Inside Story

Knocked sideways by luck

Three writers explore the mixed inheritances that helped fuel their work

Susan Lever 31 July 2017 2436 words

In the shadows: Mark Colvin, aged seven, and his father, off the south coast of Malaysia in 1959.

Press Escape
By Shaun Carney | Melbourne University Publishing | $29.99 | 277 pp

Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son
By Mark Colvin | Melbourne University Publishing | $32.99 | 277 pp

A Führer for a Father: The Domestic Face of Colonialism
By Jim Davidson | NewSouth | $29.99 | 272 pp

When you look at your father, how much of yourself do you see? Alive, his personality may overwhelm your sense of self, but after his death the question may return with more force. It hangs over many memoirs and autobiographies, especially when decades of resistance to a powerful figure fail to erase the clear mark of likeness on the author’s own personality. Writers as various as Edmund Gosse, Philip Roth, Christina Stead and Germaine Greer have wrestled with difficult inheritances from their fathers, whether absent or too present, authoritarian or wayward, attention-seeking or remote.

Three recent memoirs by Australian men make this relationship central to the structuring of their life narratives. Each author is the only son of a failing marriage, and each feels the need to investigate the mystery of his father. Journalist Shaun Carney recognises something of his father’s extrovert personality in his own desire for public attention, but is reassured that his mother’s quiet seriousness is equally evident. Broadcaster Mark Colvin enjoys finding himself to be the “reverse coin” of his father: they share an eagerness to learn as much as they can about the world, but Colvin’s own enthusiasm for conveying information to the public is a counter to his father’s secretive life as a spy. For historian Jim Davidson, acknowledging that his talents as a writer and researcher reflect those of his father is more difficult.

Reading the three books together sharpens the contrasts between the personalities of the authors and, even more importantly, highlights their different life experiences. Each bears witness to important changes in Australian domestic and working life as he considers the personal implications of social, political and technological change. Though the three were born within fifteen years of each other, their different class positions and opportunities are telling.

Carney’s account of growing up in outer-suburban Melbourne in the late 1950s and 1960s could be a companion piece for The Art of the Engine Driver, Steven Carroll’s novel set in the same period. It will remind many older readers of their own experiences in the postwar years, when returned servicemen built their own homes and sent their children to state schools that, in turn, gave bright students access to the new universities. Carney went from Kananook Primary School to the newly established Monterey High School near Frankston, and then on to study at Monash University. He claims to have been a mediocre student, the kind of teenager whose reading of choice was Marvel Comics, and to have been inspired to become a journalist by Clark Kent. At twenty, he was offered a cadetship with the Melbourne Herald, moving to the Age eight years later and remaining there for the rest of his career.

His would have been an utterly ordinary childhood if not for his father. To an admiring boy, Jim Carney was the knockabout Australian man, a welder who insisted on putting together their ramshackle two-bedroom house without professional help. As time passed, though, Jim’s absences from home and arguments with his wife forced his son to take a more critical view. Although the family seemed unambiguously Australian, it was peculiarly isolated; as an only child, their son feels it intensely.

In adulthood, he understands that his father’s illegitimacy made him want to start anew, and that his mother’s marriage was an escape from the restrictions of a family who expected her to slave away for them in country Maitland. While Jim wanders, having affairs, changing jobs, seeking outlets for his extroverted personality, Eddie remains the supportive, serious, reliable mother who ensures that Shaun pursues an education. When he asks her why she didn’t leave his father, she explains that her financial situation and lack of work skills cut off that option. It was a familiar situation for women of her generation.

With his father spying for MI6, Mark Colvin has a more exciting story to tell. His grandfather was an admiral in the British navy and his father left the navy a few years after the second world war as a lieutenant commander. By the time Mark was born, John Colvin had begun his secret career in cold war espionage. The family lived in Vienna when Kim Philby and his comrades were shopping British agents, then Malaya as it became Malaysia, then moved back to London while his father lived in Hanoi as British consul general during the Vietnam war.

