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Category Archives: Features
Forecast that Britain could be in middle of 10-20 year ‘cycle’ of wet summers delivered following gathering at Met Office
Don’t worry, summer is on its way – but you might have to wait until 2023.
As the prospect of another gloomy Glastonbury and wet Wimbledon looms, leading climate scientists have warned that the UK could be set for a further five to 10 years of washout summers.
The grim conclusion was delivered after an unprecedented gathering of scientists and meteorologists at the Met Office in Exeter to debate the range of possible causes for Europe’s “unusual seasonal weather” over recent years, a sequence that has lasted since 2007.
Many will have hoped for news of sunnier times ahead. But after experts brainstormed through the day they delivered the shock finding that the UK could be in the middle of a 10-20 year “cycle” of wet summers. The last six out of seven summers in the UK have seen below-average temperatures and sunshine, and above-average rainfall.
Stephen Belcher, head of the Met Office Hadley Centre and professor of meteorology at the University of Reading, stressed that the finding was not an official long-term forecast and does not automatically mean the UK will now have a further decade of wet summers. But, he said, the scientists’ conclusion was that the chances of this occurring are now higher than they first thought.
“Predicting when this cycle will end is hard,” said Belcher, who led the meeting of 25 scientists. “We have seen similar patterns before – in the 1950s and the 1880s – and we have hints that we are coming towards the end of this current cycle. However, it might continue for the next five to 10 years. There is a higher probability of wet summers continuing. But it’s very early days in trying to understand why this is happening.”
The scientists must now address what “dynamical drivers” are causing this cycle, Belcher said. The meeting debated a range of possible interconnected reasons for the unusual weather of recent years, including this year’s cold spring and the freezing winter of 2010/11. The most likely cause for the wet summers, he said, was the Atlantic multi-decadal oscillation, or AMO, a natural pattern of long-term changes to ocean currents.
Other candidate causes that could be “loading the dice”, as Belcher described it, include a shift in the jet stream, solar variability and fast-retreating Arctic sea ice. Aggravating all of these factors could be the influence of anthropogenic greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere.
Dr James Screen, who studies how melting sea ice impacts on the jet stream at the University of Exeter, said: “There has been a lot of talk about declining Arctic sea ice playing a role in our weather patterns, but really that’s just one aspect of changes in the Arctic climate – which has seen rapid warming compared to other parts of the world. Those changes mean there is less of a difference in temperature between the Arctic and tropics, which could impact the position of the jet stream.”
The scientists also debated how melting sea ice should be better incorporated into climate models, as well as how observational data – for example, deep-ocean temperatures – could be improved to help their understanding of the potential relationship between climate change and the recent run of inclement weather and record-breaking extremes.
Len Shaffrey, a climate modeller based at the University of Reading who is also currently investigating possible links between Arctic sea ice retreat and European weather, said: “There are some fascinating science questions emerging about the influences on our weather, for example, from natural variations in ocean temperature. There is also some evidence that the record low amounts of Arctic sea ice have influenced patterns of European and British weather, but this evidence is not yet conclusive either way.”
The scientific debate about the role of the jet stream – the fast “river” of meandering, 10km-high air which greatly determines UK weather – is intensifying. This week researchers from the University of Sheffield published a study in the International Journal of Climatology showing how “unusual changes” to the jet stream caused the “exceptional” melting of the Greenland ice sheet during the summer of 2012. Scientists say they must now determine what is causing these “displacements”, as they are known, in the jet stream.
Tourist bosses were trying to find silver linings. David Leslie, a spokesman for the tourism agency Visit Britain, said people did not come to the UK for the weather alone. “The weather here is as unpredictable as anywhere else,” he added.
“The days of the UK being seen as a foggy, wet destination have passed. Hot, cold or mildly pleasant, the weather is not a deterrent for overseas visitors coming here to enjoy Britain’s tourism offering, which remains the best in the world.”
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Edison electrical company has created an extraordinary online photographic archive of more than a century of work in the Los Angeles area. Its 70,000 images create a fascinating portrait of place and people
Cinemagoers everywhere can picture Los Angeles’ sun-blushed streets, thanks to Hollywood. Yet a huge, newly digitised photographic archive shows a different LA, as the city developed from a western hinterland into shimmering megalopolis.
