Paranoid Mazurka in C-sharp Minor


First Person

Before Uncle David’s funeral out at Springvale more than a decade ago, I had no idea that his only daughter, my cousin Janet, who was the youngest of our late mother’s bridesmaids, and in later life nobly accepted the charge and responsibility of being my godmother, served also as a junior member of the staff of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, briefly pursuing a career in counterespionage, and that, at one point in the early to mid-1960s, Cousin Janet covertly tailed a relatively low-level visiting delegation of lumpen Soviet officials when they traveled north by train from Spencer Street to find out all about certain improvements in animal husbandry at the annual Wangaratta Agricultural Show, or such, at least, was the dubious pretext of their expedition, a task of surveillance that would have been much easier if Cousin Janet had spoken any Russian, although she may have been issued with advanced tape-recording equipment or a microphone and a powerful miniature radio transmitter that, concealed inside the bodice, trench coat or handbag, might well have captured for the benefit of more specialist, fluently Russian-speaking analysts in Canberra any stray but pertinent snippets of conversation, the evidence perhaps of sinister Soviet connivance with local fifth-columnist elements, a cadre of enemy operatives bent upon the destruction of the Commonwealth, or else the activation of a communist mole in the Riverina, even, I daresay, a dirty-tricks campaign in respect of the distribution of prizes for dairy cattle and other livestock or maybe cake decoration, the better to sow bitter seeds of discord in an otherwise harmonious rural community hitherto committed to free enterprise and untouched by the dead hand of international socialism or various subtler forms of Kremlin-sponsored Marxist-Leninist ideology, as deeply improbable as any of these scenarios admittedly now strikes one, although it should be remembered that back then the cold war was mighty frigid, and the membrane separating just suspicions from total paranoia was quite porous, so I have no doubt that Miss Wilberforce—for this, I gather, was one of the aliases adopted from time to time by Cousin Janet’s ASIO controller in Melbourne, a gray-cropped spinster lady with somewhat gruff but otherwise impeccable manners and certainly a great deal of common sense, from whom Uncle David boldly sought personal assurances in the beginning that his beloved only daughter would never be put in harm’s way, assurances that Miss Wilberforce politely regretted she could not possibly give, except to state with firmness that every measure would be taken to safeguard each and all of her personnel in the discharge of their important intelligence-gathering duties—Miss Wilberforce, I am certain, would have taken just as seriously the protection of Australia’s pastoral industries against any foreign threat, in Wangaratta no less than in Cunnamulla, Millicent, or Charters Towers, as, together with intelligence colleagues scattered throughout the Australian armed services, she obviously attended to far larger strategic questions of defense relating to our immensely long stretches of sparsely populated coastline, especially on the northern margin of the continent, so close to the fledgling Republic of Indonesia in that fearfully unstable period, but also along the west, because there were no guarantees that something as dangerous or volatile as the Cuban Missile Crisis might not erupt in our own region, and perhaps it is therefore not an accident that, upon retiring from ASIO in about 1967 or 1968, Cousin Janet married a grazier and settled on the land near the old whaling port of Albany on the southwest coast of Western Australia, which is something I know because, shortly before she was killed in a car accident on a completely isolated stretch of the Princes’ Highway—I know of no evidence to suggest that the collision involved foul play and was a politically motivated assassination in cold-blooded reprisal for having successfully exposed the KGB plot in Wangaratta, of which there would otherwise surely be some record lurking among the many closed files tightly arranged in some gray compactus in the basement of premises innocuously leased to the attorney general’s department in Canberra—Cousin Janet sent me for my birthday or at Christmas, it was one or the other, the present of a genuine but slightly sinister whale’s tooth, inscribed in black felt-tipped pen “Souvenir of Albany, W.A.,” which I still possess, indeed I treasure, and now have standing on the desk in front of me as I contemplate the next phase of this mighty sentence by choosing to note, first, that I cannot be absolutely certain that Cousin Janet spoke no Russian, so the advanced tape-recording equipment and hidden microphone and miniature transmitter may not even have been necessary: merely a sharpened pencil, not the regulation, federal government-issue graphite model, which would presumably have raised suspicions, but rather an anonymous, cheerfully secretarial yellow-and-black striped Staedtler HB, the sort you could buy in any reputable newsagent’s, or even, come to think of it, a disreputable one, although that distinction strikes me as somewhat artificial as regards the retail trade in office stationery in Melbourne during the 1960s—an ordinary pencil, let us say, together with the blank crossword puzzles, one of them cryptic, in her neatly folded copy of that morning’s edition of the Age, useful on that or any other occasion for ingenious encrypted note-taking, and, second, that Cousin Janet’s espionage work was merely an extension of our family’s tireless