, after all, not officially acknowledged to exist. But exist we did, in the building known as Century House, which was located near Waterloo railway station. Along with the existence of MI6 itself, the function of Century House was one of London’s worst-kept secrets. We felt observed – and pointed out – by every taxi driver, tourist bus, and passing KGB agent! Even worse, the building had been recently audited as ‘irredeemably insecure.’ Constructed largely of glass – and with a petrol station located at its base – this was self-evidently true.
I have never been a showy kind of woman. I enacted my role as assistant director with analytical thoroughness and attention to detail, never, quite possibly, feeling fully at ease with my colleagues. I am not good at small talk, despite – at times – demonstrating a quite coruscating sense of humour. Amongst my strengths, however, was an imperative drive to challenge any decision which I felt was weak or wrong. This did not necessarily earn me friends amongst some of my (often male) colleagues. Don’t forget dear, this was still at a time when a woman’s – equal – capabilities could be resented and before equality of pay was introduced. And although I have worked with clever, strong, and decent men, there were, nevertheless, frequent occasions when I had to suffer a chummy paternalistic arm slung around my shoulders and words akin to, ‘Ho ho ho E! You don’t really think that do you?’
Finally, in 1990, the post of Director General became vacant. No-one applied because it was not then customary to do so. And it was not advertised because, in the eyes of the outside world, we were not supposed to exist. One was simply appointed. I still recall the shock I felt upon being told, as there is quite some difference between being one of a cast of hundreds – coming and going – and being head of an institution whose function it is to counter foreign intelligence and terrorism!
Matters were not assisted when it became apparent that the national press had got wind of my promotion, proceeding to besiege me with requests for photographs. I must admit pet that – after the initial consternation had worn off – I thought, ‘To hell with it. Let them have them.’ And that is how articles got into the Lambeth Echo (amongst others) to the effect that the Secret Intelligence Service had appointed ‘a scruffy English woman’ to the chief post and that ‘I might apply a lick of paint’ and ‘attend the hairdressers from time to time!’ I was mortified dear, as you may imagine. In fact, ever since, and certainly after I met Pom-Pom, I have never ventured forth without being immaculately accoutred or, indeed, disguised.
I hope you can tell from this Ralph, that I have not been the weaker sort of teabag. And that, when steeped in hot water, I turned it into the deeper sort of gold.