Form and Landscape: Southern California, Edison and the Los Angeles Basin 1940–1990 is an online exhibition taken from the 70,000-plus images shot from the late 19th century to the late 20th century by the photographers of the region’s biggest electrical company.
Edison supplied power to municipalities beyond the city limits of Los Angeles proper, which, thanks to the firm’s endeavours, went from being moderately inhabited coastal lands to one of the most densely populated regions in the US. The firm commissioned photographers to shoot its power plants and overhead cables, as well as the supermarkets, petrol stations and homes lit up by its current. While this might have served little purpose beyond demonstrating how great life was with plug sockets, today they’re an evocative reminder of the hopes and follies of mid-century modernism, slipping in somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Ed Ruscha.
Perhaps it’s the wide variety of scenes pictured, coupled with the photographers’ apparent detachment, that makes the archive so uncanny. Or perhaps it’s the fickle switch the photographers seem to make between documentation of power generation and a boosterish promotion of the good life on offer through the electrical grid.
Here a leisurely housewife roasts a turkey; there acouple rest on the lip of a nocturnal swimming pool; elsewhere an electrical worker shows the hole burned in his throat during an industrial accident; in between there are neon-lit convenience stores, twilit service stations; pylons, steam turbines, mines and scenes of blissful domesticity; here a young man labours over a metal furnace; there a schoolgirl falls asleep beside her nightlight.Edison bequeathed the photos to the Huntington Library, LA in 2006, and over the past year history professors William Deverell and Greg Hise have been making sense of this vast resource. Electricity was essential for much of the growth in manufacturing and the regional economy, they say . Metropolitan southern California is a product of the second industrial revolution; electricity and petroleum were fundamental for the production of chemicals, dyes and materials for aviation and aerospace, film and related industries.
There is a popular misconception that LA has no past, Hise explains. This collection is visual evidence that the past is all around.
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Originally published in the Manchester Guardian on 16 June 1913
An Oldham reader asks a simple question which is difficult to answer – where near Manchester can children gather a fair variety of flowers? It is mid-June, and there are flowers everywhere in variety and abundance just beyond the regions of brick and mortar; a short train or tram journey and the field and lanes are reached, and there are the flowers. Fields by the rivers Mersey, Bollin, or even Irwell, lanes in the Pennine foothills, the moors above them, the pastures and dales of Derbyshire, all have their characteristic and plentiful floras. The full foliage has lost its spring freshness, even the yellow tint of youth is fading on the oak; summer’s maturity is deepening greens, replacing the delicate shades or bright gloss of adolescence. Some of the spring flowers have vanished, many of the autumn blossoms are not yet in bud, but the summer flowers – typical of maturity, like youths and maidens who have left youth behind – are everywhere. When grass is short and undergrowth scanty in wood and lane the first spring flowers are very noticeable but now, in wealth of summer leafage, indeed in their very abundance, we fail to appreciate the increase. Look at the grass field, where the oxeyes tower above the spurreys, buttercups, clovers, and flowering grasses themselves; look in the woods at the bugle and forget-me-not; on the short turf of the hillside, at the eyebrights, milkworts, cinquefoils, pansies, bedstraws, and saxifrages; at the nodding avens, hogweed, chervil, and ranunculus in the ditch; at the blue veronicas on the bank, with the pink tinged wild rose and sweet honeysuckle opening above the. Spring is joining hands with autumn, for the buds on the foxglove spike are showing colour before the last blue hyacinth had fruited or the white garlic vanished from the wood.
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The value of laughter has been reinforced by ‘Racist B&B’, a YouTube video posted by Irish writer/comedian Tara Flynn
A few bigots deserve locking up because what they do so injures society, and there are laws for that. But sometimes it’s best to just laugh.
Nothing new in that. In the 70s of my youth, I was never sure about the British champion of the genre, Johnny Speight and his creation Alf Garnett – never sure if the character was drawn as hero or villain. But later when I interviewed the writer, I came to think that Speight was just about on the right side of the line. Alf was nasty, but more than anything, he was afraid of change. Everything Alf knew was changing.
Who didn’t laugh at Nick Griffin years later as he infamously hemmed and hawed on Question Time? Who doesn’t see EDL leader Stephen Lennon, aka Tommy Robinson as ridiculous – prattling on about the sanctity of British law with his string of previous convictions? Well, perhaps the Today programme, which last week interviewed Lennon as though he were a bona fide politician. Not everyone gets every joke.
