Diplomat, translator, academic … Ken Ross

From Cairo To Cassino: A Memoir Of Paddy Costello
Dan Davin
Cold Hub Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780473474485    

Paddy Costello’s forte was Russian scholarship. Dan Davin’s was academic publishing. Each acquired other formidable reputations by which they are better known to New Zealanders: Davin as a fiction writer, though his masterly tome Crete (1953) is a war history, and Costello as a Soviet spy, which he was not.

Costello’s work blooms at the Alexander Turnbull Library in six books and a trio of Oxford Slavonic Studies articles, which exemplify the high talent that had him in the front row of Slavonic scholarship in mid-20th-century Britain. Davin’s performance as John Mulgan’s successor at the Clarendon Press is told in volume three of The History Of Oxford University Press: 1896 to 1970 (2013). Davin was Costello’s publisher; he also had in his publishing stable another of his friends, Isaiah Berlin, now the prime suspect as Costello’s “Soviet spy” nemesis.

From Cairo To Cassino captures the two New Zealanders’ episodic war together. The big surprise is that – despite the title − Costello is only mentioned in passing as Davin chisels the epitaph he wants for himself. He does that task as well as he did the portraits in his well-regarded Closing Times (1975). But, no way has he given us a Costello portrait to match his John Mulgan masterpiece. (When he reviewed Report On Experience for Landfall in 1948, Davin claimed that Mulgan “left New Zealand, carrying an island to the world. In the books he has left behind he has carried the world back to his island”.) The peak of the current memoir is the account of the public reconciliation between Freyberg and Montgomery: that is worth the price alone. A quality map showing dates and locations would have been helpful. 

After the war, Costello and Davin moved on to new circles of friends, but kept in touch. Costello’s 50 letters to Davin − now at the Turnbull − warrant a companion volume to this one. They are wonderfully revealing of Costello and endearing about Davin.  

Long ago, Davin described to Michael King what we have here as “half a first draft”. Well stated. Even so, James McNeish and Keith Ovenden leached much from it for their Costello and Davin biographies. A sense of loss looms over the book from Davin’s failure to craft the deluxe version on Costello he so hankered to deliver. 

Davin was pushed by King for close to a decade to rebut the charge that Costello was a Soviet spy. He fed Davin much material to help him, but to no avail − except that their joint efforts, and much more that is pertinent, is now at the Turnbull Library, awaiting a scholar to overtake McNeish’s overly fictional The Sixth Man. Neither Davin nor McNeish got close to nailing the source of the allegations against Costello. Anthony Blunt, for instance, did not inform on Costello to Peter Wright (of Spycatcher infamy). But Berlin, for one, was whispering what MI5 could not (because they acknowledged their case was always “too thin”). Yet, according to Berlin’s biographer, Michael Ignatieff, and to Wright himself, Berlin had spilled his Costello spy perspective to Wright in 1965, when Berlin was interviewed by him about Blunt. 

Paolo Mancosu’s Zhivago’s Secret Journey: From Typescript To Book (2016) reveals the extent of Berlin’s insinuations. MI5’s official reticence never stopped Berlin from spreading the idea that Costello “was certainly considered by MI5 to be an agent: his effort to persuade [Boris] Pasternak to get closer to the Communist Party (reported to me by Pasternak) is sufficient evidence”. This is from a 1992 letter Berlin wrote to Joel Carmichael, the long-time editor of Midstream. In September 1945, when Berlin arrived for a four-month stint at the British Embassy in Moscow as a newly minted “temporary First Secretary”, he received the standard security briefings. “[I]f there was something one particularly did not wish the Soviet authorities to know, it was thought inadvisable to say it to Costello” was how he recalled that briefing in November 1980, when chiding Chimen Abramsky (Professor of Jewish Studies, University of London) for taking Berlin to task for maligning Costello in his new “Conversations” article.