When Colvin senior was British ambassador in Outer Mongolia, the undergraduate Mark travelled across China by train to join him in Ulan Bator – an extraordinary journey across a nation, embroiled in the Cultural Revolution, that was normally closed to Westerners. The older Mark pursues his father’s trail even more doggedly, reading each new spy memoir and all the newly released MI6 files to piece together an adventurous career in the shadows.

John Colvin’s absences meant that his marriage had disintegrated by the time his son was ready for high school. Mark was sent to board at the brutal Summer Fields prep school near Oxford – in an aside, he wonders that concern about the sexual abuse of children doesn’t extend to other physical abuse – then to Westminster School in the heart of swinging London. He graduated from Oxford with a passion for English literature, and decided that journalism might be the next best thing to an academic life.

Both Carney and Colvin suggest that getting a job as a journalist was easy in the 1970s. Colvin’s Australian-born mother had remarried and was living in Canberra with his younger sister, and he decided to join them. In no time, he was working for the ABC as a news cadet, then on the team at the Sydney youth radio station Double J. A wonderful photograph shows him with long hair and moustache holding the receiver of a phone while balancing a cigarette in the same hand. Colvin was both journalist and performer, his “Pommy” voice familiar to ABC RN listeners for decades.

His ABC news career included a terrifying experience in Tehran when Jimmy Carter instigated an abortive rescue attempt for the hostages in the US embassy, an early arrival at the scene of the Granville train disaster, and the occasion when his good manners rewarded him with a scoop confirming Robert Trimbole’s death in Spain. He is amusing on the relatively primitive nature of news broadcasting in the 1980s, including the need to run between buildings to deliver the Double J news. Alligator clips and public phones feature frequently as the journalists struggle to file their stories back to the studios on makeshift equipment, and Colvin regrets the loss of some wonderful stories because of technical failures.

Carney’s newspaper career was more traditional, starting with police rounds then advancing to the prestige of the Canberra press gallery and opinion pieces. He is aware that he may be recounting a way of working that looks to be lost forever with the collapse of the print media. On the other hand, broadcast journalist Colvin regards the internet as a boon to information gathering and dissemination. By the time of his final illness, he was enthusiastic about the possibilities of Twitter as a news source and grateful that such technology was available when he was least mobile.

Carney claims that his generation is marked more by their lifelong experience of television than by the youth revolutions and pop music of the 1960s. Colvin, five years older, recalls his excitement at the emergence of Bob Dylan, the Beatles (whom he managed to see, but not hear, in London) and the Rolling Stones. Both journalists became reviewers and enthusiasts for rock music.

Jim Davidson was too old to engage with the popular music of that era, though music has had a significant place in his life. He recalls reading Alfred Einstein’s Music in the Romantic Era and responding to its conjunction of his two passions, classical music and history.

The late child of parents born at the turn of the twentieth century, Davidson seems a generation away from the experiences of Colvin and Carney. When he writes about his grandparents, he is recalling people who flourished before the first world war. If Colvin sees his father as a participant in the end of the British Empire and the creation of a new world order during the cold war, Davidson depicts a father active in an earlier iteration of that Empire, born in South Africa and working for colonial companies in Fiji and New Guinea. He interprets his father’s later career as a dealer and collector of Aboriginal art as a continuation of that colonising role.

With his parents separated, Davidson was sent as a boarder to Mentone Grammar in suburban Melbourne, where he suffered bullying (though not the regular beatings dished out at Colvin’s proper British school). He returned to his father’s home on weekends, where a succession of women tried out the vacant position of wife. His father was alert to any failings in his son’s masculinity and appeared ready to deride him as effeminate long before Jim’s own slowly developing awareness of his sexuality.