The value of laughter as a weapon was reinforced for me last week by a YouTube video posted by Irish writer/comedian Tara Flynn. She’s from Kinsale, County Cork, a picturesque fishing village and a place she loves. She returned there recently with her husband, an African American. Alone walking the dog, he was subjected to old-style racist abuse. He faced it down with dignity, but Tara decided to make a point. The result: “Racist B&B” – a comedy skit highlighting the attitudes that people largely prefer not to talk about; those that sit awkwardly with with the welcome promised in tourist brochures.
The owner of the B&B, played by Tara herself, is gentle, all smiles and unequivocally racist, saying: “If they sound a bit tanned, we tell them there’s a festival on – that we’re full.”
“Has anyone ever called you an ignorant, bigoted old bitch,” asks the genial spoof interviewer. “I’d like to see them try with a mouthful of award-winning breakfast,” comes the blithe reply.
Does the comedy approach work? Certainly the issue is being discussed on Tara’s blog, in newspapers, on the radio and on YouTube. Posted last Monday; viewed by 94,000. More than one way to raise a voice.
✒Many at the BBC were pleased by last week’s appointment of former Channel 4 News editor Jim Gray as head of TV current affairs. But some were puzzled by the press release, which said “Jim will work closely with Clive Edwards [previously 'executive editor and commissioning editor of TV current affairs'] who it was announced last month will become commissioner for UK current affairs with enhanced responsibilities, leading on the current affairs strategy with the channel controllers.” Happily, this suggests those who feared Tony Hall’s new broom might sweep away the overlapping managers, bureaucratic Beeb-speak and jobs that look suspiciously like non-jobs – were far too pessimistic. Why is Edwards described as having “enhanced responsibilities”, staff insolently ask, when he will no longer be overseeing production of all the major daily and weekly current affairs programmes, including Panorama and Newsnight? And why will the BBC not tell Monkey who he reports to? The Lord Hall giveth and he taketh away.
✒ As it seems restricted to members capable of time-travel (Michael Grade?), box office bookings are likely to be poor for a Royal Television Society evening with ITV boss Adam Crozier, which is promoted with its supposed date – 27 April – in ill-advised giant script in a full-page ad on page 2 of the, er, June issue of Television magazine. “Bloody Television!”, you can imagine puce-faced RTS grandees roaring after having the cock-up pointed out, followed by the instant realisation that – as it’s the society’s own journal – they might just as well yell “Bloody us!”
✒Perilous times for Channel 5′s Ben Frow, following Brian Cox’s Twitter threat that “if I ever have the misfortune to meet the fish head who commissioned this shit on C5 about the moon landings, I WILL punch them” – as Frow is director of programmes, recently repeating Did We Land On The Moon?, the conspiracy theory-airing documentary that caused the physicist’s toys to hit the carpet, was down to him. He resembles a younger John Malkovich, Prof Cox, and has been known to wear a skirt.
✒At least Frow must be on good terms with C5 owner Richard Desmond, as the policy of picking up hit ideas that Channel 4 now finds a little distasteful (and contaminated by association with its ancien regime) is progressing nicely. After the snapping up of Big Brother, next week sees C5 debuting its take on the Big Fat Gypsy … phenomenon, and it’s very happy – as C4, stung by criticism, no longer is – to depict the community unflatteringly. A “Travellers season”, no less, kicks off even-handedly with Traveller Feuds, about “riots, shootings, stabbings and bombings involving Travellers”. Helpfully too, of course, it chimes with one of Desmond’s papers’ obsessions.
