mark colvin

I Interviewed My Dad, ABC Veteran Mark Colvin

BY WILL COLVIN

MY FATHER AND I have what could be described as an unusual relationship.

My dad is Mark Colvin, a half-British, half-Australian with an Oxford education and more than forty years experience working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He’s widely regarded as one of the finest and most well-respected members of the Australian journalistic community.

Dad was the son of a very senior member of MI6, John Colvin – a British spy who spent most of his life under the cover of a diplomat. Dad didn’t even find out his dad was a spook until he was very much an adult.

He’s also spent the last twenty-two years of his life struggling against a rare and chronic auto-immune disease called Wegeners Granulomatosis. It’s an illness he developed while he was working overseas in a warzone, and it all came from picking up a fairly innocuous virus that just happened to look, to his body’s own immune system, a little too much like the rest of his cells.

Once his body killed the virus, his immune system decided everything else inside him, his bones, tissue and organs, needed to be killed too.

Despite that, he’s spent the last two decades working like a dog to raise me and my brother, whilst doing some of the best journalism this country has ever seen. And if some commercial radio cunt like Ray Hadley or Alan Jones wants to disagree with me on that, come and have a go if you’re hard enough.

But I worry that growing up with a father with a chronic illness can desensitise you to other people’s pain. Because I’ve lived with him my whole life, I feel like I’m maybe less phased by other people being in pain than perhaps I should be.

And what’s so unusual about our relationship? I think it’s pretty well summed up by an anecdote in which me and my best friend took MDMA pills and hid in the garden, spying on my father as he clipped his nails and patted the dog. Then we went in and told him what a fantastic man he was and just how many drugs we’d taken. He wasn’t worried.

So I sat down and talked to my Dad about whether I’m a good son, what’s wrong with my generation, what’s wrong with his generation, and what it was like for him growing up as the son of a professional liar.

First question. Can I have some money? 

Why don’t you ask me a question I’m unfamiliar with?

Seriously though, can I borrow $200 and pay you back later this evening?

I’m not going to have this conversation on the record!

Do you remember what happened with the incident of the wicker chair, when I was about seventeen or eighteen? Can you tell me about the wicker chair [I got super-drunk and shat myself everywhere]?

I don’t want to. I don’t want to!

Please.

Oh god. All I can remember is a whole night of just cleaning up shit. In the bathroom, in the bath.

And then, having cleaned up enormous amounts of shit, coming out and finding that, not content with having missed the toilet and shitting in the bath and shitting everywhere, you’d sat down on a wicker chair in the dining room and thought that you were sitting on the toilet, and you’d shat through the holes in the wicker chair.

And there is very little worse than first, having to clean up a wicker chair, which I guess you could probably do to a degree with a hose. But also, the awful kind of splatter pattern that is left by the shit that has gone through a wicker chair and shot off in all directions. It’s just indescribable.

What was your relationship with your dad like?

He was a person who, just because of his job, 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.

I remember him reading me stories when I was going to bed, but a lot of the time he just wasn’t there.

I know now that in 1956 he was part of an MI6 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 the British tried to get the Suez Canal back from Egypt and completely failed. It brought down the British prime minister – it was a huge event in history.

How do you think that affected you?

I don’t think that part of it affected me too badly because I was very happy when I was four and five and six. We went off and lived in Malaya as it was then called – Malaysia it’s called now.

And then I got sent away to boarding school when I was 7, and that was pretty horrible.

But I still would 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.

When they did split up, my Dad was still living around the corner and we had an arrangement where we could walk around and see him when we liked. That was pretty good. And he promised that he’d always be there and we could always go around and see him.

And then suddenly he got this job in Hanoi, and that was the one place in the world where we couldn’t visit him. He was there for two solid years, and those were the two hardest years of my adolescence. I had basically zero contact with him. I think I was maybe thirteen or fourteen, and I really sort of needed him in a way.

There was always this terrible worry because he was in Hanoi while the Americans were bombing it, so we never really knew if he was alive or dead.

When he came back he got married to my stepmother, which changed the relationship a lot.

Tell me more about when he got married to your stepmother, ’cause that’s quite an interesting story.

My dad was a weird guy – he got married in secret.