It is, perhaps, in his account of his life as a homosexual man before law reform and gay liberation that Davidson’s book may offer most to the historical record. He found Ormond College at the University of Melbourne a refuge from the sports obsessions of the outside world, and his dinner companions were a like-minded group of young men who cared about literature and music. Such was the need for secrecy at the time that it was years before he discovered that four of the six were gay. Pursuing postgraduate work in London, he still thought a woman would enter his life, and he ventured timidly into an underground gay scene where he found class division still evident.

He enjoyed the more democratic atmosphere in Melbourne’s gay clubs, particularly the Woolshed Bar, but an unnerving experience of being taken to Russell Street by the police on suspicion of murder served as a reminder of his vulnerability. Even as the editor of Meanjin in the late 1970s, he felt it wise to be circumspect.

Much of the later part of Davidson’s book describes his perseverance with his father’s new wife and sons in an attempt to create the supportive family network denied him in childhood. His father’s will creates a new rupture as the two younger sons strategically distance themselves from him. By this point, a financial inheritance seems to be Davidson’s last hope for some emotional resolution of his relationship with his wilful, controlling father.

Davidson’s book raises questions about the motivations for writing memoirs like these. Carney makes it clear that he has been stimulated by the sudden loss of his career, and the desire to make meaning of a life when his millions of published words threaten to disappear into oblivion. Colvin has the obvious spur of debilitating illness as he races to get down everything he knows and wants to say about the world (his book is the only one with an index). Davidson declares that his book is an attempt to write himself back into his family; rather than a recollection of a career framed by remembrance of a father, it is focused on the personal experience of a rejected son.

Paradoxically, Carney’s and Colvin’s experience as journalists communicating to a wide public has given them a greater reticence about their families than Davidson displays. Carney mentions his own marriages and children only to narrate the terrible experience of his daughter’s leukaemia and a surprising act of support from Peter Costello when treasurer. Colvin includes photographs of his two sons and mentions a wife, but gives us no further information about them. Davidson’s memoir is the most subjective and domestic, at times recalling grievances that might have been allowed to pass. As its title attests, it runs counter to Colvin’s rule of journalism: “Never start with a conclusion.”

There are moments, too, when Davidson makes odd assumptions about the likely experiences of his audience. “Most fathers,” he tells us, would have discussed their wills with their sons. And he comments that Ormond College lacked snobbery because “it was so effortlessly dominated by people from Scotch College.” He knows that he was among an elite, but appears unaware how that may undermine the sympathies of his readers, especially when financial inheritance is at issue.

Carney gives his father credit for providing him with an imagined audience for his newspaper stories: the man who read the paper every day, though his other reading might not extend beyond joke books and the Reader’s Digest. Colvin acknowledges the rich range of experiences given to him by his father, and an instance when he was driven to call on his father’s help to get him out of danger. He recognises that they have shared interests in politics and literature, and similar personalities.

While Davidson refuses to allow his father much leeway, he does depict a man of extraordinary willpower who managed to escape Tasmanian poverty to educate himself as a surveyor and businessman, and then as an expert in Arnhem Land art. His own abiding interest in the history of the British Empire, and his breadth of knowledge about art and music suggest that his father’s commitment to education served him well. This education gave him the cultural background to promote “Whitlamite high culture” as editor of Meanjin, and to write his highly regarded biographies of Louise Hanson-Dyer and Keith Hancock.

Any clichés about poor rich boys and self-made achievers may be knocked sideways by the sheer luck of an individual life. Carney sees himself as part of “one of the luckiest generations in human history,” born in Australia at a time when education was open to every kid from the suburbs, growing to adulthood too late for the Vietnam war. Colvin’s life of relative privilege as a child of the British military elite had its downside of brutality in the school system but also gave him a great education and enthusiasm for discovering the world. His misfortune was to contract a rare disease in Rwanda and face decades of debility and dialysis before his death in May. A child from what his father proudly called “a professional home,” Davidson received the education and material comforts of an upper middle-class Australian but never the affection and understanding he needed. Luck, it seems, can run both ways at once. •