✒ At the Telegraph, after the recent in-house tension that Monkey highlighted over a writer’s hatchet job on Kate Winslet, women’s editor Emma Barnett looks to be out on a limb over another issue. Last week’s final glimpse of BBC2′s suffragette sitcom Up the Women was heralded by a page-topping Barnett puff enthusing that it was “proof that feminism can be fun”. This seemed not a view widely shared at the Torygraph, which didn’t review that episode or the two before it (presumably on the well-bred basis that you must say nothing if you can’t say anything nice), managing only one tiny, largely critical preview. And as for her likely view of the blond-loving broadsheet publishing more scantily-clad photos – eight, including the front page – of Edward Snowden’s pole-dancing girlfriend than any other paper…
✒ Places are still available on a day-long course on writing for newspapers and magazines organised for its readers by the Oldie (priced at a very decent £175, given that tea, biscuits and lunch are included), hosted by urbane veterans Jeremy Lewis and Richard Ingrams. But the eye-popping element is a 90-minute workshop on reporting from John Sweeney, which promises to transform the lives of the lucky group of over-60s. Watch out for YouTube clips (and even, perhaps, Panoramas) in a few years’ time of bands of doddery born-again hacks in trenchcoats who use Saga hols as cover for smuggling their way into countries with oppressive regimes – and when there shout at politicians, officials, cops and bigots at a volume only possible thanks to their training by the controversial, foghorn-voiced TV investigator.
✒ Monkey’s quote of the week comes from top tech innovator Marc Andreessen, raving about a future when if you’re without Google glasses, you’ll be “cut off from the world”: “I think people are going to feel, basically, naked and lonely, when they don’t have this,” he told CNBC.
✒ Runner-up: an endearingly tentative sign-off on Channel 4 News, anchored (with Jon Snow in Iran) by the taboo-busting distaff double-act of Cathy Newman and Jackie Long:
“Long: That’s it from us. Two women on the programme and it’s still on air. Who’d have thought it, eh?
Newman. Making history. Sort of. We think. Maybe. We’ve got to check that one out, anyway. Back tomorrow night.”
NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel is a visceral, bittersweet portrayal of life in a Zimbabwe shanty
“Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it,” said Chinua Achebe, an inspiration for NoViolet Bulawayo, who uses words potently, blending brutality and lyricism in her unflinching, bittersweet story of displacement, We Need New Names. Her narrator, the young girl Darling, and her friends have lost their homes and now live in Paradise, a Zimbabwean shanty, where they steal guavas, witness violent racial tensions, and dream of escape. “I wanted to tell a story that was urgent, that came from the bone,” she explains.
“I’m trying to say that we need new identities, new ways of seeing things, new ways of being,” says the 31-year-old, who was born in Zimbabwe a year after independence and left for the US at the age of 18. She followed her dream of becoming a writer, earning her MFA at Cornell University and winning the 2011 Caine prize for African writing for a short story. The author chose her own name: “Violet is my mother’s name. She died when I was 18 months. It was my way of honouring her memory. Adopting her name gave me peace and some closure,” she explains. “Bulawayo is the city of my people. I wasn’t able to go home for 13 years which made me nostalgic, and want to connect with the homeland.” Connecting is the challenge facing Darling, too, when she journeys to the US to live with her aunt, and learns the powers and pitfalls of technological communication.
Bulawayo searingly captures the traumas of Zimbabwe’s “lost decade” (2000-2010) : “Being in the US accorded the distance to look at things with more intimacy,” reflects Bulawayo. “Being away made me write from a place of pain. I saw an image of a small kid sitting on a bulldozed home – it broke my heart.”
What’s important to Bulawayo is “pinning down emotion”. She perceptively tackles painful topics from desperation to disease but joy also resonates in her writing: “I was brought up on stories – my grandmother was a storyteller and her stories were laced with humour, so that they were tolerable. It’s a tense book but humour reminds us that all is not lost. I’m trying to celebrate humanity.”
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My Freedom Pass won’t work as London Councils thought I was dead. Now London Underground staff are trying to fine me
When I attempted to use my senior citizen’s Freedom Pass on public transport I was told it had been disabled. London Councils informed me that it had been cancelled because I had not replied to a letter, sent out “randomly”, to ensure that pass holders are still living at the stated address. I received no such letter.
I was asked to write in with evidence of my address and I was assured that my free pass would, in the meantime, be accepted. Not true; in fact some London Underground staff have treated me as if I were a criminal and tried to fine me.
Two weeks, two telephone calls, one letter and one email later, my pass has still not been reinstated and I’m told there is a backlog. FR, London
It seems London Councils thought you were dead. It’s begun mailing pass holders whom it thinks have relocated or passed away, requesting proof of identity but says that 2% of the 2,400 passes that it consequently withdrew were wrongly targeted. You were among that 2% and the delay in reinstating you was due to a backlog. You have been resurrected and London Councils says it will refund you any fares charged if you can provide receipts.
