Christopher Koch – The appeal of the unknown

Christopher Koch

This is a transcript of a Speakers Corner lecture given by Christopher Koch at the National Archives of Australia on 1 June 2008.

Well, thank you for those kind words and thank you for coming. In discussing my novel The Memory Room, I'm going to begin by stating the obvious. The novel is a work of the imagination. A story spun out of the author's dreams, experiences, hopes and despairs.

Some of it proceeds from the unconscious, so that episodes may arrive on the page which weren't expected, and whose origins are mysterious, even to the writer. This being so, and since a novel isn't essentially a work dealing in fact, the last person who can explain or interpret it is the author.

I once read an anecdote about a celebrated Russian dancer who was asked by somebody what she meant by a certain dance. To this she replied, 'If I could say, in so many words, do you think I'd take the very great trouble of dancing it?'

[laughter]

The same is true of the novelist. So, that it is finally up to the reader to decide what The Memory Room is about. What I can discuss, however, is what the elements were that gave rise to it.

I should make clear at the outset what kind of novel it is. Although some of its characters are professional intelligence officers, and although it deals with espionage, it isn't essentially a spy thriller. Anyone reading it under that impression will have done their money, since it won't provide any thrills or shootouts.

If I had to define its central theme, I would say that it's an exploration of the nature of secrecy through the depiction of a particular individual for whom secrecy is an obsession from a very early age. And who ultimately becomes a Secret Intelligence Operative.

Another word of warning; I'm conscious of the fact that there may be intelligence professionals in the audience today. So I should make clear that I'm not an expert on intelligence or on anything else.

Like most novelists, I am a scavenger. And when a subject seizes my interest, I do my best to understand it, turn it into the stuff of stories, and then move on.

Having made that confession, I think the best thing I can do is to tell you what the germ was that gave rise to this novel. There is always a germ from which a novel springs, at least in my case. And sometimes, it is something very small.

The previous novel, Highways to a War, began with a cigarette smoking in an ashtray after somebody had left the room. Somebody who affected other people's lives very deeply. There was nothing more than that in the beginning. But the germ that gave rise to The Memory Room was far more substantial.

Twenty-one years ago, a middle-aged man, whom I prefer shall be nameless, disappeared in Hobart where he was then living. He had been one of my friends at both High School and the University of Tasmania. And had remained a friend over a lifetime; turning up sporadically in Sydney, Canberra, and other cities where life took us both.

He also kept in touch with other mutual friends who had gone through University at the same time. We all saw him as likable, genial, but something of a fuddy-duddy who couldn't quite get his life together.

Over the years, he had a number of occupations, in University administration, as private secretary to a number of politicians, and working for the Department of the Senate here in Canberra.

At the time of his disappearance, he seemed to be doing nothing in particular, having recently had a car accident. Although he seemed very fit when I visited him in Hobart.

Just before he disappeared, when I was living in Sydney, he was in quiet despair. And confided in me by letter. His second marriage wasn't happy and he was mostly living apart from his wife. He saw too little of his children by his first marriage. And he wanted to find a new direction in his life. He felt lost and could see no answers.

I invited him to come and stay with me and unwind. He seemed eager to do so but said in his final letter that he couldn't get away just then. He also made a remark that I found enigmatic and rather childish. But he'd like to show me the papers in his locked room. 'We might use them to collaborate on a book,' he said.

I had no idea what he meant by this or what sort of papers he was talking about, and I quickly forgot about it.

A short time after this, he was reported missing. We, that is his friends in Sydney, spoke on the phone to his wife. And she told us he had gone out for a walk wearing a track suit and hadn't come back.

Some months later, his skeleton was found at the foot of a small cliff beside a freeway going south out of Hobart.

His wife told us that as soon as this happened, some men arrived from the Attorney General's department in Canberra, who went into his locked room and carried away mountains of files. A number of bank accounts were then discovered in various cities around Australia, containing very large sums of money.

And it emerged in the previous two years, our friend had visited half a dozen countries abroad, including China. Of all this, his wife was completely ignorant. She had not known the man she was married to. None of us had.

His first wife, however, wasn't surprised. He'd been an Intelligence Operative in our Overseas Service all his life. They were trained on graduating with MI6 from London.

What had led him to his fate remains a mystery. The coroner recorded an open finding on his death. Was it suicide or had he been murdered? Had he still been working for ASIS or for a foreign power?

