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Extraordinary Biography of an Extraordinary Life

The Sixth Man – the extraordinary life of Paddy Costello - By James McNeish

Random House 2007 - RRP $35 - Reviewed by Mark Derby
For The Scoop Review Of Books

Paddy Costello’s Russian-Jewish wife Bella, we are told, ‘had in her beauty and sadness the sadness of small Jewish towns hemmed in by curses’.

The precision, power and originality of this description, from James McNeish’s recent biography of Costello, are representative of the book. Meticulous in its research, it is also replete with fine and surprising sentences, the product of its author’s long training in fiction along with many other forms of prose.

This is clearly the book McNeish has longed to write since he finished Dance of the Peacocks, his collective biography of five of the best-known scholarly expatriates of the 1930s, a period when ‘New Zealand exported such a flowering of young thoroughbreds to war and revolution in Europe’. The Sixth Man completes the picture, since Costello was a close friend of several of the Rhodes Scholars in the earlier book, his life intersected with theirs at many points, and he was at least as able a scholar, although never a Rhodes.

Yet this is a very different and even better book than Dance of the Peacocks – more shapely than that enthralling but sprawling work, and also more focused in its objective. McNeish’s purpose goes beyond celebrating the life of this hugely accomplished and dangerously attractive character. He aims to rescue the reputation of a man now remembered, if at all, as ‘the most important New Zealand spy recruited by the Soviet Union’. That allegation was never more than a vague but persistent rumour in Paddy Costello’s own lifetime. He was never charged with espionage, and even officially exonerated. Yet repeatedly, since his sudden and early death in 1964, Costello has been accused in print of treachery, and the mud has stuck. McNeish, drawing on recently released confidential documents, examines these spying charges at length and concludes that Costello was guilty only of being a frank and unapologetic left-winger. His book is a strong and convincing refutation of the smears which have lately overshadowed Costello’s many outstanding achievements.

Growing up in working-class Auckland in the 1920s, Costello was still a schoolboy when he began to develop a very un-New Zealand talent – a flair for languages. He taught himself Latin and Greek from library books, Gaelic from his Irish relatives and local wharfies, French and Italian by means unknown. Later he would add to these Russian, Persian and several more. He won a string of scholarships and became a classicist at Auckland University and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he joined the distinguished future traitors Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt. There is no evidence that Costello ever met them, let alone shared their intentions, but their mere proximity seems to have counted against him later.

As fascism spread vigorously outward from Germany, Italy and Japan, three million were unemployed in Britain, and Marxism swept across Trinity, Costello joined peace and anti-Nazi demonstrations, met victims of fascism while on trips in Europe, and moved steadily but idiosyncratically leftward. Among his friends were a fellow New Zealander, the young mathematician and communist Griff McLaurin, who would shortly die a hero’s death in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. Through McLaurin he met Bella Lerner, an English-born Russian Jew and Communist Party member, and within three weeks he married her and briefly became a Party member himself. By now a lecturer in classics at a small South England university, Costello was an impassioned and highly visible supporter of the Republican cause in Spain and even considered following his friend McLaurin to the front lines. Such associations would later prove highly damaging, although Costello made no secret at all of his views, his associates or his activities.

That is, until 1937, when he carried out a seriously compromising secret mission, in McNeish’s words an act ‘of reckless evangelism’. Soon after learning of McLaurin’s death in Spain, Costello acted as courier for the British Communist Party and carried the equivalent of $30,000 to their sister party in India. The trip passed without incident but, unbeknown to Costello, was monitored by the security services of both countries and their reports were added to a swelling confidential file on the outspokenly radical New Zealand-born academic. That file was fattened further in 1940 when Costello was sacked from his lectureship for advising a friend who, in the fevered atmosphere of the outbreak of war, was jailed for publicising information sent from the front. McNeish describes the incident as trifling, and Costello’s role as minor and entirely above board. Certainly his response to losing his teaching job would have been unusual in a secret agent of a foreign power. Costello promptly enlisted in the New Zealand army and served with distinction and courage for the duration of the war.

This book opens with an hallucinatory account of one of the least-known incidents in our military history, the April 1941 battle at the Pass of Tempe in Greece, where the 21st Auckland Battalion was ordered to stand and engage the enemy, ‘if necessary, to extinction’. Lance-Corporal Costello acquitted himself well in this debacle, his knowledge of Greek enabling his Colonel and a remnant of their force to escape through the mountains and islands of the Aegean and rejoin General Freyberg’s men in Crete. Promotion followed, and Costello found himself confronting Rommel’s tanks as an intelligence officer in Cairo, working alongside a fellow Irish-New Zealander, Dan Davin, who became his lifelong friend and admirer.

Freyberg’s keen appreciation of Costello’s language skills ensured that he kept the lanky linguist nearby through subsequent campaigns in Italy. As Russia’s role in the war became crucial, the general joined Costello’s informal Russian language classes and noted his ability to exchange banter with visiting Red Army officers. In the closing months of the war, it was Freyberg who suggested that Costello leave his army duties to join the embryonic New Zealand legation in Moscow. Security vetting was routine but unproblematic. New Zealand Rhodes Scholar Geoffrey Cox, first choice for the legation post, had worked closely with Costello during the war and reported that he was a Marxist who ‘would insist on his views openly’. Indeed he did. ‘I’m afraid I’m a bit leftwing, sir,’ he told Prime Minister Peter Fraser, who was apparently unconcerned at sending this ‘communist’ to Moscow.