If you need help email Anna Tims at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Your Problems, The Observer, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Include an address and phone number.
The fashion label was in dire trouble before Angela Ahrendts took over. Now, seven years on, she is among the best-paid bosses in Britain
New Palestine, Indiana, (population 2,000) is as far removed from the runways of London, Paris, Milan or New York as it is possible to imagine. But it was here, in a house so crowded she carved out a refuge for herself in the cupboard under the stairs, that Angela Ahrendts first set her sights on a career in fashion. Now as chief executive of Burberry, she’s one of the most powerful figures in the big-ticket world of luxury labels – and one of Britain’s best paid bosses: taking home £17m in 2012 (more than any man working for a FTSE-100 blue-chip company that year) and another £7m this year.
“It was always fashion,” she says. “If you read my high school yearbook, I was [someone] who at 16 knew exactly what I was going to do.”
What she has done, in the past seven years, is turn Burberry from a label that had become associated with baseball caps worn in nightclubs to the biggest British high-fashion brand, which ranks alongside anything the ateliers of Paris and Milan have to offer. She has signed up actors such as Eddie Redmayne and Emma Watson as the faces of the brand – and scored a huge publicity coup when she put Romeo Beckham in one of Burberry’s trademark trench coats for a series of glossy magazine adverts.
Ahrendts sells at eye-watering price points: Burberry sells £14,000 alligator bowling bags, animal-print trench coats in calfskin for £5,500 and £95-a-pair babies’ booties to buyers all over the world – but especially in Asia – and as a business it is now worth £6.5bn – just a fraction less than Marks & Spencer.
Ahrendts went to Indiana’s Ball State University aiming to make it as a designer, but soon realised she lacked the raw design talent of her fellow students. What she did have, though, was “very strong opinions on everything they would do”. She recalls: “A professor eventually sat me down and said: ‘We call that [being] a merchant.’”
Her ambition was evident from the outset. The day after graduating she boarded a plane for New York to bang on doors on Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue – leaving her primary school sweetheart Greg Ahrendts behind.
It was the start of a 17-year distance relationship. She lived in a tiny midtown apartment and worked 80-hour weeks climbing the New York fashion career ladder, with stints at Donna Karan and Liz Claiborne, the company that owns Juicy Couture. Eventually she married Greg, who moved to New York and started a contracting business.
Then, when she “finally had my life under control”, her phone rang. It was Rose Marie Bravo, the then chief executive of Burberry, asking her to take on the mantle of the 156-year-old British label.
“No, no, no,” Ahrendts replied. “I finally had the country home, the three kids, the dog,” she said in an interview with US chatshow host Charlie Rose. “I didn’t even meet her after the first call. I had the greatest job on Seventh Avenue. I honestly didn’t think life could ever be any better. It was just peace and happiness.” But Bravo kept calling, and she went to meet Christopher Bailey, Burberry’s up-and-coming designer. “We had lunch that day for three and a half hours and on the back of a napkin put our dreams on paper,” she says. “I loved him. I have such respect for him, he’s a very special person.”
Bailey, whom Ahrendts had worked with at Donna Karen, says it’s “sort of weird how much Angela and I connect. I knew that [meeting] was going to be a big moment in my life, and it was,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2010.
Ahrendts was still unsure of making the “very, very big move” across the Atlantic as someone who, in her son’s words, is “half a century old”. “[Having to] sell your homes, unplug your kids from school. This had to be right.”
Burberry’s history, from its founding by draper’s apprentice Thomas Burberry to supplying trench coats to troops in the first world war and dressing Ernest Shackleton for the Antarctic, convinced her it was the right thing to do. But when she arrived for her first day in the job in London – after relocating Greg and her son Jennings, 17, and daughters Sommer, 16, and Angelina, 12, to a house 20 minutes west of the city – it became clear that the rest of Burberry’s executive team had little love for the brand.
“They had flown in to classic British weather, grey and damp, but not one of these more than 60 people was wearing a Burberry trench coat. I doubt many of them owned one,” she said in a Harvard Business Review article this year. “If our top people weren’t buying our products, despite the great discount they could get, how could we expect customers to pay full price for them?”