Who had been paying him such large sums of money? It is unlikely that any of these questions will now be answered.

Now, this double life, a life based on secrecy, lived always behind a mask, came to interest me deeply. What kind of man or woman can sustain it? What does it do to them? And why are some people devoted to secrecy as such?

It was inevitable, I suppose, that I'd write about this eventually.

Vincent Austin, the central character of The Memory Room, in no way resembles my lost friend; being essentially a creature of my imagination and a different kind of person.

But what he does share with my friend is an eventual crisis, where he feels his true self is being lost. And he also has a locked secret room, maintained from a very early age.

At thirteen, Vincent is orphaned and lives with an aged, indulgent aunt in a suburb of Hobart. It is at this early age that his obsession takes form.

To illustrate, I'd like to read a passage from the novel. And this is from Vincent's recollections.

Secrecy now is my many lone walks around Newtown - this old, sprawling suburb and its wide valley which the colonists saw as the most charming part of Hobart.

A region with a Van Dieman's Land gentry built their houses, each with its own small farm. These days, the villas crouch among twentieth century bungalows, their estates swallowed up.

I was now a day board at Nockwood Grammar and my time was my own after school. Secrecy was riding a tram by myself to its terminus. A journey made without apparent purpose--this was the magic of it--to a place where I had no business. The place, like the hay shed, where nobody knew where I was.

I've always been fond of trams. I used to keep lists of their numbers and destinations. The whining, clanging cars on their snaking, silver lines were vehicles of mystery to me, running as they did to the town's outer limits.

When I rode one to its terminus, I liked the way it would sit humming on the frontier of the land, waiting to start back to town. I liked the old, dry grass that grew around the tracks there, and the waiting, peaceful silence.

It was possible to pretend there, that I had been brought to the border of some other country. The tram took me out of reality and into a dimension I preferred.

Out there, in those suburbs where the tramlines ended, I would walk past final houses and fields of dry grass, pretending to be someone else; observing strange lives in the windows and gardens of the last little homes.

At thirteen, I was beginning to flirt with the notion of crossing frontiers, of taking on false identities. And secrecy now had another dimension. It was being alone in a room that couldn't be penetrated.

In what I now call my secret room, up here next to the sunroom, which Connie allowed me to make into my own domain entirely and which remains so to this day.

This had been a fore-taste of what I feel sure is the ultimate pleasure for a spy. The license to be utterly alone in the still and soundless air of a private compartment, where dry sheets of paper of clandestine significance excite him as much as scented flesh might do.

For true professionals, those who do keep their balance, secrecy is no doubt simply a tool, a means to an end. But I believe there is a special kind of person, not necessarily a spy, who is attracted for various reasons to secrecy itself.

Vincent puts it this way:

What is a spy? Are they born or are they made? A number of spies are made, I imagine. They probably learn the craft as they would learn any other, drawn to it purely by ambition. But I believe another kind of spy is born rather than made and this is the category to which I belong. This kind of spy is devoted to secrecy, to secrecy in its purest form, to secrecy for its own sake.

I would take this notion further. In my view fascination with the secret and the esoteric is the same fascination that leads a different sort of person into the realms of religious mysticism.

It's the same impulse. The impulse to seek to discover what lies behind the veil of everyday reality. This is what interests me as a novelist and the theme of secrecy is an obsession. It's what my novel is essentially pursuing.

The obsession shows itself in Vincent's early youth in its purest form when he and his friend Erika Langa explore the mysteries of the Tarot cards and play games based on the archetypes of mythology.

This brings me to the second theme of our novel, the theme of folie a deux, the madness of two. This is a psychiatric term for the condition where two people share a common set of illusions and fantasies; a condition that can lead to psychosis in its extreme form.

One of the most famous cases was that of two New Zealand girls back in the 1950s whose whole lives were dominated by their shared secret fantasy world and who murdered the mother of one of them when she tried to separate them. A very good film was based on it called Heavenly Creatures.

In childhood and adolescence Vincent and his friend Erika Langa create just such as own a fantasy together in Vincent's secret room. A world based on comic strips, espionage thrillers, myth and the Tarot.

While not psychotic they've certainly strayed across the border of normality in an intense yet platonic relationship which draws them closer than most lovers.

