Monday 15 May 2017

Britain is a country which made but Australia is a continent which has lost, its scarce old, journalist giant and broadcaster, Mark Colvin

Mark, who was for many years in the front line of Australian journalism and broadcasting, has died at the age of 65. Based in Sydney, for the last 20 years of his life he was the presenter of 'PM', one of the flagship Australian radio current affairs programs on the ABC Radio Network. Confined to the studio, after having contracted a rare auto-immune disease covering the Rawandan Genocide in 1994 which blighted his life and led to years of subsequent illness, he was Australia's eyes on the outside world. Mark's life in Australia began when he was 23, in 1974, but before the leather-jacketed, motorbike-riding Gauloise-smoking Mark joined ABC as a cub reporter, the essential Mark had been made in Britain. He was the product of both a unique family life and traditional public school / Oxford University education, but was always much greater than the sum of his parts.

Mark was born in London in 1951, the son of Elizabeth, who came from the Western District of Victoria, Australia, who had escaped the “stifling and parochial atmosphere” of 1940s Melbourne and John, who had been brought up in leafy Hampshire in England. He later reflected that his Father 'was not at my mother’s bedside when I was born because he was working in espionage.' In fact, although he had officially joined MI6 in the the same year as Marks's birth, he had joined clandestinely two years before.

John probably told young Mark that he himself had been born in Tokyo the son of Admiral Sir Ragnar Colvin, the then British naval attache in Japan, and who later commanded the Royal Australian Navy during the early years of the Second World War and he himself had trained as a naval officer before the War. It is entirely possible that he didn't mention that he : had been on the battle cruiser Repulse when it was sunk by the Japanese off Singapore in 1942; was blown out of the crow's nest then picked up from the water by escorting destroyer; in 1945 led a small band of guerrillas behind enemy lines in what later became Vietnam and although only a 'lieutenant', received the swords of the Japanese commanders when they surrendered.

Although he didn't know it at the time, Mark later reflected that the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the USA - led West, 'dictated our movements as a family and defines the first half of my life, because my father was a warrior in its front line.'  It meant his Father was 'often wandering around doing things secretly. Even my Mum didn't know where he was and what he was doing a lot of the time, that's the nature of being a spy' and 'I remember him reading me stories when I was going to bed, but a lot of the time he just wasn't there.'

Mark found out later that, when he was 4 in 1956, his father 'was part of the delegation that went to America to try to persuade the CIA to bring America in with Britain in the invasion of the Suez Canal, which was a massive event in 1956 in which the French and British tried to get the Suez Canal back from Egypt and completely failed.'

On of his Mark's earliest memories were of Austria, where his Father worked at the Secret Intelligence Service station in Vienna and where as a three year-old, he was confined to standing in the back seat of the family car and contented himself by waving his fist at a passing trucks while repeating a naval expression picked up from his father : "Go to buggery."

He remembered, with affection, the time when he "was very happy when I was four and five and six." The family were living in Kuala Lumpur when his Father was running of hill-tribe forces as counter-insurgency troops during the Malayan Emergency. It was an idyllic childhood existence where they lived behind a high hedge next to the racecourse and where the trunk of mangosteen served as a cricket wicket. He recalled that in some ways it was his "Garden of Eden" with horse riding, swimming and snorkeling on reefs in the southern islands, butterfly hunting and visits to the villages set among the rubber tree plantations.

Then at the age of seven, he was flown back to England and 'Summer Fields', a boarding school for boys on the outskirts of Oxford, which he recalled, with understatement, as : "pretty horrible"  and where, in reality, he "was savagely, savagely beaten and physically, not sexually, abused by people who got some kind of sexual charge out of physical abuse of small children and I think the thing I'm left with from that is a really strong understanding and empathy for that whole subject of child abuse."
(8.57 into the clip )

He still returned to Malaysia : "I would still be coming home in the long holidays to Kuala Lumpur and my parents were still together, but when my parents split up, that was a very unhappy time."

He recalled ; "In the summer holidays of 1964, when I was twelve, I discovered the world of Sherlock Holmes and over the course of a few weeks, devoured it all." Many years later he wondered if his career as a journalist had a "Sherlockian tinge — bouts of frenzied activity followed by torpid meditation " and provided a useful insight into how he saw his craft : "I’ve been intrigued by the relationship between Sherlock and his older brother Mycroft. Sherlock is driven to experience the world for himself. He is a pair of eyes, sometimes aided by a magnifying glass or a microscope, but one who uses his capacious learning and fierce intellect to interpret what he sees. Mycroft, who rarely leaves the Diogenes Club, however, is almost like a disembodied mind, a brain that uses the eyes of others to see the world, then processes it."

