Mark Colvin, aged 7, and his father, off the south coast of Malaysia, 1959. Picture: Supplied

My father was a spy. I wrote a memoir to understand him.

When Mark Colvin sat down to write his autobiography, he realised the only way to do it was to look at not just his own life as an investigative journalist, but also his father’s life as a spy.

By Mark Colvin

Mark Colvin at Double J, circa 1976. Picture: ABC Archives

I thought for years about writing a book, but I kept on putting it off. I wrote a few chapters in the late nineties, but I abandoned them because they didn’t feel right.

It was partly because, being centred on the illness which nearly killed me in 1994, they resembled one of those stories that magazines call TOT — Triumph over Tragedy.

But it was also — paradoxically — because they were all about me.

I’m afraid that long ABC training has given me the habit of avoiding inserting myself into the story. I’m a professional bystander.

Still, you clearly can’t write an autobiography without writing about yourself, and as I worked on my memoir Light And Shadow I gradually realised I’d hit on a way to do both — a piece of long-form investigative journalism and a memoir.

A story of my own formation and one of the greatest influences on it — my witty, manipulative, sentimental, loving, moody, extrovert, secretive, brilliant father, who I knew so well but on another level could never know at all.

Who was there and then not there, in and out of my life, and who for far too many years — due to both of our jobs — lived thousands of kilometres away at a time when communication was either maddeningly slow or prohibitively expensive.

The war and its aftermath made him an actor, on the world stage

Mark Colvin’s father outside the family house in Kuala Lumpur. Picture: Supplied

My father really wanted to be an actor. He ran away as a teenager from the Royal Naval College Dartmouth with the intention of going on the stage, only to be collected by his parents and returned.

But the war and its aftermath, the Cold War, made him an actor on the world stage. Like a lot of people of that generation, Dad was self-deprecating about his naval career — he was a junior officer, on ships that took no part in the war’s great battles. And that was true so far as it went.

It was left to his old colleague Rowan Ayers, a pioneering TV producer who ended up living and working in Sydney, to tell me how he remembered Dad as a midshipman on a cruiser in Scapa Flow, putting on some kind of surrealist play which involved him standing with one foot in a bucket of water in the wardroom tearing up ten-shilling notes.

Rowan and Dad were also in Sri Lanka together, training as part of Lord Mountbatten’s Colombo-based force to re-take Southeast Asia from the Japanese.

What I wanted to know was what they were training for, and the last time I saw Dad in September 2002 I asked him.

That was when he fleshed out — a little — the story I already knew about how he’d been dropped into Vietnam in a midget submarine to run a resistance network against the Japanese.

So I had the clear understanding that he’d spent the last couple of months of the war doing special forces work.

Following a trail of breadcrumbs

Mark Colvin’s father driving their cousins on a farm in Victoria, Christmas 1959. Picture: Supplied

A lot of my research started like that — from little nuggets that he dropped in conversation, and I was able to follow up through the recent burgeoning of espionage non-fiction about the period.

A similar chat, for instance, is how I know he was part of the MI6 delegation that tried vainly to persuade the CIA to help invade Suez — a disastrous invasion that began exactly 60 years ago.

But I could never get him to record an interview, even one embargoed till after his death.

There was a lot that he never mentioned at all, and one of my discoveries in this book was that his special forces work spanned the whole of 1945.

John Colvin’s Panamanian Merchant Navy registration papers, dated September 1949, which describe him as a ‘trainee’. Picture: Supplied

I know that now because — it turns out — he was a frequent guest at events organised by one of the leading historians of British intelligence, Professor Richard Aldrich, and it was to Richard that he told the story of how he ran gunboats across the Adriatic in early 1945 — dropping agents into Yugoslavia to fight with the resistance against the Nazis.

Knowing that helped me understand why, when he was recruited into MI6 a few years later, he was immediately sent to learn Serbo-Croat.

And that connects to his cover document as a trainee seaman in the Panamanian merchant Navy on a ship in the Adriatic in 1949, a copy of which is in the book, and, other intelligence experts tell me, is a rare surviving example of a piece of SIS or MI6 “cover”.

Separating what I thought I knew with the true story

Mark Colvin, aged about 4, with his beloved dog Bamse. Picture: Supplied

So the few breadcrumbs that Dad had dropped in my presence tended to become a veritable trail, which, followed to the end, started to resemble a respectable piece of historical writing, interwoven with a personal memoir.

The parallel lines: what I saw of his life and mine as a child and a teenager, compared with a new understanding of what was really going on.

And eventually I came to realise that there was an arc that joined his life and mine, and it was the arc of the Cold War itself: the secret war that he had prosecuted, sometimes on the front line, and the war that I had covered as a foreign correspondent in Europe and Africa, Asia and the Middle East, as it drew towards what seems now inevitable — the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But it did not seem inevitable then. It was dangerous and real.

The ‘New World Order’ it ushered in, on which this story ends, was allegedly going to mean the “End Of History”. What an illusion that was.

“History doesn’t repeat”, someone said, “but it rhymes”, and writing this book made me realise afresh that history isn’t frozen in amber — it echoes down the years.

Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son, is available now in bookshops and online.

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