Justine Picardie, UK editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, says Ahrendts spotted the problem early – Danniella Westbrook. The former EastEnders actress, who lost her septum through chronic cocaine use, had been splashed across the papers dressed head-to-toe in Burberry’s check. Her baby daughter was also kitted out in Burberry, and Westbrook had a beige-check pram. The distinctive check, which dates back to the 1920s, had also become uniform of choice for yobs and football hooligans.
“Burberry had become so associated with a downmarket image,” says Picardie. “That iconic plaid had become… I’m not going to use the word chav, but that incredible legacy had become associated with the cheapest form of disposable rip-off fashion. Ahrendts and Christopher Bailey have taken it back to its pure heritage.”
Bringing the brand back from the brink was a hard, expensive slog involving buying back 23 licences Burberry had sold to allow other firms to put its check on everything, including disposable nappies for dogs.
“I feel like I spent my first few years here buying back the company – not the most pleasant or creative task,” she says. “But we had to do it. If you can’t control everything, you can’t control anything, not really.”
Creative control was given to Bailey, 41, whom she appointed “brand tsar” and then chief creative officer. “Anything that the consumer sees – anywhere in the world – will go through his office.”
It won her few friends at the start. Within a year she had fired the whole of the company’s Hong Kong design team and closed factories in New Jersey and the Rhondda Valley, south Wales, to centralise manufacturing in Castleford, West Yorkshire. Closing the Welsh factory caused a political firestorm and she was hauled before parliament to explain the decision.
But her relentless focus on reviving Burberry’s heritage to the “millennial” digital generation – which includes selling trench coats with mink collars, alligator epaulettes or studded leather sleeves – has worked wonders. Annual sales have more than doubled since 2007 to £1.9bn, and the share price has doubled since she took over in 2006 to £13.70. Ahrendts, who starts work checking her emails and social media before 5am most days, has benefited to the tune of £23.7m in pay, bonuses and perks over the last two years.
The perks of the job include a chauffeur-driven black Jaguar, help towards the cost of sending her children to an American school in London, and a £25,000 annual clothing allowance –on top of her 80% staff discount.
The clothing allowance is the best money Burberry could spend, according to Picardie, who says Ahrendts, who stands more than 6ft in heels, is “the best advert for Burberry Prorsum”, its haute couture range. “She is always in Burberry Prorsum, and she wears it well,” Picardie says. “She shows how Prorsum can be worn by women other than Cara Delevingne and other glamorous young girls in its campaigns. She is wearing it as a consummate professional independent woman and is a very good advert for people that can actually afford to buy it.
“She is the opposite of the flashiness of Rich Ricci [the Barclays investment banker who topped the City pay league in 2011]. She is the antithesis of the hot air, flashy, empty, hollow men. She has substance.”
Picardie says those in the fashion industry believe Ahrendts – who is a relatively unknown figure to fashion editors but is close friends with Will.i.am – is worth every penny because she’s “not only revitalised Burberry, but helped make British fashion a massive success” by bringing Burberry’s premier fashion shows back to London.
Sir Harold Tillman, chairman of the British Fashion Council, says he had made convincing Ahrendts to bring Burberry’s shows back to London his “key mission”.
“The very first time I went to meet her when she had just taken over I was so nervous it felt like my first job interview because it was so important to get her to bring the shows back,” he says. “She sat there and listened to everything I had to say, and six months later Burberry [womenswear] came back and put on the best possible show.”
Burberry has led the charge for other designers to show in London and ensures that the likes of Vogue editor Anna Wintour will now always come to London fashion week. On Tuesday Burberry will also bring its menswear show from Milan to London’s Kensington Gardens for the first time in more than a decade.
The day after Ahrendts’s massive 2012 pay deal was reported by the Guardian last week a Burberry executive emailed all staff seeking to quell any resentment by explaining that most of the money was from previously awarded bonuses.
“There’s no resentment. Everyone knows it’s an insane amount, but everyone thinks she’s totally worth the money,” a Burberry executive said. “Everyone loves her.”
The former MI5 chief turned novelist discusses over lunch her strangest meal ever, the state of the secret services – and the advantages of owning a dog
The strangest meal Dame Stella Rimington ever had was soon after the Berlin Wall came down, when the senior members of Britain’s secret services met their counterparts at the Lubyanka in Moscow. Having spent nearly 40 years Tinker Tailor Soldier Spying on each other, desperate for scraps of information, here they were walking through the front door of the KGB building. “We must have looked like something out of the zoo to them,” she says, “and they did to us. We had only defectors’ accounts of these people, and suddenly here they all were in front of us.”
