Father’s enigma at the centre of a fortunate life
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