Both have been damaged in childhood; Vincent as an orphan, while Erika has lost her mother and has an unhealthy relationship with an alcoholic father. Both are escaping into a dimension they prefer to the real world. And both see espionage as a way of ultimately making this imaginary dimension become true.

In the meantime they are role-playing in elaborate games that they only know about. And this, consciously or unconsciously, is a preparation for the work of espionage and counter-espionage.

Here is a passage from the novel:

We made expeditions at night which carried an added taste of danger. I would slip out late after Connie was asleep and Erika would meet me in deserted Dresden Road clad in a dark sweater and jeans. Then we'd begin to prowl, looking through lighted windows.

What we saw was scenes of innocent domesticity; people sitting in their living rooms in armchairs, a woman ironing, a man sitting at a table reading a paper. Bedroom blinds were nearly always drawn but occasionally we would glimpse people undressing and glance at each other and laugh under our breath.

I felt no guilt over these expeditions. All the lit scenes that Erika and I watched were like the pictures in the frames of our adventure strips, existing on a level beyond mundane reality.

The people we spied on were no longer Newtown householders at all but had become transfigured, figures from a story that only we were privileged to watch.

Breathing and laughing in the Newtown dark we were startled at times by the piping of plover or the hoot of the train that rattled out through Moona. Spying gave us power, power that had the quality of a drug. This was our first taste of the craft we hoped to perfect as adults.

In his maturity Vincent sums up the spy's dilemma to his lifelong friend Derek Bradley, a foreign affairs officer who's posted to the embassy in Beijing at the same time as Vincent.

Vincent's cover there is that of cultural attache. But in fact he's being with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service throughout his career. When Derek discovers this Vincent sums up the nature of his personal dilemma:

'I live a lie with most people but for the sake of the Service, but I'd rather not have done it where you were concerned. That's what I want you to understand.' 'OK Vin, I understand.'

Apparently satisfied with this Vincent let his angular body relax into an easier pose.'I'm glad you do', he said, 'and I trust you to protect my cover. I know I can.' He glanced at the strolling crowd as though suspecting a hidden observer among them.

'Let's go, shall we?' With a quick, jerky movement he took Bradley's arm drawing him away from the balustrade and compelling him to walk along the path. As they went, he spoke towards Bradley's ear with a soft, compulsive urgency.

'Now that you know my situation, Brad, there's so much I want to tell you. Do you know what the intelligence game does to people like me? It's like a dream you can't wake up from. You play a part for so long that there are times when you begin to wonder what's happened to your inner self.

'You even begin to be afraid that it's lost. Sometimes I'm not sure who I am any more.' He gave a quick, snorting laugh then abruptly checked it, his face becoming solemn again, his sideways gaze insistent, his grip on Bradley's arm tightening.

He seemed to be reciting a speech he'd long prepared or had long bottled up and his hushed, theatrical tone made him seem like a caricature of a spy, causing Bradley once again to suppress a smile.

Yet Vincent's disclosures were almost certainly sincere, he thought. He'd lived so much in books and in his head, he'd so long been solitary that he probably experienced even the most intense emotion at one remove and the theatrical response to it was one he believed to be appropriate.

'One is always required to manipulate people!' Vincent was saying. 'There are no normal relationships except with one's colleagues in the game. Do you see Brad? After a time one desperately needs to be with just one or two people who know who he really is, with whom one doesn't wear a mask. I've always wanted you to be one of those people.'

I've known a number of ex-spies some of whom gave me invaluable help with the background for this novel, as did a number of foreign affairs officers since I'm also portraying the diplomatic life.

All of the Intelligence professionals spoke of the problem Vincent described; the strain involved in always playing a part, in keeping secrets, in showing almost no one their true selves, in having none of the support mechanisms taken for granted by other people.

This takes a toll. Family life is difficult or impossible, paranoia is a hazard and suicide is not uncommon. Only this week I was interested to see the topic aired in a piece in the Australian newspaper.

On Wednesday it gave a good deal of coverage to the release of the reports on Australia's Intelligence Services by the Hope Royal Commission, reports held here in the National Archives.

And in one of the articles Cameron Stewart reported comments made by anonymous ASIS officers. And I'm quoting:

ASIS members must often present to the world as somewhat of a failure if necessary. This means that ASIS agents are denied the normal satisfaction one derives from a successful career. It is this aspect which is probably most galling for a member of one's family.

