Career advice from Rifkind and Skidmore

Last night was the second 'humanities evening' at Cathy's and Jenny's school (Last year's inaugural event is described here.) Although it was not put quite like this, the evening is for students who "aren't scientists, mathematicians or linguists". Attending, therefore, were assorted lawyers, politicians, managers (eg health service, theatre), investment analysts, educationalists, journalists, publishers, a clerk to the House of Commons, armed services staff (RAF), academics, and others. Thanks are due to them for taking the time to volunteer to tell young students (age 13 to 18) about their lives and career choices.

Stars of the evening, so far as Cathy was concerned, were Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who gave the keynote speech, and Mr Chris Skidmore, a young (my adjective) historian and politician. Malcolm Rifkind is currently MP for what I think of as "Alan Clark's seat", that is, Kensington and Chelsea. Before that he served as a minister in several departments for 18 years of Tory administration under John Major and Margaret Thatcher, and before that was a lawyer. He spoke entertainingly and informatively about why he chose to study law at university – he was in the school debating society – and why he went into politics – both debating and law taught him to be articulate and to see both sides of a question. While studying as a postgraduate he went to Africa (Rhodesia as was) and subsequently taught there for two years, a broadening experience of the type he recommended to everyone. After his witty speech, he kindly stayed behind to answer questions and chat to the students, which he did very openly and amusingly. (I now know who is going to be the next US president ;-). )

Perhaps more appealing to Cathy was to see and hear Chris Skidmore, who is either 26 or 27. He studied history at Oxford, then embarked on a PhD, at the same time joining various political groups and networking compulsively (his fingers typed imaginary emails while he explained how he did this). He did various "casual" jobs, including one for Robert Lacey, helping the author with his famous (to us) "tales from history" series of books. Apparently Mr Lacey offered to introduce Chris to his agent, who signed him up. Chris was writing a book about Edward VI, so wrote his outline and sample chapter, which the agent took round the publishers. "After about 10 rejections" (not giving up being a theme of his talk), Chris won a contract and then had to write the rest, so gave up his PhD and set himself the task of writing 1,000 words a day. He said his history degree came in very useful for this purpose as he'd had to write so many essays – the process of writing the book was very similar. He's currently working for Michael Gove, Tory shadow education minister, and is now parliamentary prospective candidate for Bristol Kingswood, which is where he grew up. What made him throw his hat into that particular ring, he said, was when David Cameron became leader of the Conservatives. He could see the party was onto a winner, so applied to be "listed" as a possible candidate. He could not apply for the Bristol Kingswood vacancy when it first came up because it is an "A list" seat (?!), but the person who won that job lost heart in 2005 and resigned, which meant by party rules that Chris could apply. He was relieved to be appointed, not only because he knows the area but because he was previously prospective candidate for an Islington (central north London) constituency – not a good place for a Conservative in any event, and certainly not when the sitting MP has the persuasion and majority of this gentleman

In the meantime, Edward VI: The Lost King is doing very well, being chosen as Guardian book of the week when published in 2007. Chris is currently writing another book, this time on Elizabeth I.