Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Insider

It was such a pleasure to read ABC journalist Mark Colvin's Light and Shadow - Memoirs of a Spy's Son (2016). Colvin's memoirs explore his early life with his Australian mother Anne, his British diplomat/spy father John, and his younger sister Zoe. The Cold War was quietly raging and the family moved from post to post - Austria, Malaysia and beyond - while his father worked in espionage, a profession under pressure following the outing of the Cambridge Five Spy Ring.

When Mark was old enough, he was sent to Britain to boarding school - a brutal, punishing experience which he describes in great detail. At school Colvin fell in love with reading and music. His memoir is peppered with the soundtrack of his life and the stories that he enjoyed.

While studying English literature at Oxford, Colvin visited his father at his latest posting in Mongolia for summer holidays. Colvin's stories of Mongolia and its nomadic people reminded me of my own travels to Ulan Bator via the Trans-Siberian railway.

Colvin was an old-school reporter, with a solid credo: 'don't make up your mind before you've gathered the facts'. He learned on the job as a cadet covering events that shaped Australia in the 1970s and 1980s like the Dismissal, the Granville train disaster and the Hilton Hotel bombing. He describes the tape recorders, reel-to-real machines, editing suites and difficulties of reporting in the pre-Internet era.

My dad was a journalist and foreign correspondent. Colvin's life as a reporter reminded me so much of my dad, that I felt waves of reminiscence as I was reading. Whether Colvin described his assignment during the Iran hostage crisis, the trial of Klaus Barbie, interviewing Lech Walesa, or events in London in the late 1960s/early 1970s, I thought of the stories my dad had told me of his own experiences in the fourth estate.

After covering the major events of recent decades, Colvin's career as a foreign correspondent was cut short by a rare and devastating illness contracted on assignment in 1994. Later, Colvin became a beloved presenter of PM on Radio National, an advocate for organ donation, and amassed an enviable Twitter following.

My only gripe with this memoir was that it is not long enough. Colvin himself acknowledges that there are many more stories to tell. I wanted to know more about his mother and also about his later life. His wife and children are barely mentioned, indeed they are pretty much absent from this tale, although undoubtedly major influences in his life. His desire for privacy is further evident in the fact that his illness was covered in less than two pages. Colvin had a lot more to say, but unfortunately this memoir will have no sequel.

From time to time I would see Mark Colvin present at events in Sydney. The last time I saw him live was at the 2015 Festival of Dangerous Ideas, when he interviewed the newly released Peter Greste about his year in an Egyptian prison, the decline of journalism as a career, and the vital importance of a free press. I didn't realise how little time he had left with us.

Mark Colvin died on 11 May 2017. I heard about his death from Colvin himself in a beautiful tweet: "It's all been bloody marvellous." That about sums up my feelings after reading his memoir - bloody marvellous!