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14 June 2014 @ 07:23 pm
Open Secret by Stella Rimmington  
Open Secret by Stella Rimmington is an oddly fascinating book. I say oddly fascinating because I think its interest lies primarily in the fact that Rimmington is an interesting woman, who had an interesting job in interesting times, but she tells her autobiography in a surprisingly lacklustre fashion.

I think, in a lot of ways, the book reads more like a justification or a manifesto than a story. Details of events and people are often absent, not only in the MI5 years where such omissions are understandable but also in her childhood. I was going to suggest that she is not a natural story-teller, but wikipedia informs me that she has gone on to publish a whole series of spy novels which, one assumes, are at least modestly successful. So I think maybe the blandness of much of the book possibly lies with the fact that she is more interested in making a point (or several inter-related points) than in entertaining her audience.

And, broadly speaking, her point is that the intelligence services, as typified by MI5 need to make greater efforts to explain and justify their existences both to the general public and to politicians. Her own tenure as Director General of MI5 should be interpreted as a laudable example of how to move in this direction. The book is an attempt both to further the openness agenda (by describing the inner workings and evolution of the service) and a subtle rebuke that the work of transparency and openness is not now proceeding at the pace, or in the way, that Rimmington desires. Some of the most interesting parts, therefore, are Rimmington's discussion of MI5's remit (what it is, how it may have fallen short), changing culture and changing focus over her time with the service. There is also a fascinating potted history of the service in one of the early chapters.

The discussion of the difficulties of working for the service, as a single mother in the 1980s is also very vivid. I have a sense that Rimmington's writing becomes more lively when she feels a grievance. She was provided with no proper cover story and advised simply to make something up if neighbours asked about her job. She notes that this ultimately tended to mean she avoided socialising outside of MI5, because she couldn't necessarily remember what she had said to whom with the result that when she was suddenly revealed as DG of MI5 she met with more hostility than solidarity from the street she lived in. Similarly provision of contingencies in situations where childcare fell through were obviously somewhat lacking. She notes one occasion when she had to give her youngest daughter instructions over the phone that led the girl to the safe house where Rimmington was waiting to meet a contact. Youngest daughter was then put in a back room and told not to come out. Rimmington met the contact while her daughter did her homework and, once the meeting was over, took her daughter home as normal.

I got a slight sense from the book that Rimmington was trying to justify her time as DG, though from what criticism exactly it was unclear. These bits were oddly like reading half a conversation. This becomes more overt in the epilogue where she discusses the hostile reception her decision to write a book provoked. The tone of special pleading in places, both on her own and MI5's behalf, does give one the slightly itchy feeling that you are only being told half the story perhaps to be expected in a book which has a propagandist purpose.

I'm torn about whether to say I recommend this book or not. I don't think that it is particularly well written. However the subject matter itself is fascinating and Rimmington was in a unique position to write about it.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/118441.html.
bunn: George Smileybunn on June 14th, 2014 07:58 pm (UTC)
That does sound interesting. What a pity that the writing lets it down. I may give it a go anyway, it sounds relevant to my interests...
louisedennislouisedennis on June 15th, 2014 09:29 am (UTC)
It's not badly written. But it definitely feels rather "what I did on my holidays" in a lot of places. It's much better when she's writing about her thoughts and opinions on MI5.