Fiona Hill has, in her own words, gone “from the coal house to the White house”. The 56-year-old foreign affairs specialist, who has advised George W Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump about Russia, was born in the former mining town of Bishop Auckland in northern England. Her mother was an NHS midwife, and her father was a coal miner turned hospital porter who advised her to leave their town, saying: “There’s nothing for you here, pet.” The family were too poor to have a television, Hill tells Lauren Laverne on Desert Island Discs, and she had to turn down a scholarship to a local private school because they couldn’t afford the uniform and books. Instead, she would take refuge in the quietest part of their small house and look things up in their complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
After studying Russian and history at St Andrews University, she won a scholarship to Harvard, from where she worked her way into the Washington establishment (she became an American citizen in 2002). During one US-Russia dinner, Kremlin planners sat her next to Vladimir Putin himself. “This is because they think I’m M,” Hill remembers thinking, “or maybe that I’m the least likely person to stab him with a fork.” In fact, as she was told later by an aide, it was because she was nondescript – not too old, not too young, no cleavage. “I was like tableware.” Next to her Putin would shine. Kitted out in a tailored suit and expensive watch, he seemed “all in command of himself” and “barely gave me a glance” – until the end of the dinner, where he turned to Hill, shook her hand and said simply: “All the best.”