October 2018 Open Book Group – Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son by Mark Colvin

Thank you to Kevin for moderating Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son by Mark Colvin.

Mark Colvin was born into an English father and an Australian mother. He was brought up in England enduring the brutality of boarding at Preparatory School, Summer fields and then attending an elite Public School, Westminster.

He travelled to Australia at the age of 21 after graduating from Christ Church, Oxford, with a degree in English literature and no clue about what to do with his life. He obtained a cadetship at the ABC in 1974, and following a short stint in the newsroom joined the new youth music radio station 2JJ (now known as Triple J) with a brief to deliver a news service that reflected young people’s interest in Australian music, drugs policy, in unemployment and the environment.

Colvin’s fierce intellect, charm and wit saw him promoted to foreign correspondent by the age of 28. He was London Correspondent for five years, a documentary film-maker for five years on Four Corners, and the founding presenter on a midday radio news show, the World Today. He covered famines in Africa, the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland and the break-up of the Soviet Union. His 1990 Four Corners Report on Ethiopia, The Forgotten Famine, won a gold medal at the New York film festival and was nominated for an international Emmy.

After contracting Wegener’s granulomatosis, Colvin was hospitalised in London for six months and his family flew over from Australia to say goodbye. However, he survived, and although the diagnosis cut short his career as a foreign correspondent, he continued to travel the world through his programme. In 1997, he returned to Sydney and commenced his role as presenter of the ABC news and current affairs PM program. He died in 2017 aged 65.

Light and Shadow is a Memoir of Colvin’s life, particularly exploring his relationship with his father who was absent for long periods of his childhood and with whom he had a fractured relationship. In his mid-20s Colvin discovered his father was a high ranking member of MI6, though by its very nature it was a forbidden topic of conversation.

The discussion opened with the group exploring Colvin’s motivation for writing the Memoir. The events covered in the book, from the personal insights – books read, music listened to – to major global events mirrored our baby boomer lives. It made for a nostalgic read.

Many quickly raised the point that there was almost no mention of his wife and family. At first, we considered this a flaw as with Colvin absent for long periods from family life, like his father, there may have been interesting parallels to explore. On reflection, we decided the book intended to look back to his parents. Colvin aware of his serious health issues may also have been motivated to write it for his children so they gained an understanding of his work, an understanding he never gained of his father’s.

A member commented that Journalists are often more acutely aware of privacy issues and that is also why he may have kept the surviving Colvins out of the narrative.

There was a stark cultural divide in the room. For those brought up in England, his recollections of the brutality of an elite Boarding School were “water off a duck’s back”. We had either experienced it and still bore the scars, or certainly knew friends who had. “You cannot be serious” was the response of those with Australian childhoods aghast at the thought of children boarding from the age of seven. Colvin’s father who, no doubt, was sent away to such a school himself would have considered it a “character building” exercise for his son.

How, we debated, had it affected Colvin’s character? It did give him a resilience and emotional detachment which proved useful when witnessing and reporting on horrors such as the Ethiopian Famine and the Granville Train disaster. That said, he came across as an engaging and empathic, for example, he knew when to take it slow and have a cup of coffee with a potential source thus setting himself up for a scoop, when other journalists, pressed for time, avoided such niceties and missed out.

Unsurprisingly given his journalistic style, we all agreed the book was a fluid, engrossing and easy read.

His efforts to find out more about his father’s spying were less successful. In the end, we learnt little about Colvin senior’s life other than he was very black-and-white in his views, particularly on communism. Mark was more grey, he was always trying to find balance in his reporting. We noted this was evident in his account of Thatcher’s Britain -The Miner’s Strike, Falkland’s War etc.. “She’s why I left and came to Australia” ruefully exclaimed a member. Colvin offers no subjective opinion on the events during her Prime Ministerial term, patiently attempting to explain both sides.

It was pleasing that in the last years of his father’s life they were able to meet on more equal terms and put their differences aside. Members recalled similar improved relationships with their own aged parents.

Another member noted that with the gradual release of Official Secrets more will be revealed over the coming years. If Colvin had lived longer he may have uncovered further insights.

Just as he had kept his family out of the book, Colvin did not dwell on his considerable health issues. He briefly acknowledges the gift of a kidney from Elle Macpherson’s Personal Assistant, whom he had never previously met. He had interviewed her remotely on PM in relation to the UK phone-hacking scandal. Surely act of generosity was worth a chapter in itself, but Colvin clearly did not wish to discuss that side of his life. Rightly the book is titled Memoirs, not an autobiography.

In the hours after his death, this tweet was sent from his account. “Its all been bloody marvellous”. In Light and Shadow he clearly tells us why.

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