EVEN in her choice of pastime Dame Margaret Anstee gives the impression of being a loner. That rare combination of steadfast diplomacy, rigorous intellect, good humour, and sheer guts drove her up one of the most precarious career ladders to become, in 1987, the first woman under-secretary general of the United Nations, an isolated status which lasted seven years, compelling her to ask herself: ''Am I the light that failed?''

But now in retirement she makes nonsense of that somnolent word by being as active at the age of 76 as ever, hurtling around the world as an honorary UN consultant on peace-training projects or enjoying the solitary, contemplative pleasures of obsessive gardening. For 50 years Anstee

has known the emptiness of the long-distance hotel room, the secret personal fear embedded in hazardous missions, and the singular joy of defying the odds to create oases of therapeutic nourishment in the most unpromising circumstances.

In the midst of the ugliest civil strife she snatched fleeting moments of calm to grow kidney beans in Angola, and in her beloved Bolivia, where she has a second home on the shores of Lake Titicaca, Anstee has tamed a wild promontory with Inca-style terraces draped in hanging plants and a blaze of roses thriving as if 14,000ft above sea level was their natural habitat.

Their radiant survival amid such isolation is perhaps a metaphor for Anstee's own resilience. But today as she surveys the obscenity of war from afar she does so with a stomach- wrenching sense of deja vu.

''I'm one of those who never felt this conflict with Iraq would be over quickly,'' she says, ''and I fear there will be a lot more terrible destruction to come. It's awful, simply awful, awful. So dreadfully sad.''

At the time of the previous Gulf war, Anstee was despatched to Kuwait as the UN secretary

general's special representative responsible for co-ordinating efforts to counter the poisonous impact of the oil wells which had been set alight by Saddam Hussein's forces.

But if the present conflagration has revived Anstee's nightmares of 12 years ago, the memories of her lonely struggle to hold together the futile Angolan peace process between 1992-93 never leave her. ''I cannot free myself from Angola, and that is the one place where I did feel excruciatingly alone, without the right mandate or the right resources, yet burdened by the massive realisation that any decision I took would affect people's lives.''

How did she get through the ordeal? ''Well, I used to rise at 5.30am, do some exercises, and swim a kilometre in the pool, and that really was all the time I had for working out what I was going to do each day.''

In her memoirs, Never Learn To Type, Anstee recalls that during her darkest time in Angola she feared she might not see either her mid-Wales home in Powys or her Bolivian villa again. However, when she did return to that altiplano dwelling, peace never seemed sweeter. One day, a Bolivian government minister inquired how she was getting on. ''It's rather like Angola,'' she quipped. ''No water and intermittent electricity. But at least there's no shooting.''

Was Anstee born a loner or did her peripatetic career make her

so? ''I was an only child who came into the world inconveniently at

4 o'clock in the morning and even more inconveniently in the middle of the General Strike. We lived in the country, and when I was 11 I went to the secondary school in the nearest town which meant I got separated from the children I'd known in the village.''

Anstee's parents were determined that she would receive the kind of schooling they had never experienced. ''My mother went out and scrubbed floors to keep the family going. Both my parents were highly intelligent and great readers, but my father, who worked in the small local printers, had left school at 14 and, from the age of 12, my mother had to look after her ailing father who was a farmer.''

Perhaps it was Anstee's own experience of war-time which gave her a taste for the singular life. During the worst of the bombing raids, she and her fellow pupils only attended school one day a week. ''You were sent home with set work for the rest of the time. As my parents were both out working I raced through my studies quickly. Then I'd roam the countryside, watching birds, and looking at plants, so, I was always quite used to being on my own.''

Driven by her mother's inspiration, Anstee worked so hard that she passed the entrance exams not only for Newnham College, Cambridge, but also for Somerville at Oxford and King's College, London. She chose Newnham and, after graduating, her public service life began, first with a stint at the Foreign Office, where she was the last person to see her boss, the spy Donald Maclean before his defection to the Soviet Union.

She remembers Maclean as a tall, imposing figure with a shock of hair swept back from an unusually broad brow. ''Had I been asked to define Donald's politics I would have deduced that he was a pale pink Liberal and that I was more left than he.''