The article goes on to say that ASIS agents told the Hope Royal commission that the secrecy of their job quite cut them off from a large part of the normal social intercourse of a group and imposed a severe strain on normal family life.

An interesting paper on this problem was published last year in an Australian professional journal, the Journal of the Australian Institute of Professional Intelligence Officers, by Wendy Stevenson, an intelligence officer herself and a master of criminology.

She asked for a better understanding of the psychological and social outcomes that intelligence professionals face.

She points out that while secrecy is essential to their work and essential to our country's security, the negative way in which this is often viewed by the public is just another of the strains that intelligence officers must live with, leading to unparalleled stress and what's called 'obligatory paranoia'.

She quotes from a book on the profession called Spy: A Handbook by H Fergusson. Quote: 'Being involved in the secret world will change you. There are very few well-adjusted spies.'

[laughter]

Doctor Stevenson goes on to say this about the way in which intelligence officers are viewed and how it affects them:

By virtue of the secrecy provisions imposed upon them, intelligence professionals are unable to openly remedy any misguided notion about their profession. If this were an option they might attempt to correct the widespread and compelling belief that, as Pete earlier puts it in his biography of Aldrich Ames: 'There has to be something wrong with the job if a person isn't supposed to tell anyone the truth about what he actually does.'

A famous case of the professional paranoia which is the hazard of intelligence work is the former head of CIA counter-intelligence, the legendary James Jesus Angleton.

His obsession with finding Soviet moles in the service caused him to wreck the careers of completely innocent agents and to reject genuine Soviet defectors as double agents. In the end, everyone he looked at seemed to be a mole. How could he know who were genuine double agents, and who were actually Soviet plants?

It has been said that intelligence is a hall of mirrors. It certainly was for Angleton, a brilliant spy master with a distinguished career behind him from WWII onwards, who ended by becoming a dangerous obsessive.

In his biography of Angleton, Cold Warrior, Tom Mangold analyzes the problem in the following passage:

Counter intelligence has been described as a Dantean hell with 99 circles. Its practitioners are often characterized as tormented souls, weltering in an inferno of doubt, half truths, suspicion, and professional paranoia. The work demands an inordinate degree of skill and patience; its rewards are few.

The very qualities that make a good counter intelligence officer – a suspicious mind, a love of complexity and detail, and an ability to detect conspiracies – are also the qualities most likely to corrode natural intelligence and objective judgment.

Well, this is what happened to Angleton in the 1960s. Driven by a near paranoid conviction that the CIA and Western intelligence had been deeply penetrated by the KGB, Angleton launched a witch hunt which destroyed the careers of some of CIA's top agents, and led to the rejection of nearly every genuine Soviet intelligence defector.

A driven insomniac, in the end Angleton seldom left his sealed, twilight office; smoking incessantly, often drinking, weaving his theories of deception and betrayal, and poring over his files for clues, like a spider in a web.

Yet his power was almost absolute, until his fall. As Mangold puts it, one did not question legends, especially in the CIA.

An obsession with files like Angleton's can perhaps be another hazard for the intelligence professional. It afflicts Vincent Austin, has in fact always been part of his nature.

After his career is thrown off course in China, when a lapse of judgment causes the Chinese government to demand his expulsion, he is recalled to Canberra, and given the task of analyzing the files in the ASIS Registry before they're computerized.

But what might have been a punishment for someone else is not so for Vincent. Unknowingly, his Director-General has let him loose in the biggest secret room of all, and he relishes it.

His obsession now leads him into another professional error: he begins to take files home against regulations, and to start a system of his own. This is discovered by his friend Bradley, who begins to be disturbed by Vincent's growing eccentricity when he visits him at home in his study.

The daylight through the window by the desk was gone now. The room had become dark, and the banker's lamp was the only source of light, suffusing an area of the desk, but striking neither of their faces directly.
Vincent crouched close above the shade, his face tinted with its green more theatrically than before. The smoke from his cigarette eddied and drifted in the bright downward light, composing a pale blue screen that grew more dense as they talked.

'Rearranging the files doesn't really describe what I'm doing,' he said. 'In fact, Brad, I've been entrusted with something remarkable, but I really must ask that you speak about it to no one. Can you give me that assurance?'

