Play Book Tag discussion

Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy's Son
This topic is about Light and Shadow
March 2018: Autobiography > Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy's Son, by Mark Colvin, 4 stars

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Sue (last edited Mar 11, 2018 05:44AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue (mrskipling) I didn’t know anything about Mark Colvin before reading this book, but thoroughly enjoyed finding out about his life as a broadcaster.

He talks of a happy childhood, living in several countries. He remembers staying in his grandmother’s house in England one winter. His grandfather had been a Navy man and the house was decorated with portraits of Nelson and there was a display case full of medals. His grandmother sounds like a big character, very well-spoken and old-school. His father was largely absent from Mark’s early years but he talks of living with his mother in various places. In London he went to see the Guinness clock in Battersea Park, which I’ve heard about many times now in various histories of that period. There’s a wonderful account of life in Malaya (as it was called at the time). He remembers learning to read and mentions many of the childhood books he enjoyed, including The Secret Garden.

At about the age of seven he went to boarding school, which was a difficult experience. I hear so many awful stories about English boarding schools that it’s astounding that they survived. And many fathers sent their children to the same school they went to themselves! Why would you do that to your own child? Yes, I know that it allowed ‘the right people’ to get to know each other, and it led to the ‘right’ jobs, relationships and opportunities, but did it have to be so brutal to achieve that? Mark was no good at sports, partly because he broke his arm in a riding accident and it never healed properly, and this was another disadvantage is a school system that prided physical and sporting prowess. So he had a tough time. Beatings, bullying and abuse were just standard, accepted by everyone, even his own parents. He talks movingly of how this experience led to him being unable to trust people. But he turns this in a positive direction by saying it made him the journalist he was, never accepting what those in authority said and not trusting what lay on the surface of a story, but digging deeper to find the truth. He also mentions how many people in recent years have come forward to talk about their appalling experiences and this brought to my mind all the MeToo and TimesUp revelations that are ongoing at the moment. But over time he learned how to lock his anger and suffering away and how to become, or at least to seem, a good student. I found this part of the book heart-breaking.

Interestingly he made friends with a boy called Casper Fleming at that school. Apparently he was a great story teller. His father was Ian Fleming, author of the Bond books. Neither of the boys knew at the time that both their fathers were spies!

It doesn’t seem surprising that his parents split up during this time. His father was hardly ever at home and his mother lived an independent life. It was relatively amicable though and he saw more of his father in the few years after this than before. He doesn’t talk as much about his father as I would have expected, given that the subtitle is ‘Memoirs of a Spy’s son’ but I enjoyed those snippets, and also those of his other family members - it was an illustrious family!

He talks of his developing career as a broadcaster, including time spent at a station called Double J where he had to run up ‘Cardiac Hill’ several times a day from one building to another. He tells of a time when he was watching a forest fire and saw the air around some trees (not the trees themselves) burst into flames because of the eucalyptus oil in the air. It is little anecdotes like this that bring the book to life, but he also talks of major international conflicts and wars and of Australian politics. I enjoyed the latter even though I didn’t know much about the political issues or people he referred to.

As he has been reporting for decades, he includes some interesting information about how the life of a journalist has changed during that time. In the early days, before the celebrity culture, he could more easily get through to politicians or senior business executives without being diverted or blocked by PR reps. Also people, whether politicians, sports personalities or the public, were less familiar with being approached by someone with a camera or microphone. They had to be cajoled into giving a few words on air and were often monosyllabic in their responses.

My own reaction to that is that perhaps it was better back then, compared to today's media-trained spokespeople who trot out the same platitudes over and over, and never seem to be really themselves. How many times have I heard ‘our thoughts are with the family at this time’ which they have clearly got out of a text book, rather than speaking naturally from their own hearts. They are so afraid of protecting their media image that they have allowed themselves to be moulded and shaped into carbon copies of ‘the perfect spokesperson’.


The research tools and information available to him were also vastly different. If he wanted to do some background research on someone he had options such as ‘Who’s Who’, an encyclopaedia or the phone book. He took a notebook and pencil with him and knew shorthand. He had to get all the details right at the time, including spellings, as he couldn’t check them on the internet later. A journalists’s contact book was his most precious resource and guarded carefully - it included the direct-dial or home numbers of key contacts because, again, these were so much harder to find back then. In the early days he had a sound recorder that was so tough that it survived being run over by a tank (although was well known as back-breaking to carry).

He mentions, but does not dwell on, the illness that restricted his movements during his last years. He took advantage of the new technology to stay in touch and air his views by using Twitter and similar platforms. Overall this was an enthralling account of a full and eventful life. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Mark Colvin himself, and this made it seem an even more personal memoir. I will undoubtedly listen to it again.

message 2: by Amy (new)

Amy | 8518 comments Great review - sounds interesting!

message 3: by Jason (new)

Jason Oliver | 2063 comments This sounds wonderful. I have never heard of him before. I love the connection with Ian Flemming......I am enthralled with connections.

Thank-you for the detailed review.

message 4: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue (mrskipling) Thank you both! This is a book I just fell over, not having known him before, but I'm very glad I did.

back to top