He told my sister, Zoe, and me the night before that he was getting married and we couldn’t come to the wedding, because they were having a secret wedding because Moranna, my stepmother, was the daughter of an old friend of his who was a bit mad… this was his excuse. So they got married and went off on their honeymoon and it was like a complete and utter shock.

How did you meet Moranna for the first time.

Spies are so weird, you know, they have spy habits which they just move into their private lives. We were on a train going back from Winchester to London.

We were walking through, they had carriages with compartments in them, rather than those open carriages they have now, they had little compartments with a door that slides open and shuts and six seats in every compartment.

So we’re 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, “oh look, there’s somebody I know!”

So we go in and he introduces us to this young woman called Moranna Cazenove and that’s how we met her.

It’s so obvious in retrospect that it was totally pre-planned, but that was the only time we’d actually met her before they got married.

What about when you became a teenager, what was your relationship like then?

He had a big problem with his authority being challenged. He came from an era where a father was a father figure, almost like an Old Testament father figure.

He was the son of an admiral, who was the son of a very senior public servant. So it’s this long line of authority figures, and people who lived in a culture where everybody was sent away to boarding school and quite often didn’t see their own parents more than once a year.

The whole cultural situation has changed so much, the idea that all parents should be present is a pretty new one in that sense – in that class, anyway.

So he didn’t take kindly to his authority being questioned, but on the other hand he absolutely loved arguing, he loved debate. The problem there for me though was that he was almost impossible to beat in debate – if you’re a sixteen year old up against somebody who’s read everything, that can be quite hard.

He had very strong views. I probably these days tend to go, “one the one hand, on the other hand,” when you and I have debates – but he didn’t do that. He was quite absolutist, and because I was sixteen I was quite absolutist too – so we had a lot of arguments.

He was almost impossible to beat on the central issue of the day, which was the Vietnam War, because he had the trump card: he’d lived in Hanoi for two years and he knew what the Viet Cong were like. He’d also lived in Saigon in 1945 and 1946.

So he knew a great deal about Vietnam. I [thought] the Vietnam War was a huge waste of time and money and people and expense and was doomed to failure, and he believed that it was the last bastion against the spread of Soviet Communism.

But then again, he could be very surprising in the sense that, for example, one day he said, “have you ever smoked marijuana?” and with some trepidation I said, “mmm, yes, maybe, a couple of times”, and he said, “what’s it like? because I used to smoke opium when I lived in Saigon.”

Which wasn’t the reaction I was expecting.

What was your relationship like when you were an adult?

Well, he did the same trick again when I was about nineteen and I was at Oxford, and he had promised my mother solemnly that the one thing he would do was not take any postings until I’d finished my university degree.

And then at the end of my first term at Oxford, he announced that he’d been appointed as the British Ambassador to Outer Mongolia, which again was the one place you couldn’t ring him. If you wrote to him the letter wouldn’t get there for three or four weeks, and when I eventually did go there I had to fly to Hong Kong and then take this six day train journey through China to get there.

You couldn’t have a more remote place.

So I had the last two and a half years at university completely on my own, without a parent to support me. That was kind of difficult because the whole decision that I would go to Oxford was taken on the basis that he would be there.

I spent the whole of 1969 working as a photographer in Canberra. At the end of that year, when I was due to go back to Oxford, I was seriously tossing up whether to stay in Canberra, where I had parental support from my mum. But I went back to Oxford on the promise that Dad would be around for three years, so that I’d have somewhere to live during the holidays.

For instance, the summer vacations at Oxford are two months long and you can’t stay in college during that time, you’re not allowed to. Not having parents in the country was a pretty difficult thing, and I ended up with an uncle and aunt who were kind to put me up.

How did your relationship continue after that?

We were fairly much estranged because we had a huge row when he was in Mongolia over exactly what I’ve been talking about, the fact that he’d left and that he’d promised to act responsibly and that he’d acted irresponsibly.

I wrote to him about that and the fact that he’d left my mother with all the financial burden of looking after me and taken none himself.

And he just returned the letter, opened, but he wrote on the envelope “returned unread.”

Which was obviously ridiculous because he’d opened it and read but he was trying to do this thing of pretending he hadn’t read it.