Bradley did so, and Vincent began to describe his new role, outlining the task he had been given very much as Jim Dempsey had, but enlarging on it with a degree of detail that began to tax Bradley's concentration as the effect of the second whiskey took hold.

There could be no doubting Vincent's passion for his new function. 'Vincent Regiosaurus,' Bradley thought, and smiled. But Vincent didn't notice the smile. As he spoke, he grew more and more animated, gesturing with his cigarette and waving his hands in the lamp light. At one stage, he got up and began to pace to the room.

'The innermost secrets of the Service are all at my personal disposal,' he said. And his voice had taken on a throaty, gloating, almost caressing sound, as though he spoke of some private and perhaps shameful passion. 'The most secret of all files are in my care, Derek. Can you see what trust has been placed in me, and what it means?'

He paused beside the desk, hovering over Bradley. Conscious of Vincent's relatively recent disgrace, Bradley found a certain pathos in his pride in this new position as archivist of the Firm's secrets. But he nodded solemnly as though impressed.

Not for the first time he was puzzled by the almost mystical reverence that overcame Vincent when he referred to the hallowed zone of secrecy. It was as though the covert and the secret were not just that, but something more - sacred mysteries perhaps.

Despite Vincent's clerical air, Bradley had never thought of him as a religious man in the conventional sense, and certainly Vincent had shown no interest in religion in its Presbyterian form or otherwise. But suddenly Bradley saw him as resembling a zealot, a follower of some transcendental system whose nature was arcane.

His ecclesiastical looking black and white dress this evening, together with the new ascetic gauntness of his blue-chinned face somehow suggested a priest of some kind, Bradley thought. One who was run by opposite visions of ecstasy and damnation.

Aloud, he said: 'I'm not sure that I do see. What does it mean, in fact?'

Vincent looked at him quickly, his face stern. He then returned to his chair at the desk, folding his hands, and leaned towards Bradley. 'In telling you this, I'm trusting you absolutely,' he said. 'You do understand?'

'Yes, Vin, of course.'

Vincent paused, stubbing out his cigarette in the laden ashtray. When he spoke again, his voice was low and fervent. 'I believe I've seen an opportunity to turn my career around and get back into the field,' he said. 'I'll do it by carrying out an analysis of the files, an area in which I happen to be rather capable.

'I'll be looking for links that my more limited colleagues have overlooked. And when I find them, I think I'll be able to expose some of the Soviet operatives and agents we have here in Australia; the ones who have never been entrapped, or even suspected. And I may also expose some moles in our own Service.'

Bradley stared at him. 'In ASIS? You think there are some?'

Vincent's stare became fixed. 'I'm certain of it.'

'But mate, is this really what you've been commissioned to do?'

Vincent's face closed. 'My commission is a very broad one,' he said. 'The DG made that plain. I'll work in my own way.' He frowned. 'I've probably told you too much, Derek.'

'If you don't know that you can trust me by now, maybe you should say no more,' Bradley said.

'You're right,' Vincent said quickly, 'we've been friends so long, there's no one I trust more. It's so good to be able to talk to you again, Brad. There's no one else I can be myself with, except you.' He leaned back in his chair smiling and studied Bradley with a new ease and openness.

Then he said, 'You're getting to look more and more like your father.'

Bradley grinned, running his fingers through his faded brown hair. 'Part of getting older,' he said. 'We all end up looking like our fathers. Middle age awaits us, Vin. Maybe I'll take up golf as well.' He stood up, looking across the room. 'What a lot of filing cabinets. Aren't you surrounded by enough of them at the office?'

Vincent had stood up too, and he surveyed the green cabinets with an odd expression, a mixture of proprietary pride and wiliness. 'These are my insurance,' he said.

'I don't get it – against what?'

Vincent hesitated, then he said, 'I've trusted you with everything else; why not this? No one else knows, and no one else must ever know. This is my personal registry.'

Bradley stared at him. 'You don't mean you're keeping duplicates?'

Vincent stared back, the light from the lamp reflected in his spectacles. 'The most important files, yes,' he said, 'Since I've come to believe that the Service had been penetrated, I thought it best.'

'But Vin, you know that's a crime, for god's sake. What if you're found copying them? How will you explain it?'

'I won't be found out,' Vincent said firmly, 'and no one comes into this room. You're the first to do so, and the last.'