“Conversations With Russian Writers In 1945 And 1956” had appeared that month in the New York Review Of Books and the Times Literary Supplement (and in a much longer version in Berlin’s new book Personal Impressions). Here, he gratuitously attacked Costello, under the guise of “a Commonwealth diplomat from a far away territory”. Reading this, Davin, in his dotage, lost the oomph to push back at Berlin’s assertion. His Costello memoir simply withered on the vine to become From Cairo To Cassino. Davin did, however, arrange to lunch with Berlin at the Balliol Buttery. This they did on 9 December 1980 to pick over Paddy once more. The exchange of letters setting up the lunch is at the Turnbull Library: the elegance of their respective stroking of the other’s ego is captivating. After the lunch, Davin wrote to King, saying he and Berlin had failed to persuade each other to review their positions on Costello.

The initial Costello-Berlin encounter was in Moscow in September 1945. The pair likely grappled intellectually from the start on a high wire without a safety-net, neither seemingly falling off during Berlin’s four-month stay. (Their respective reflections are unknown, likewise whether they ever subsequently met face-to-face.) Close on five years later, Costello turned the lights out for the final time at the New Zealand legation. He left Moscow, taking numerous accolades with him. Being Pasternak’s best friend from the West was the one he most savoured. During Costello’s six years in Moscow, he and Pasternak met many times. Pasternak gave much help to Costello in 1946, as he worked on his initial commission from Davin − the revising of Maurice Baring’s 1925 edition of the Oxford Book Of Russian Verse (Pasternak’s poems were inserted by Costello). Costello couriered much for Pasternak to his sister Lydia in Oxford, including, it is possible, an early draft of Dr Zhivago. In 1948, Pasternak proposed to Costello that he do the English translation of the novel (after reading the 180-page draft, Costello declined). He had earlier that year been in the front row as Pasternak read poems at his sole post-war public appearance in Moscow.

In February this year, the New Zealand Secret Intelligence Service (NZSIS) informed a British-based researcher that a new release of Costello documents was coming “shortly”. Hopefully, the Service will then retract their 2003 statement of an anonymous “summation” of Costello, obtained in 1968 when the Service was investigating the then four years dead Costello. This declared that the latter was “a dedicated and ruthless communist, determined to out-do his Ukrainian Jewish wife in her intellectual toughness as a communist”. In 2013, Joanna Woods, in her Diplomatic Ladies: New Zealand’s Unsung Envoys, told us that the source for this claim was Geoffrey Cox. Woods’s own source was a 20 December 2002 letter her husband Richard Woods, then the director of NZSIS, had sent King. But, that letter, available at the Turnbull, does not name Cox. 

Cox is on public record as saying that Costello was not a Soviet spy. In 2005, he told McNeish “nothing about Paddy ever led me to believe he was an undercover man” and the same year told Michael Fathers: “Paddy was … too shrewd to be a [Russian] agent.” A year later, Cox made the same point to Gerald Hensley. Belittling Costello’s London-born wife would not be Cox’s style: in 1968, she had also long been a passport-carrying New Zealander. Airing Cox’s “summation” in 2003 aligned NZSIS with the then recently shamed MI5 and MI6. Three years earlier, both had been lathered by the British parliament’s high-powered Intelligence and Security Committee for playing fast through the 1990s with what became the Mitrokhin Archive, including “misleading stories [that] were allowed to receive wide circulation” – one of which has to be the long debunked assertion that Costello had issued New Zealand passports to two Russian agents in Paris in 1953.

NZSIS had a bad day at the office with the Costello material they made public in 2003. The April 2017 MI5 Costello “drop” at Kew (British National Archives) has much of that material, but without the redactions made by NZSIS (introducing some raciness to the old reports). Consequently, the NZSIS’s statement of Costello’s known guilt now looks distinctly rickety: MI5 did not claim that it had conclusively found Costello a Soviet spy; rather, that its case remained “too thin”. Davin would have had a field day, had he had the material now public, and had he been still in his heyday: he would have produced a full memoir of Costello.

Ken Ross’s “John Mulgan: The Turnbull Library Solves An Inexplicable Death?” is in this year’s Turnbull Library Record.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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