When I left Oxford I didn’t see him for a long time after that, because he was still in Mongolia and when I left Oxford I went straight to Australia. Then I started work at the ABC and didn’t see him again until 1978, by which time he was in Washington.

When did you reconcile with him?

It was after I’d spent three years working at Double J, and I was leaving to go and work for ABC TV News, and I took a three month holiday. I went to San Francisco and New York, and I was going to stay with him in Washington.

He flew up to New York because he wanted to tell me formally, before I went to stay with him, that he was a spy.

That’s when he first told me that he was a senior member of MI6 and the only reason that he told me was that I was going to be staying with him at the same time as a couple of his colleagues from London, and he needed to tell me that I needed to be incredibly discreet and that I had to totally keep it secret.

I had to go on keeping it secret until you and I were in London in the mid 1990’s, when he was outed by a spy writer called Nigel West, who wrote a book with an extract from Dad’s memoirs in it. MI6 had given him permission to out Dad, so were finally able to talk about it publicly.

How do you think your relationship with your dad influenced the way you are as a dad?

Well it determined me to never send either of my children to boarding school. It determined me to be there as much as possible for my children, and even though I was a foreign correspondent for a lot of your early life – and then very ill – I always tried to be a good Dad to you and take you to lots of places.

When you were little we used to go the theatre and the children’s theatre and films at the weekend, and I’d cook your meals for you every evening. I tried to be as much of a present dad as possible, I think that was the biggest influence in trying not to make the same mistakes that he made.

But the great cycle of life means that you probably swing too far in the other direction, you look out for the mistakes that your parents have made and make a whole lot more of your own, probably.

We get on pretty well, but has it always been that way? Were there times when I was perhaps more difficult than I am now?

I always thought you’d survive, but I knew you just had to work out your own path. The boys in our family tend to work out quite later on what they’re going to do.

Maybe what was difficult for previous generations is that both my father and his father were just put in a set of tram lines. They were sent off to boarding schools and both sent off to naval college when they were early teens.

They were sent to a special kind of boarding school that was designed to turn you into a Royal Navy officer. So you had no kind of chance to express your individuality.

Anyway, you were an averagely difficult teenager. You were always extremely dogmatic. I always remember you insisting that you hated indie music and that you would always hate indie music and the only music you’d ever like was metal.

And absolutely refusing any form of argument about whether you might change or develop in that particular way. You were quite dogmatic.

You were stroppy and you didn’t want to do the things that you were supposed to do. You took far too many days off school, giving terrible excuses.

And you were argumentative and surly and the usual teenage boy things.

I was particularly difficult to get up in the morning wasn’t I?

I think I’ve blotted out the worst things about it. You would shout at us sometimes, or you would just pretend to be ill.

And then there were the negotiating sessions, where you’d have to be given reasons. It wasn’t so much that you had to be bribed, you just had to be given a hundred reasons.

Getting you up just turned into this sort of debating society exercise. Some mornings it just went on so long that you might as well have missed school anyway.

I had a real problem with eating food in the morning. I was really picky about food in general, but particularly in the mornings.

Your diet was absolutely hideous. That was another thing, you simply could not be persuaded to eat a decent meal. Knowing you now it’s hard to believe, but you were famous for refusing to eat vegetables, fruit, just about anything except McDonalds and pizza.

That really did worry me, I thought you’d never grow out of it. I thought you’d end up dying of a heart attack at forty because your diet was so terrible.

You used to force me to take you up to Maccas or wherever it was to get a burger because you simply wouldn’t eat anything else.

Particularly given that there was a great deal of effort being made to cook you a rack of lamb with vegetables and roast potatoes or whatever, and that would be there and made for you, and you would just absolutely reject it like a tiny toddler.

The other thing that was really frustrating was you’d get this thing where I’d finally find things that you did like, you’d suddenly decide it was okay if I made you a lamb burger or something with lots of herbs and onions and various vegetables snuck into it, and I could even get some salad into that. And then the next week you’d decide you hated that, all of a sudden, it’s “I hate that, you know I’ve always hated that.”

[I was thinking] “what am I going to do with this boy?”

By William Colvin, star writer
will@sneakymag.com

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