Anstee's four decades with the UN began in 1952. The organisation, she says, seemed the perfect channel for her wish to contribute ''in some modest way'' to ending poverty and social discrimination and for forging a new way ahead for women. While on the surface this public role was varnished with the smooth elan of diplomacy, her inner life was often one of frustration and sometimes turmoil. By the mid-1950s she was married to a diplomat whose serial philandering eventually broke the marriage.

''On one occasion, to my alarm, my husband did not return from a cocktail party at the Soviet Embassy until next day. I saw my life collapsing in ruins. I had lost confidence in myself and one August day in 1955 I packed my bags and left.''

Anstee fled first to friends in Norfolk, then went to ground in Cambridge in a shabbily comfortable, rented front room. ''Had my husband come to look for me immediately I would almost certainly have gone back.'' But it was three months before he appeared, unannounced, and pleaded with her to return. By then there was no hesitation in her refusal.

At the UN, though, she continued her steady if often dispiriting climb to the summit of senior positions at the headquarters in New York. ''There was a lot of insensitivity in those days and it was very difficult for a woman. I was the first woman to head a field mission - and that's a sort of ambassadorial post - and the UN had to persuade the government of almost all the countries involved that I could do the job. So you see, it becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.''

Since there was no track record of women operating at that level, the UN was reluctant to establish the precedent. If Anstee had been a man she would have become an under-secretary general much earlier than she did. ''When I was eventually appointed it was regarded as a pilot project and after seven years I was still the only woman in that position which, as I say, is why I wondered if I was the light that failed.''

But any doubts on that score were unnecessary. When Anstee retired many of those governments that had been hostile to her

expressed profound regret at her departure. Not that she ever really left: as an honorary UN consultant she has just returned from supervising a peace-keeping training programme in Kenya and is to return to Bolivia to assist the government there in putting together its latest economic proposals for overseas funds.

''My work now is voluntary but my expenses are paid, and although I thought no-one would want me to do anything I still get requests to help the UN in lots of ways.''

In fact, there are few who

can claim to have been at the

hub of so much tumult in the past 50 years: the aftermath of Chernobyl's nuclear disaster, the Bangladesh famine of the early 1970s, the Mexican earthquake of the mid-1980s, the massive socio-economic reforms in both Bolivia and Peru during the early 1990s . . . these are just some of the key events where Anstee's expertise has been influential.

Although some worry that

the recent acrimonious sidelining of the UN from the present conflict has terminally damaged the

organisation, Anstee believes

there is a general realisation today that we need the UN, our only global forum, more than ever and that it must be central to the rebuilding of Iraq. Yet now, as war images fill the world's eyes once more, she is reminded of those days 12 years ago when she first encountered Kuwait, smoke belching as far as you could see, a choking curtain interspersed with terrifying tongues of flame.

Margaret Anstee hoped she would never witness that kind of apocalyptic vision again, but it haunts her now more than ever, whether she is readying her lovely formal garden in Wales for its summer public opening, or watching, in solitude, the sun rise over the Royal Cordillera of the Andes, sending light dancing on the dark waters of the sacred lake.

Never Learn to Type by Dame Margaret Anstee, Wiley, (pounds) 19.99.


l Born June 1926.

l Education Chelmsford County High School for Girls; Newnham College, Cambridge, First Class Hons in Modern Languages.

l Career Foreign Office, 1948-52; administration officer, United Nations in the Philippines,

1952-54; further United Nations experience in Latin America, Angola, Chernobyl, and Kuwait. Appointed first woman Under Secretary General of the United Nations, 1987-93; now honorary consultant for the United Nations on peace-keeping training; adviser to the president and government of Bolivia.

l Distinctions Became a

Dame Commander of the

Most Distinguished Order of St

Michael and St George in

1994 and has also been the recipient of numerous international honours.

l Hobbies Enjoys gardening

and hill walking in her native

Wales and at her second home

14,000ft above sea level in

the Andes.

l Highs ''Getting into Cambridge, that was a tremendous high.''

l Lows ''Losing my beloved parents, an awful blow for an only child.''