Damned by his brain

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The Sixth Man: the Extraordinary Life of Paddy Costello by James McNeish

Times Literary Supplement, 24 July 2009

Reputedly brilliant as an Intelligence officer, linguist, translator and teacher, Paddy Costello was neither uncombed genius nor cat-stroking villain. He began his career as a Classics scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge in the early 1930s, ended it thirty years later as Professor of Russian at Manchester University, and in between was a useful soldier in General Freyberg’s New Zealand Division and a middle-rank New Zealand diplomat at Moscow and Paris. At this distance, not even the sexed-up synopsis of his life – that he was (wrongly) thought to be a Cambridge spy – really warrants the full treatment.

Yet this lovely and in places brilliant book is so much about context – about the paths taken by a Romantic hero without honour in his own country or his adopted one – that, though the opposite of sensational, it will be dramatic reading for anyone who is interested in what happens when a clever, humane individual ploughs into a governing society’s predicates. It can also be read as a fable whose theme is the urbane, secretive, lordly-aggressive, pandering-supine attitude of a British establishment hanging on to the USA’s coat-tails. Among other things, the story of Paddy Costello shows how little has changed in 60 years.

Desmond Patrick Costello was born in the Empire suburb of Ponsonby, Auckland in 1912, and, growing up with a feeling for language, won every scholarship going until he was twenty. He arrived at Trinity College in the autumn of 1932 and graduated with a First two years later. He sympathised with the Scottish hunger marchers, “congenitally unable to resist aligning himself with any left-wing cause”. He already had political rigour: he twice tried to visit Russia because “it is occasionally a help in arguments to be able to say you have been there”. In 1935 he briefly joined the Communist Party but his membership lapsed after he married Bella Lerner, the daughter of an exiled Jewish economist: he may have sub-contracted his Marxism to Bella, whose Communism was unswerving. In the war that followed, he led his battalion to safety from German armour in Greece and was promoted to become General Freyberg’s favourite Intelligence officer. It was Freyberg who, in 1944, reluctantly wired the request to him to take up a post in New Zealand’s new legation at Moscow.

It takes a spy, so it is said, to catch a spy. In Costello’s case the “evidence” comes from Peter Wright and a false attribution to Anthony Blunt. More realistically, it takes a spy writer (and how many of those there once were) to out a spy, or in Costello’s case to repeat allegations lacking any proof. Of course from one point of view Costello was a traitor: settled at the Legation, his love for Russian language, theatre, music, travel, marked him as a man who culturally preferred another nation to his own. His most passionate and sparkling descriptions were reserved for Soviet Russia, not the British Commonwealth. He translated Griboyedov’s Woe From Wit and became friends with Pasternak before Isaiah Berlin did. He was straying from his lawful nation into a more passionate liaison at a time when witch-hunters were abroad. American and British security services were collecting pre-war indicators of Costello’s disloyalty: his Spanish Republican sympathies, a trip to Bombay to give the Indian CP a gift of monies from the British CP, which he managed to get the future Shah of Iran to smuggle through customs for him, and a bit part on the wrong side of the framing of a young left-winger named Hubert Fyrth for embarrassing the government, for which he was sacked from a post at Exeter University. He also, at the Paris Peace conference, inadvertently offended General Bedell Smith, soon to head the CIA. The Americans were determined to get Costello out of his post, and the British complied. This was followed by an insistence that Costello be sacked from the Paris legation to which he was transferred.

How could the CIA and MI5 get it so wrong? For it is clear that Costello was an outstanding diplomat. He provided, on March 26, 1945, the very first Allied report on the Nazi death camps of Maidanek and Auschwitz, and in 1947 was the first to demonstrate that Molotov was not bluffing and the Soviets did have the bomb. He predicted that there was no prospect of Titoism in China, and that France would not win its crazy Asian war. He was prescient, and right, and he was always well-informed by his reading and languages. His cleverness damned him.

Paddy Costello comes alive in James McNeish’s hands not just as an intellect but as a devoted (if strict) father and tenacious husband, a close reader and arguer, and an occasional mad drinker. Undoubtedly this was the cause of his early heart attack at the age of fifty-two. But it is the intensity with which he saw through appearances, and ahead of them, that raises him highest. Even when he got to Manchester, after the sacking at Paris, he suffered for his foresight. Despite loving Pasternak as a friend, he thought Doctor Zhivago contrived and vain: then, at the height of Zhivagomania, no editor would touch his essay, but, as McNeish notes, that view of the novel is now the accepted one. In Pasternak’s phrase, which Costello liked to quote, “Life is not a stroll across a field.” There is something uplifting in Costello’s enactment of that axiom, despite its also sounding like a warning of what will happen to us if we speak our mind. Perhaps that is because such warnings never stopped Costello. One day a student at Manchester, having second thoughts about taking up a scholarship visit to the Soviet Union, asked Professor Costello for his advice. There was nothing worse than regret, Costello told him. He should go. “You want to get away from this pornocracy anyway.” How clairvoyant is that?.

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