The Inventory: Tessa Jowell

Tessa Jowell, 64, is shadow minister for London and the Olympics. She has been a Labour MP since 1992 and served in both the Blair and Brown cabinets. She was appointed DBE in 2012.

What was your earliest ambition?

To be a doctor; my father was a doctor, my mother a radiographer. I was brought up in a family devoted to the National Health Service.

Public school or state school? University or straight into work?

St Margaret’s School for Girls in Aberdeen, which started out private but became direct-grant. I loved history, English and botany – at 15, I could classify every wildflower in Aberdeenshire. I studied at the University of Aberdeen, then Edinburgh, then Goldsmiths for my psychiatric social work training. I thought about retraining as a doctor at 27, but it seemed too old.

Who is your mentor?

Sir Patrick Nairne, the embodiment of brilliant, dutiful public service. He has been a steady lodestar.

Childhood dream: to be a doctor

How physically fit are you?

I am a fitness maniac. I’m one of those people whose image of their body isn’t how it looks in the mirror. A bit of me thinks I could still manage a marathon or triathlon.

Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?

Ambition unlocks talent; talent helps you to satisfy ambition.

Have you ever taken an IQ test?

I think I have, years ago.

Do you consider your carbon footprint?

I am careful about energy consumption. I don’t keep my television on, I don’t leave my mobile and BlackBerry plugged in.

How politically committed are you?

To quote Anthony Minghella: truly, madly, deeply.

Do you have more than one home?


What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?

I would love all my walking kit to be breathable Gore-Tex.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

Flowers or scented candles. I live on my own most of the time and, when you come home, you want an immediate sense of calm.

In what place are you happiest?

The top of Ilmington Hill, the most northerly Cotswold. On a clear day you have a 240-degree view of the heart of England. When I die, I want my ashes scattered from the top.

What ambitions do you still have?

I’ve still got lots of ambitions in politics. I would like the 2012 Olympics to be the best ever.

What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?

My two children.

What has been your greatest disappointment?

After 13 years in government there was such a long list of things we still had to do; and so much of what we achieved has proved so fragile in the face of the coalition’s determination to sweep away the past.

If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would she think?

“This person has turned out better than I expected, but is that really her hair colour?”

To get perspective: would go to the Dharavi slum in Mumbai

If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?

I would go to the Dharavi slum in Mumbai and spend a week with the kids I work with when I volunteer with the Magic Bus development charity. It would remind me that losing everything is entirely relative.

Do you believe in assisted suicide?

I think there is a growing public acceptance of the possibility. I would describe it as the entitlement to end suffering.

Do you believe in an afterlife?

Yes. The best description is by Thornton Wilder in The Bridge of San Luis Rey: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love.”

If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?

Six or seven, on the basis that you must always try harder.

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