Was there, I wonder, a sudden sense of shared humanity, a celebration of the final thawing of the cold war?
“No, there wasn’t,” she says, with a quick laugh. “It was more like wild animals looking at prey they could no longer eat. They were in this highly disturbed state where everything they had taken for granted about the future no longer applied. But one thing was for sure – they were going to hang on to their own positions and power. [Boris] Yeltsin had put a professor in charge in the hope of democratising and modernising them. He didn’t last more than a few months.”
Old habits dying hard, the Russian intelligence services still followed the Brits around Moscow on that trip and when they had a private dinner they knew their conversation was being recorded and all the ham-fisted waiters were KGB men. “Suddenly we didn’t care at all. There was a hysteria around the table so we all started saying various things that caused the waiters to twitch and raise their eyebrows. It was quite the weirdest day of my life.”
Rimington, now 78, is recalling these events in the Red Lion and Sun in Highgate, a gastro pub not far from her London home. My recording machine is in plain sight on the table. I guess in retirement all working lives seem another country, but few can seem as foreign a place as that of the ex-head of MI5. She attempts to bridge that gap by writing spy fiction; the seventh of her novels featuring her young alter ego Liz Carlyle is about to be published. She lives mainly in the country, and as she says: “Sitting, as I was doing the other day, in Norfolk imagining someone in difficulty in the Yemeni desert is tremendously relaxing.”
Rimington is a surprisingly informal and warm presence, giving hardly a clue in her manner of her former power. Others worry about her security, but she doesn’t. If she does venture out for lunch it will almost always be to a gastro pub for which she is spoilt for choice near both her homes. She likes this one because it is “cosy, unfussy and they have kept the original fixtures” and orders decisively the asparagus and salmon with nicoise salad, and a glass of sauvignon blanc. “The nature of my career has made me wary of social things,” she says. “Initially, there was the need to not tell people what you did. You would slightly dread the question because you know you would have to make up some story.”
Did that come naturally to her?
“It did come quite easily. But you tended not to accept invitations, or cultivate wide circles of friends and I think I am still the same. I am quite reclusive by habit now.”
She split up from her husband 30 years ago and, having raised her two daughters, has subsequently lived alone, which she likes. “Loneliness has never occurred to me,” she says. “Certainly not when I was working. The fundamental secrecy of the job means that it is a cohesive family unit. You can share things with colleagues that you couldn’t share with even your closest friends, which was strange I suppose. And of course there is an easy answer to loneliness: get a dog, which I have now.”
The last time I knowingly sat down with a British spook was when I was approached by MI6 after university and had a couple of surreal job interviews in rooms with darkened windows off Pall Mall before it was mutually agreed I was probably not about to become our man in Havana. My abiding sense then was that you would need an unshakeable conviction that what you were doing was right in order to lead so double a life. Having led that life herself, I wonder if she ever doubted its purpose? She must consider herself a great patriot?
She finishes her mouthful of English asparagus. “I suppose so, a bit like Mrs Thatcher in that way – the way she was always talking about her country. I think that sense that we were trying to be on the right side was strong. That came from my father, who fought in the first world war and worked in the steel industry. I came from an era where there were clear-cut enemies. In the cold war we were facing another country that wanted to completely change our way of living and had nuclear missiles aimed at us. Plus there was a covert war going on, with subversive acts aimed at undermining western democracies and making us all communists. My patriotism comes from that. I thought our democracy was clearly worth defending.”
Her father fought at Passchendaele, and was “never able to relax after that, a very uneasy soul, difficult to get close to”. She joined the intelligence service almost by accident having followed her husband on a work posting to India, and taken up a clerical job in the Foreign Office. After that her mother’s influence came to the fore: she had been a formidable coper, having to “prop him and us four children up”. One of the things Rimington had to cope with, not long after becoming director general in 1992, was her cover being blown – not by the KGB but by John Major’s government. She was to be the first spy to go public.
“MI5 had no press office, so I was on my own. From day one, newspapers, particularly the Sunday Times, got my home number and told me they knew where I did my shopping and who I had lunch with. There was talk of [accessing] my medical details. All of this was dressed up as in the public interest. They published a photo of my house with my daughter’s bedroom window open to show how lax security was. It was all quite alarming.”