Bradley leaned back, digesting the seriousness of what he had just learned. In bringing home duplicates, Vincent was carrying out an activity that was not only illegal, but one which seemed to indicate the growth of a disturbing and risky obsession.

If it should somehow be discovered, his career would certainly be at an end, and serious charges would be made. Bradley wondered if he should try to persuade him to abandon the project. But he had begun to realize that Vincent had entered some rarified private level, where he had abandoned all normal rules. Outside advice would be useless.

Now, in Vincent Austin, I've portrayed an idealistic intelligence officer, who is driven by a sense of mission.

This takes hold in his student days, when he forms the view – unfashionable among his fellow students and most intellectuals in those days – that international Communism is a tyranny to be resisted, just as Nazism was; just as all totalitarian systems are which maintain their power through the formation of a police state.

He sees this totalitarianism of the modern era as having its origins in the Jacobin fanaticism of the French Revolution. Here, in his diary, he recounts a conversation with the Polish professor Brovoski, a man who is to recruit him on behalf of ASIS.

He sat back in his chair, head on one side, regarding me now with a ruminative of expression.'You see, Vincent,' he said, 'as I get to know you better, I grow more and more curious about you. You are very much like an exception among your fellow students, something of a heretic.' He laughed.

'You looked shocked. Yet you will surely agree that in our time that the conservative that is the rebel and non-conformist. That is what you are. Most other undergraduates on this campus, including your friend Derrick Bradley, entertain left wing convictions of some kind. Well, this is natural. They are young and full of generous idealism.

'I went through that phase myself as a student in the '30s, until I had the privilege of seeing the face of totalitarianism at close quarters. So, I ask myself, since you have not had that experience, Vincent, what is it that has made you different?'

I stared at him, trying to formulate an answer. 'Let me be more precise,' he said. 'Conservative is a term of abuse in the fashionable lexicon. You know that. So, I'm asking, what has made you a conservative?'

I thought for a time then I told him I preferred the term traditionalist. I had read history from a very early age, I told him. Having been a good deal on my own, I had plenty of time to read and my reading had made me value tradition and custom above everything.

Without it, in my view, there could be no continuity. And without continuity, there could be no genuine civilization.

My reading had also convinced me that the most civilized and tolerant societies had been those that refused to smash tradition and order, however many reforms they might have made.

'Most would agree with that,' Brovoski said, expressionless.

He continued to watch me. Then he asked, 'And when did you first begin to dislike revolution?'

'It began as a schoolboy,' I said, 'when I read 'A Tale of Two Cities.'

He smiled. 'Ah, yes,' he said. 'Your beloved Dickens, an entertaining melodrama.'

'It woke my interest in the French Revolution,' I said. 'At first it was just a boy's fascination with the terror. How could a civilized country descend into such barbarism? That was what I wanted to know.

'It was only when I came to read histories that I began to understand that the terror had not simply been a descent into senseless violence, but a deliberate mental perversion, a horrible event of the mind.'

'Brovoski smiled faintly and waited. I felt that I was being put to some sort of test. 'I remember you once pointed out that the Jacobeans were running Europe's first totalitarian dictatorship,' I said. 'With the committee of public safely as their instrument.'

'True and what I find most horrifying is that this Robespierre de jeu ordered more and more executions and called for more and more blood. They claimed they did so in order to purify society, to create ultimate happiness for all. These men were truly monsters of a new kind.'

'Monsters, indeed' Brovoski said softly, but he continued to wait, one hand cupping his chin.

'Then I saw the parallel with Soviet societies.' I said, 'Both groups killed in the name of a social philosophy. Both promised that paradise would come when enough traitors and enough undesirables had been liquidated. And I began to understand how close to us the Jacobeans are. They injected a poison into western society that is still with us.'

'Stalin's bill was heavier,' Brovoski murmured. 'To begin with, five million peasants sent to Siberia and a million more murdered. But I grant you that the Jacobeans set an impressive example. And yes, that's still with us.'

'What affected me most,' I said, 'was when I read Edwin Burke on the Revolution. Burke influenced my entire outlook.'

Brovoski narrowed his eyes, 'Really? Can you explain?'

'Burke praises liberties and the English constitution as an inheritant,' I said. 'And he claims that this follows nature that it's in symmetry with the order of the world. You remember what he says? 'People will not look forward to posterity. You never look backwards to their ancestors.'