This was the year he took up his place as a boarder at the prestigious public school for boys, Westminster School, located within the precincts of Westminster Abbey at a time when Andrew Lloyd Webber was in the sixth form. With origins before the 12th century, its alumni included Ben Jonson, John Dryden, Robert Hooke, Sir Christopher Wren, Louis Theroux, John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, Edward Gibbon, Henry Mayhew, A. A. Milne, Peter Ustinov, Tony Benn and seven Prime Ministers. It prided itself on an ethos based on liberal tradition reflected in the 1560, 'Charter of Westminster' which stated : ‘The youth which is growing to manhood, as tender shoots in the wood of our state, shall be liberally instructed in good books to the greater honour of the state.’

1964 was also the year his father took him to a smoky, basement Paris nightclub, which revealed : “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.”
Mark indicated his unhappiness in these years when he recalled that, as a teenager, he was “more shy and gawky than obstreperous. I probably seemed an excrescence”

Between the ages of 15-16, his father was posted as the British Consul in North Vietnam capital Hanoi from 1966-68, which coincided with the American bombing operation, 'Rolling Thunder,' where he wasn't permitted to build an air-raid shelter under his residence and, unknown to his family, observed proceedings over a cold drink from his balcony. Mark missed him badly : "He was there for two solid years and those were the two hardest years of my adolescence" and had "zero contact" with his father at a time when he "really sort of needed him in a way."

In addition, when his Father did return to Britain : "he married my Stepmother, which changed the relationship a lot. My Dad was a weird guy - he got married in secret" and without telling him and his sister Zoe, which was "like a complete and utter shock." They had, in fact, met the new wife when his father had contrived a 'chance' meeting in a train before he remarried. On the journey between Winchester to London they were "walking up the train, ostensibly looking for a nice compartment with three spare seats, But in fact, what happens is that we're halfway up the train and he says, "On look, there's somebody I know." So we go in and he introduces us to this young woman, Moranna Cazenove and that's how we met her. It was obvious in retrospect that it was totally pre-planned, but that was the only time we'd actually met her before they got married."

After successfully gaining a place at Oxford University at the age of 18 in 1969, he took a year out working as a photographer in Canberra where he had "parental support from my Mum." Then returning to Britain he embarked on his undergraduate study for 'Greats' and Christ Church College and was scarcely settled in when his father left Britain for a posting in Outer Mongolia, despite promising his mother, in Australia, that he would be around for Mark's undergraduate years. Mark recalled : "The whole decision that I would go to Oxford was taken on the basis that he would be there."

"the one place you couldn't ring him" and "when I eventually did go there, I had to fly to Hong Kong and take this six day train journey through China to get there."
As Her Majesty’s Ambassador in what was then Ulan Bator, capital of Outer Mongolia, his Father was there to run the signals intelligence station to monitor communications between China and the Soviet Union. It was

"I had the last two and a half years at University completely on my own without a parent to support me." He had no where to stay during vacations and "ended up with an uncle and aunt who were kind to put me up."

Towards the end of his studies he : 'took a walk in the Suffolk countryside with a friend of my father’s, a man who’d made a lot of money in the Mad Men era in New York working for the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. He asked me what I wanted to do. ‘Write, I think.’ ‘What do you want to write about?’ ‘I’m not sure. I’ve just spent three years studying the Greats, and that’s intimidating. And on top of that, I don’t feel I’ve done enough or seen enough to write a real novel.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘people who can write but don’t have a subject are generally advised to go into advertising or journalism.’ 

Mark's undergraduate course, known colloquially as 'Greats' would have involved him in the study of the classical writings of Greece and Rome with a strong emphasis on first hand study and critical reading of primary sources in the original Greek or Latin and ranging over History, Philosophy, Archaeology, and Linguistics. In Mark's case, the aim of the course : to give him the skill to 'effectively assess considerable amounts of material considerable amounts of material of diverse types and select, summarise and evaluate key aspect' and 'acquire the skill of clear and effective communication in written and oral discourse and the organisational talent needed to plan and meet demanding deadlines' were, in the light of his subsequent career, fulfilled.

