Fa­ther’s enigma at the cen­tre of a for­tu­nate life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

ou know his voice, doubt­less trust it, as he mo­tors for­ward in a din­ner­time ur­gent, gen­tle­manly chip­per, half Aus­tralian way. Mark Colvin has spent a work­ing life­time in­sin­u­at­ing him­self into our homes, preter­nat­u­rally calm and in­sis­tently cu­ri­ous, amid the crackle of tu­mult at home and far away.

The old-school for­eign correspondent and wag­gish Twit­ter denizen @Colvinius is into his fifth decade at the ABC, de­ter­mined not to be de­fined by his war sto­ries, mul­ti­tude of roles at the na­tional broad­caster or, as he proves in Light and Shadow, any of his de­bil­i­tat­ing phys­i­cal ail­ments. Still, this mem­oir marks the es­sen­tial, if not con­clu­sive, Colvin: ur­bane and gritty, non­cha­lant and pos­sessed, sunny and se­cre­tive.

The in­ter­play of light and shadow per­vades the book; pro­vides its ten­sions and or­gan­is­ing prin­ci­ple, and aptly de­scribes the au­thor’s credo for ob­serv­ing the world. The same mo­tif un­der­pins the dual (at times du­elling) nar­ra­tives of fa­ther and son, spy and jour­nal­ist, both yearn­ing to be “up and away”, al­ter­nat­ing be­tween the Holme­sian modes of Sher­lock and My­croft.

This story is as much an odyssey to de­fine, nay find, a fa­ther, so far yet so close, as it is to make sense of a whole world, also now gone.

“He had,” Colvin writes of his fa­ther’s de­meanour when the then 13-year-old is taken to a smoky, base­ment Paris night­club, “some­thing of the chameleon about him ob­vi­ously, whether by na­ture or train­ing: the spy’s abil­ity to be at home in, or fade into the back­ground of, wher­ever he was”. It’s a win­dow into the modus operandi of the re­cidi­vist for­eign correspondent, too, at home in the world yet at times ev­ery­where and nowhere.

Light and Shadow be­gins with a tour de force of chap­ters, vivid in de­tail and beau­ti­fully paced, about Colvin’s first post­ing to Lon­don in 1980 and the dash to Tehran to cover the Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion in Iran. Colvin hits the ground run­ning, tak­ing read­ers into the may­hem.

There are weeks of crowded hours, events cas­cad­ing into se­cret ren­dezvous, con­fu­sion and ter­ror, and the con­stant dread of not be­ing able to get au­dio or vi­sion trans­mit­ted, let alone past the “brutish, thor­ough and word­less” Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards.

Bet­ter to leave the ay­a­tol­lah’s and mul­lahs’ grim ac­tu­al­ity in the cone of lit­er­a­ture, so to speak, lest a re­viewer spoil the drama. But this mid-story launch not only gets the nar­ra­tive rolling, it lays down the emo­tional and in­tel­lec­tual bedrock, the non-stan­dard bag­gage of the au­thor af­ter cov­er­ing “an ex­tra­or­di­nary and per­haps piv­otal mo­ment” in world af­fairs.

The shadow of the book is the Cold War and spy­ing ca­reer of John Ho­race Rag­nar Colvin in Britain’s Se­cret In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice, bet­ter known as MI6. The for­mer naval of­fi­cer (whose fa­ther had been an ad­mi­ral in the Royal Navy) was re­cruited into the SIS when the Cam­bridge Five — Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Don­ald Maclean, John Cairn­cross and Anthony Blunt — were “still burrowing deep in­side the sys­tem”. He’d re­cently mar­ried Anne Man­i­fold, a woman from the western dis­trict of Vic­to­ria, who’d es­caped the “sti­fling and parochial at­mos­phere” of 1940s Mel­bourne.

Colvin was born in Lon­don in 1952, when the deep chill of the Cold War had set­tled in. The con­flict, he writes, “dic­tated our move­ments as a fam­ily and de­fines the first half of my life, be­cause my fa­ther was a war­rior in its front line”.

For a long time, Colvin be­lieved his fa­ther had joined the For­eign Of­fice in White­hall af­ter World War II. As part of his diplo­matic lan­guage train­ing, Colvin Sr main­tained, he worked as a coal stoker on a tramp steamer ply­ing the ports of the Dal­ma­tian coast in the Adri­atic. Lucky John.