'That seems to me profoundly true. By contrast Burke says, what happened in France through violent revolt, was that in one grand explosion all the examples of antiquity and all precedence were destroyed in the name of the rights of men. How does he put it?'

'The decent drapery of life was rudely torn off.' Regicide, parricide, sacrilege, all were permitted. Since revolutionaries harden themselves against mercy, and pervert their natural sympathies. And the greatest mistake in the Jacobeans,' he says, 'was to imagine that rights can be imposed on a society.'

'Society is an organic whole, a partnership. Men can't simply claim any rights that take their fancy. I also like what Montesque said, 'Liberty does not consist in doing what one pleases. Liberty can only consist of being able to do what one ought to do.'

I stopped. I had gone somewhat carried away at this point. Now I sat back. For a time Brovoski was silent regarding me with the mild and thoughtful expression. Then he smiled and said, 'You make a convincing case for your beliefs. Well, you're right in seeing a direct line from Jacobean France to the Soviet Union.

'There's also a connection between communism and the enlightenment, as you may have realized. Marxism lays claim to the ideals of the enlightenment, but it perverts them.

'Many are fooled and fail to see this, which is why anti-communism is so unpopular. Middle class opinion makers will happily bless or blame Christianity and reject much of western tradition, blaming both for all our ills.

'But they will seldom blame any aspect of the enlightenment. The enlightenment's ideas are sacred. And those are the Marxists, made to look charmingly similar. So how can the fashionable disagree?

'And so much of this we owe to Ville Munsenburg and his friends.' He got up from his desk and moved across to the window, where he stood looking out over the lawn and the rose gardens. Screwing another cigarette into his holder, he seemed to ponder. And the silence fell, which I had decided not to break.

Lighting the cigarette, squinting through the smoke, he appeared to be debating something in his mind. A ray of light dusty sunlight fell on him, lighting up his large balding head, turning him into a grave, wise dwarf sent to me as a guide.

He turned from the window and looked at me for a moment. There was a look of unusual keenness, quite different from his usual easy, gray gaze. Only his snub nose, which I have always found a little comical, prevented him from appearing intimidating.

'Civilization's enemies appear in every age,' he said. 'They have different names, but as you and I seem to agree, Vincent, they are always essentially the same.

'What is going on at present is a secret war against them. It is a secret war because Munsenburg and his colleagues made it so. And our only hope is to fight it more cleverly than their descendents do it.'

Now that the Cold War has passed into history, I've chosen to set this novel in its final phase, in the belief that the validity of Vincent's intellectual position will be evident to most readers.

We can perhaps begin to see that period in perspective now that the Soviet Union has collapsed and the nations of Eastern Europe have regained their freedom. And the former KGB has opened its files to confirm the horrors of the Gulag and the 100 million who died there, all steadily denied during the Cold War, through the genius of the KGB's disinformation program.

The growing distance in time makes it a suitable backdrop for a novel, in my view. Though, in taking a man like Vincent as my central character, I've possibly created an unfashionable protagonist.

Since so called Cold Warriors are still caricatured by those who continue to dismiss the atrocities of the communist system and the threat it represented to the integrity of the west – having said that, I should make clear that it's Vincent's very idealism that is also his flaw professionally.

In attempting to arrange the defection of his friend Professor Lu Ming, a cultivated literary scholar trapped in the rigid cultural system of China in the early 1980s, Vincent allows passion to overcome his professional judgment and derails his career. This flaw is what makes him interesting to me and is the real point of my story.

He is an eccentric infallible spy, who perhaps has too much imagination. And for him, espionage in the end will not be enough.

Here is how he finally sums it up himself:

Ephemeral and beguiling as news, the secrets of the spy world can only exert their power in the present. After which they dissolve to be replaced by other secrets in history's pitiless flow.

But in that other secret world, a world whose features are faint as distant music, as hazy as the kingdom of fairy, the arcane and secret have purposes that are in no way practical.

In fact, their purposes can't be stated, since they evade being dealt with in words; thrilling and indefinable of certain scent, troubling and enticing as those long, long dreams that revisit us from childhood. They belong in the end to myth and so can never die.

I was a romantic of the suburbs, a stepchild of the old Cold War. It has scarcely touched my native hemisphere, that contest of giant shadows. Yet it loomed above my life, nevertheless, and drew me into its ranks. Then, in its dying days, it plunged me into its darkness.

Thank you.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017