There is no doubt that Mark's three years at Oxford had a formative influence on his young mind that partly explains why he would say years later, as a successful journalist and talking of his professional ethos : “My real interest, was, had always been, in the opinion and perspectives of others: in walking around a subject, as one walks around a building or a sculpture in a museum, trying to see it from every possible angle.”

Mark also drew comparisons between his own profession and that of his father : "The journalist’s classic questions — What makes you tick? Where’s the money? Who really runs this town? Cui bono? (Who benefits?) What lies behind what you’re telling me? How will this actually work in practice? Why are you lying to me? Who are you loyal to and who would you betray, and for what? — have become second nature, to the extent that the greatest temptation and danger is cynicism. They also, again, almost uncannily, mimic the mindset of the spy."

Having graduated from Oxford, Mark lacked direction : "I wasn’t totally indolent — I’d achieved a perfectly respectable ‘good second’ BA (Hons) in English at Oxford — but above all I didn’t know what I was fitted for."  He ruled out photography : "I’d worked for nine months in a photographic darkroom at the Australian National University in Canberra, and for a while as a photographer at a local newspaper in the West of England. But, although competent, I thought I didn’t have the ‘eye’ to be as good as my photographic heroes, and that I was better at writing the captions than taking the pictures."

In 1974 Australia beckoned him. His mother has remarried and settled in Canberra with her second husband. Shortly after arriving he literally walked into an ABC journalism cadetship in Sydney. "Somehow, Aunty, where the BBC voice was still pretty prevalent in those days, saw something in me and, stylish in a denim jacket with patch pockets and a pair of flared trousers." 

Within a year was reporting from the capital, the bush, the fires and the NSW Parliament 'bear pit' and was soon on the tiny reporting team at infant Sydney youth radio station 2JJ. He still 'had no long-standing vocation to be a reporter before I became one. Even halfway through 1974, my first year as a trainee I had real doubts about whether I would stick with the trade. I was one of those people who, at twenty-one, did not really know who they were, let alone who they wanted to be.'

Mark only found out the full truth of his father's work as a spy when he was 25. It led him to consider the similarities between himself and his father :

'The possibility that I stepped unconsciously into a field of work that I thought was the opposite of what my father did, but may have only been so in the way that the reverse sides of a coin are opposite to each other. Running in a great circle, only to realise you’re almost back to what you were running from. And there’s this : a spy and a journalist, if they’re doing their jobs properly, are both trying to find out the truth behind the lies and propaganda, even if they use radically different tools. So in some way, by trying to be as unlike my father as I could, I was perhaps not so different at all : for both of us, information gathering was our trade, and constant doubt and questioning the knives we wielded.'

and the differences :

'Yet there was a fault line between father and son, the believer and the doubter, the insider and the outsider, which came into sharp view years later. One night he asked his father about “the mirror-world of moral grey areas, dilemmas, paradoxes and complexities” explored in the novels of John le Carre. “What about you?” he asked his father : “Did you ever find any ambivalence or ambiguity about what you were doing?” To which he replied : “Never. Not once. Not for a single minute.”'

There is no doubt that Mark's early years endowed him with the intellectual curiosity and spiritual resilience which took him through the rest of his life. He said of his autobiography, published last year, 'Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy's Son,' that he felt like 'the legendary lost dog on the poster - Three legs, blind in one eye, missing right ear, tail broken, recently castrated … answers to the name of 'Lucky' and that 'despite near-death experiences and chronic illness' he'd had 'A Fortunate Life.'

Mark was no stranger to Australia at the time of his arrival in 1974  There were the visits to his cousins when he was a boy, as can be seen with him riding behind his Dad in a farm truck at Christmas in 1959 and his first taste of Australian farm life on the Mondilibi Homestead when he was older, when his grandfather died and, of course, the year he spent working in Canberra when he was 18. Before he settled in Australia, Mark already rated the country “as one of the places I’d call home" and it is not possible to know if he would have enjoyed such a glittering career as a journalist if he had stayed in Britain, but it unlikely. Nick Bryant, the BBC's Sydney Correspondent from 2006 to 2011, put his finger on it when he wrote : 'In that great Australian everyman sort of way, he could detect the cant and fraudulent in an instant. His Australian side asserted itself more strongly than the British.'

In his last tweet, it seems only fitting that Mark may be showing deference to both the much loved English actor John Le Mesurier, who uttered the words : "It's all been rather lovely" to his wife before slipping into a coma in 1983 and Buzz Kennedy the long standing editor and columnist for 'The Australian.' who published 'It was Bloody Marvellous', his anecdotal memoir in 1996.

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