Colvin’s ear­li­est mem­o­ries are of Aus­tria, first of a re­sort town in the south­east­ern Carinthia re­gion and then Vi­enna, where his fa­ther works at the SIS sta­tion. It is the Vi­enna of “max­i­mum am­bi­gu­ity”, of Gra­ham Greene’s The Third Man, filled with “touts and shys­ters, black­mail­ers and black mar­ke­teers”. While the Rus­sians con­trol the sew­ers, the Bri­tish build a tunnel un­der the city to tap into Soviet tele­phone and tele­graph com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Colvin’s tod­dler talk is in Ger­man, ex­cept in mim­ick­ing the sailor streak in his fa­ther. “GO TO BUGGERY,” says the three-year-old, stand­ing in the back seat of the fam­ily car, wav­ing his fist at a pass­ing truck.

Af­ter a stint back in foggy Lon­don, where the Colvins wel­come a new baby, Zoe, the fam­ily heads to Kuala Lumpur. Sun­shine, at last, and idyl­lic days “as we skimmed across the Ara­bian Sea and the Bay of Ben­gal, head­ing for the Malaysian Penin­sula”.

The fam­ily lives be­hind a high hedge next to KL’s race­course. With ba­nana trees, the trunk of man­gos­teen as a cricket wicket, it is “in some ways my Gar­den of Eden”. There is free­dom, learn­ing to ride a horse, swim­ming and snorkelling on reefs in the south­ern is­lands, but­ter­fly hunt­ing and vis­its to the kam­pongs, vil­lages set among the rub­ber tree plan­ta­tions.

Af­ter the death of his grand­fa­ther, Colvin goes to Aus­tralia with his mother and sis­ter; his first taste of farm life is over­shad­owed by grief and the im­pend­ing loss of Mondilibi, the fam­ily property. Yet the coun­try is now fixed in his mind “as one of the places I’d call home, wher­ever I ended up in the mean­time”.

For Colvin Sr, again, there is the dim-light work of run­ning se­cret po­lice agents and coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence. Later, he be­comes pre­oc­cu­pied with Sukarno’s shady war in Bor­neo, what be­came known as Kon­frontasi, and the fate of West Pa­pua. Even­tu­ally, af­ter his mar­riage dis­solves, the Bri­tish agent is up to his gills in faux diplomacy and gen­uine dan­ger as “con­sul-gen­eral” in Hanoi dur­ing the most tor­rid years of the Viet­nam War.

Colvin’s par­adise of light and rel­a­tive safety (save for a spec­tac­u­lar se­ries of boy­hood spills) is lost when in late 1960 he goes back to Eng­land for board­ing school at Sum­mer Fields, on the out­skirts of Ox­ford, then to West­min­ster School in Lon­don. Like a re­porter car­ry­ing a Na­gra recorder through the 60s, Colvin reels off the pass­ing scene be­fore his eyes, some­times lit­tle more than list-like riffs of songs and films and peo­ple that will strike a chord with those who were there or soon would be.

The voice here is Pommy Colvin in ex­cel­sis, “more shy and gawky than ob­streper­ous” as a teenager, to some, he con­cludes, “I prob­a­bly seemed an ex­cres­cence”. He has al­ways car­ried off the boy-won­der dilet­tante mag­nif­i­cently, al­though dur­ing stints in the Can­berra press gallery he found Bob Hawke — no fan of jour­nal­ists — would treat his ques­tions from the me­dia pack with a “par­tic­u­lar curl of the lip”. Years later, when Hawke was prime min­is­ter, Colvin was set straight by a min­der: “He just hates Poms, mate.”

Yet this Pom in our midst, to draw on the Iron Lady her­self, has al­ways been “one of us”. Sure, there’s the proper pro­nun­ci­a­tion and eru­di­tion, some don­nish ret­i­cence and rec­ti­tude in the mix. But the dis­tinc­tive voice and pro­fes­sional per­sona is never prissy, pre­cious or ef­fete, un­like many in our diplo­matic and po­lit­i­cal corps. As this mem­oir shows, Colvin has al­ways been able to shine in high and low reg­is­ters, of the heart as well as the mind.

He sees his fa­ther in­fre­quently at this time; he was posted to be Her Majesty’s am­bas­sador in what was then Ulan Ba­tor, cap­i­tal of Outer Mon­go­lia. Colvin (much) later finds out the main rea­son for this out­post is to con­ceal a sig­nals in­tel­li­gence sta­tion to mon­i­tor com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween China and the Soviet Union. Dur­ing a visit to see his fa­ther, the au­thor has a rare en­tree to China dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion and ex­pe­ri­ences the eerie splen­dour of a re­mote, sheep-heavy land (some may say a good prepa­ra­tion for his later life).

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Ox­ford, Colvin moves to Aus­tralia; his mother has re­mar­ried and set­tled in Can­berra. He, al­most lit­er­ally, walks into an ABC jour­nal­ism cadet­ship in Syd­ney in 1974.

Mark Colvin with his fa­ther, above, from the cover of Light and Shadow; the vet­eran re­porter to­day, left

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