Reds under the bed, Redmer Yska

The Sixth Man: The Extraordinary Life of Paddy Costello
James McNeish 
Vintage, $34.99,
ISBN  9781869418915

James McNeish’s masterly life of Paddy Costello tells how, in the summer of 1953, this Paris-based New Zealand diplomat escorted National PM Sid Holland around Italy. Mostly the super-cultured Costello fell in with the boss’s desire to visit battlefields, but he engineered a few side trips, including the mosaics at Ravenna. Holland, who had already been dragged through the Sistine Chapel and ascended the dome of St Peter’s in the July heat, was stunningly unmoved at the prospect of contemplating these “1400-year- old mosaics symbolising the birth of Western Christian art”. You can almost hear Costello’s – and the author’s – appalled intake of breath, as lumpy Sid exclaimed, “Oh my God, Costello, not another bloody church.”

As McNeish himself notes, the tale exposes “the gap between philistine and scholar”, a reminder of the outpost Costello left behind in 1932, as a teenaged prodigy from Auckland with a one-way ticket to Cambridge. New Zealand is soon a rude memory. At Trinity College he finds his calling as a linguist and classical scholar, immersing himself in left-wing causes (including a cash-carrying trip to India to assist local communists) and marrying into a hard Left Jewish family.

In a neat twist, McNeish makes his Sixth Man not, as might be expected, the latest member of the cell of Cambridge traitors that included Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Caincross. Rather, he makes Costello the sixth “Peacock”, putting him in the company of lefty Kiwi exiles (John Mulgan, Dan Davin, Geoffrey Cox, James Bertram and Ian Milner) celebrated in Dance of the Peacocks, his 2003 multiple biography.

By 1937, as war beckons, Costello is lecturing in classics at Exeter University, a Europeanised “exquisite” with half a dozen languages. He is later very publicly sacked for his links to a left-wing student, accused of passing “secrets” to a communist newspaper. The British authorities meanwhile file away this incident to be later used as proof of Costello’s traitorous leanings. He then enlists with the New Zealand forces, men whose spirit Costello relishes even if he has already lost interest in their homeland. His linguistic skills and bravery under fire bring him to the attention of General Bernard Freyberg, who appoints him to his intelligence staff alongside Dan Davin.

Costello meanwhile teaches himself Russian and plays a valuable role on Crete as an interpreter. In 1944, Freyberg recommends his protégé be dispatched to the newly opened New Zealand legation in Moscow.

Costello’s appointment is typical of the dash and imagination of Alister McIntosh, founder of New Zealand’s newly formed Foreign Service. At his job interview in PM Peter Fraser’s suite at London’s Savoy Hotel in 1942, Costello confessed, “I’m a bit left-wing, sir.” “That’s all right,” the PM is said to have replied, “we can do with one or two communists in Moscow.”

It is quite a promotion – and we learn that Geoffrey Cox was the first choice. But, as Costello embarks on clandestine missions into Poland (where he discovers – and writes revelatory reports on – concentration camps) and attends the Paris Peace Conference, he emerges as a brilliant thinker and tactician. He is the first to posit that the Soviets possess the atom bomb – a prediction his enemies later insist confirms his treachery. British intelligence soon bends McIntosh’s ear about New Zealand’s man in Moscow. During a visit to his Wellington office early in 1945, a file-waving British High Commissioner, Sir Harry Fagg Batterbee (!), cites Costello’s skulduggery and demands his dismissal. Not surprisingly, the diplomat denies continuing links to the party. Fraser, informed but exhausted after running a war, shrugs his shoulders.

It is tempting to speculate that Fraser was also weary of pushy British spooks. Two years earlier, MI5 man Major Kenneth Folkes, imported to run a 44-strong British-style security service in New Zealand, had resigned in disgrace. This followed a scandal involving a former prison inmate who hoaxed Folkes and the wartime authorities over a home-grown spy ring. Worse, the Briton was known to privately despise the socialists in the Fraser government as “just a band of bloody wharfies”.

McNeish’s vivid portrayals of Fraser’s appointees abroad do little to overturn this view. Charles Boswell, the hapless head of the New Zealand legation in Moscow, a recently defeated MP and elderly ex-teacher, banks most of his expense account. British High Commissioner Bill Jordan, a former London policeman, is equally parsimonious. He and Attorney-General Rex Mason are seen in Paris “crouched down together over a gas jet, sipping cups of cocoa in their hotel room.” Costello has, of course, swanned out to the Opera.

But, as we know, politicians like Mason – a theosophist, vegetarian and total abstainer – were outriders of an independent-minded New Zealand, one questioning its relationships with traditional allies. It is probably not surprising, then, that Costello was promoted in 1947 to head the Moscow legation. Fraser and McIntosh clearly judged his value greater than the approval of a conservative intelligence community. But, as American spy boss James Jesus Angleton famously noted, a security file “is not a perishable item”. The incoming National Government of Sid Holland, keen to resume traditional relationships with “dear old Great Britain”, proves more receptive to the Costello rumours. Meanwhile it carries out its election pledge and closes the Moscow legation on financial grounds.

The scholar envoy, fresh from tête-à-têtes with Boris Pasternak and translation work of Russian literary gems, does little for his reputation when he makes a single return visit home in 1950. A long-term self-medicator with alcohol, he is arrested for spectacular drunkenness in Auckland, and for trying to bribe a policeman. Special Branch has of course been observing his every lurch.

The incident is hushed up – and a chastened Costello returns to Europe to a job as first secretary at New Zealand’s new Paris legation. But the Holland government now owns him. And when passports are issued to Soviet spies Peter and Helen Kroger out of the legation in 1954, blame later falls on Costello. This incident is routinely cited as final proof of his guilt, but after examining the evidence and long suppressed security records, McNeish concludes that Costello was never involved.

That same year Vladimir Petrov, Soviet spy and third secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, sensationally defects. Reds are turning up under every bed. Recently disclosed documents show that the government of Robert Menzies even hatched plans to set up internment camps in the Australian countryside that would hold up to 10,000 members of the Communist Party and their sympathisers.

New Zealand governments were more restrained. Burned by the Folkes fiasco, they left security work to the Special Branch of the Police until the formation of the SIS in 1956. But, as I outlined in All Shook Up (1993), an army of civil servants was busy planting anti-communist tracts in the national media in the post-war era, monitoring and orchestrating opposition to Red “front” organisations. Responsible Minister Jack Marshall says of this murky work: “it is most effective when it is least obvious.”

The time for old lefties like Costello was passing. The post-war ANZUS dawn sees America’s ambassador to New Zealand calling, on Britain’s behalf, for the diplomat’s head. By late 1954, he is forced to resign from the Foreign Service, taking up a job as Professor of Russian at Manchester University. McNeish hints that Costello’s dismissal helps hasten his death seven years later, at 52.

The Sixth Man is a tribute to a gifted New Zealander who came to symbolise his volatile times. McNeish avoids hagiography; more often he is muttering and ruminating as he picks up a spoor here, uncovers a document there. He, too, ends up concluding the man was a shadow, an enigma. And was he a Soviet mole? Is Costello, as the book’s publicity claims, “vindicated”? Not entirely. “Wilderness of mirrors” is a good description of the secret world, where proof of anything is wispy, elusive. As the writer Philip Knightley notes, “the whole point of a covert intelligence operation is to leave no trace that it ever took place, much less who organised it.”

 

Redmer Yska is using his 2008 National Library Research Fellowship to write a social and institutional history of New Zealand Truth newspaper.