There Costello proved an able diplomat, and within a year was seconded to the British delegation at the 1945 Yalta conference between Churchill and Stalin. He succeeded in crossing the closely guarded border with Poland and, against heavy odds, brought back a report of profound international importance. It was titled ‘German Extermination Camps’ and gave his eyewitness account of the gas chambers at Lublin, together with accounts he received from survivors of Auschwitz. The report, reproduced in full in McNeish’s book, was perhaps the first reliable and detailed description of the Holocaust to reach the outside world and helped to counter accusations that stories of Nazi atrocities were a hoax.

Costello spent six years in Moscow, acquiring a convinced distaste for Russia’s dictatorship and a profound love of its literature. He befriended the aging and dissident poet Pasternak, and translated the work of the 19th-century playwright Griboyedov. His diplomatic reports on everyday life in various parts of Russia were so informative as to arouse suspicion of their sources, and Costello, an unconventional and non-aligned leftist, knew he was the subject of surveillance by the Russian, British and eventually US authorities. Yet he made no effort to tone down either his criticism of Soviet affairs or his admiration for their people. He admitted cheerfully that, ‘under the influence of wine... I don’t often in public tell an American First Secretary that I think the President of his country is a bum. I have done so, nevertheless. And am thereby revealed as an indifferent diplomat.’ Heavy-drinking and indifferent perhaps, but also refreshingly frank and even-handed. In 1947, well before it was known to the US, Costello informed his government that Russia possessed the atomic bomb. His superior, Alister McIntosh, said, ‘you’d have thought he had inside information. He hadn’t, he’d worked it out using methods built up from his Intelligence training.’ It is easy to see how accusations of espionage steadily mounted around Costello, but not why he was later believed to be a willing tool of the Soviet system.

With the closure of New Zealand’s Moscow legation in 1950, Costello, described by McIntosh as ‘the most brilliant diplomatic officer we have,’ was sent to the brand-new Paris legation, which in McNeish’s description appears as a glittering and intemperate enclave amid postwar austerity. This was also a period of vindictive anti-Communist persecution and Costello faced growing pressure to resign, both from his government, led by the obtuse and reactionary Sid Holland, and from British security. He was not unwilling to leave the cushioned life of a Paris diplomat, and made inquiries about returning to academia. However he was still working at the legation when the incident occurred which would ultimately destroy his reputation. New Zealand passports were issued to a Peter Kroger, allegedly of Gisborne, and his wife, who used them to enter Britain and spy on its nuclear submarine base. Six years later they were exposed as the American-born Morris and Lona Cohen, high-level KGB agents who had already succeeded in smuggling plans for the US atomic bomb to Moscow.

It was a drastic breach of the legation’s security, but an entirely unwitting one by staff deceived by the couple’s immaculately forged identity papers. Significantly, as McNeish here establishes through recently declassified documents, Costello played no part in the passport affair. Years later, and following several official investigations, the head of New Zealand’s SIS would confirm this. Even so, a succession of writers on the crepuscular world of espionage have concluded, on the basis of Costello’s openly avowed leftwing views and on entirely unsupported allegations, that he was somehow behind the passport affair. This charge was first made by the British journalist Chapman Pincher, described by historian EP Thompson as ‘a kind of official urinal’ into which ‘high officials of MI5 and MI6… and others, stand patiently leaking in the public interest’. The New Zealand-born barrister and globetrotting radical John Platts-Mills met and was impressed by Costello during his early days in Moscow. Knowledgeable in the law of defamation, Platts-Mills says he finds Pincher’s spying claim ‘impossible to believe… but you can say anything about a person when he’s dead.’ This comment is telling since John Platts-Mills was himself an outspoken leftist gadfly whose unabashed political views also brought him various official sanctions, both open and covert. Pincher’s allegations have since been repeated so often that they have acquired an aura of authenticity, and reappeared recently in New Zealand writer Graeme Hunt’s facile and superficial study, Spies and Revolutionaries. Hunt piles guilt by association, insinuation and rank, unsupported assertion on top of Costello’s undoubtedly colourful professional record to label him a calculating traitor directly responsible for issuing the Kroger passports.

Soon after this incident, as he had long intended, Costello resigned from the diplomatic service and began teaching Russian at Manchester University. He soon gained a reputation as a masterly literary translator, although only of projects which met his own high and eclectic standards. Invited by Pasternak to produce the first English translation of Dr Zhivago, he declined because he didn’t think the novel was very good, a view not critically acceptable until much later. His death from heart failure came without warning at the age of 52.

Throughout this wonderfully rewarding biography, Costello emerges as irresistibly likeable. Both intellectually brilliant and socially accomplished, he was a hard-drinking bon vivant forever breaking into song, a dedicated family man and natural teacher who enjoyed the devoted affection of his wife, children, friends, students and colleagues. Dan Davin, a fellow black-Irish boozer, based a central character in his war novel For the Rest of our Lives on his old friend, and later attempted but did not complete a biography. McNeish has now triumphantly delivered this long-overdue work. It features his trademark staccato sentences and invented conversations to considerable literary effect, and its production is exemplary, with each chapter prefaced by extracts from Costello’s letters, mostly published here for the first time since his widow was protective of his legacy.

McNeish acknowledges that ‘there will always be a residue of doubt about Costello’. Both he and Hunt draw on recently released SIS files to support their diametrically opposed cases, and both indicate that there are more such papers yet to come to light. Until then, The Sixth Man provides the valuable service of spotlighting the miasma of allegations swirling around Costello, sorting the entirely unsupported from the inconclusive and placing them within a broader portrait of a vastly talented and remarkably reckless individual whose undeniable achievements seem rather more noteworthy than his unproven crimes.

A declaration of interest – mine is one of more than a hundred names listed in the acknowledgments to this book, although whatever help I provided to its author was so minor and long ago that I can’t remember it.

*************

Mark Derby is a Wellington writer and researcher. He is editing a history of New Zealand's response to the Spanish Civil War, to be published later in 2008 by Canterbury University Press.

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