When we have lunch it is after the Boston bombing, but before the Woolwich attack. She must feel relieved every time there is a situation like that where she is no longer the one having to help form a strategy?
“In a way, yes,” she says. “But leaving the service [she retired in 1996] was a combination of relief and bereavement. There is a sense of loss that you are no longer at the centre of things. From the outside, I think the service is in a good place having prevented terrorist plots here for a long time. But one day something will happen. That is the worry that lurks in the heart of every director general all the time: is there something we have missed?”
As a surrogate for that sense of anxiety and responsibility, Rimington immerses herself in her writing. How close is her fictional spy to herself?
“It’s not all accurate but it’s a bit memory lane-ish,” she says. “I think she has developed as a person through the books. Less spiky and more nurturing. When she first started she was obsessed with her boss and thought she was in love with him, but he went off with someone else. Put it this way: she is all the things I like to think I once was. Sparky and spiky. I let her say many of the things I thought but didn’t always say about all the patronising male colleagues and so on.”
By now Rimington has given up on a trencherman’s portion of salmon, and waves away thoughts of pudding. She has an appointment to get her dog washed. Before we leave I suggest it seems appropriate that she should be reflecting now on so unlikely and fantastical a life in the form of fiction.
She laughs. “I thought of calling my autobiography A Life of Surprises. I thought I was going to be a county historical archivist and have children. It didn’t quite turn out like that.”
The Geneva Trap (Bloomsbury, £7.19) is published in paperback on 4 July
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The Scottish singer on chips, going vegan – and her youthful nickname of ‘Katy Custard’
My earliest memories are of California, when my dad took a year’s sabbatical at UCLA, and the orange and lemon trees seemed like things out of Dr Seuss.
There was a fantastic sweetshop in St Andrews where I grew up called Burns. My favourites were chewy lemon bonbons. My mother discouraged sweet-eating and, as a girl with brothers, one had to protect one’s wares. So I’d squirrel away my stash in a shoebox in the wardrobe.
In Scotland, Dad grew courgettes which were the size of my leg. I’d step into the garden and it was like The Day of the Triffids. He was a physicist so maybe there was some nitrogen derivative being brought home from his lab.
My younger brother Daniel was born deaf. He just wouldn’t try anything food-wise and I took pleasure in forcing him to try new things. I’d offer him hot chocolate and he’d make a screwed-up face. But I’d insist and then he’d have it and his face would light up and he’d become a fan for life.
After one of my parents’ dinner parties, I crept to the kitchen and finished off a sherry trifle. I was seven or eight and I don’t know whether it was the alcohol or the cream, but I became confused and barfed all over the stairs.
We used to go to a swimming club in Cupar (eight miles outside St Andrews) when I was young and we’d get fish & chips afterwards from a really good shop, but not be allowed to eat them during the 15 minute drive home, because we had to eat them at the family table, with forks. It was torture, them sitting in the lap, all vinegared and salted. So I just can’t eat chips with a fork. It ruins it. You should feel a chip, like you should feel a pizza. Chips are infact one of my major vices in life. Even if I’m completely full I’ll still eat chips. I think I’ve got a separate chip stomach.
I think it was Dad who gave me my nickname “Katy Custard”, recognising my deep, positive and lasting relationship with it.
When I went to university I survived on jacket potatoes and pasta for three years. Long afterwards, I was on the dole and never ate out. When I received my first big cheque for my publishing deal, I ran to Marks & Spencers and blew £50 on lovely food.
I’ve been to Japan five times on tour and the food is crazy. Without a translator I’ve eaten what I thought was angel-hair pasta and it’s turned out to be jelly fish.
In 2001 I went pescatarian… well, aquavore. Pescatarian sounds so wanky, so I say aquavore.
I stopped having meat after a two-pronged attack of an old chicken fillet and a petrol station ham sandwich. Recently I’ve become vegan, after watching a film called Forks over Knives [which advocates a plant-based diet]. Also, my dad dying while I was recording my new album sharpened my sense of mortality. But I’ve yet to find a sherry trifle made with soy custard and soy-based cream.
KT Tunstall’s Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon is out now on Virgin