and multigenerational commitment to vital issues of national security, beginning with Great-Grandfather Pearson’s many years of service as a member of the powerful Joint Victorian Parliamentary Committee on Defence—he also made available stables and paddocks at Kilmany Park on which a local contingent of the Australian Light Horse, led by Uncle David’s other grandfather, Lieutenant-Colonel William Borthwick, V.D., practiced their maneuvers prior to departing for the Cape of Good Hope at the beginning of the Boer War—descending through Gran’s somewhat revealing brush with wicked German spies who were caught signaling with powerful lanterns through an aft porthole far below deck aboard a P. & O. liner bound for Southampton somewhere in the Laccadive Sea in 1912, only a few days outside Colombo, a real incident moreover that found its way into her friend Mary Grant Bruce’s novel From Billabong to London (1914), for such were the rich morsels that nourished the imagination of an Edwardian lady novelist; to say nothing of Great-Uncle Thomas Trumble’s permanent secretary ship of the federal department of defense at Victoria Barracks in St. Kilda Road through the long, grinding years of World War I, and our three great-uncles’ conspicuous gallantry while fighting in the first Australian Imperial Force in northern France, Palestine, Mesopotamia, and at Gallipoli (where Uncle Keith fell in the notorious Battle of the Nek), all the way down to Aunt Anne’s expert knowledge and use of semaphore, no doubt to convey from the top of a wheat silo on Rottnest Island, again, tellingly, in Western Australia, highly classified information to allied ships during our life and death struggle standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States of America against the marauding Japanese Imperial Navy during World War II, and to receive, collate, encode, then convey the most important return communications to General Douglas MacArthur’s temporary headquarters in Melbourne, and, of course, what I have reason to believe were Uncle David’s own sensitive fact-finding missions to Egypt, Somaliland, and the Sudan, using the deeply plausible cover of a Royal Australian Air Force pilot temporarily attached to the staff of the British resident, which, upon much reflection, may explain how Cousin Janet ever came to the attention of ASIO recruiting officers in the first place, and, third, that all these and certain other revelations were in the first place discreetly shared with my late mother and me, over a cup of tea and chicken sandwiches following Uncle David’s funeral, by one of Cousin Janet’s retired ASIO colleagues, a charming middle-aged married lady whom I recall vividly but who, for security reasons, would need to remain anonymous even if I could now remember her name, yet she took care not merely to identify herself with perfect candor, and to disclose the exact character of their former employment by the state, but also to underline the fact that it was, at that time, the normal practice for young Australian women operatives compulsorily to retire from the counterespionage service when they got married, which, if she was telling us the truth and not implanting a cunningly misleading idea, for whatever reason of expediency, seemed then, and still seems to me now, extraordinarily archaic, or at least a wasteful use of human resources, because from time to time in their dogged pursuit of domestic and international security the allied intelligence communities might easily have required and made use of an isolated safe house, say, or redeployed an agent whom nobody could possibly recognize unless they had been a member of that visiting Soviet delegation of so-called agricultural officials, but only if any suspicions had been raised on that occasion, a possibility I think we have safely ruled out, so surely it would make sense to keep a Western Australian farmer’s wife on the books just in case it became necessary to dispatch her to Fremantle to shadow on their shore leave a couple of careless Soviet naval ratings lately posted to nuclear submarines on the Pacific station at Vladivostok, or under cover of darkness expertly to peruse and, if necessary, transfer to microfilm the secret ledger of the Albany sub-branch of the Waterfront Workers’ Union and bring to light cash payments illegally funneled from the Kremlin through Prague and Bucharest, or possibly even to set a honey trap for some swarthy Bulgarian consular official who evidently took a keener interest than was absolutely necessary in the gold-mining infrastructure near outback Kalgoorlie, and therefore urgently required investigation, so who could be better positioned to accomplish this than a sterling East Gippslander for the time being residing inconspicuously at Albany, Western Australia, in other words Cousin Janet, young, female, attractive, blonde, lately married, and, in this instance, demurely seated in a quiet corner of the ladies’ lounge of the Palace Hotel at afternoon tea time, posing as a part-time journalist stringing for Rupert Murdoch’s Adelaide News, after which the News Corporation is still named, exciting in the sick, predatory imagination of an otherwise oblivious communist agent the prospect of such overheated sexual coupling as was then only obtainable in what he was no doubt brainwashed into thinking of as those sinks of iniquity afforded by certain capitalist countries in the “degenerate” Western bloc—an impression much exaggerated by the atmosphere prevailing at the height of the swinging, hashish-enhanced, psychedelic sixties—an illicit, adulterous congress, moreover, as athletically and urgently feverish, base, and as cynically, even brutally self-serving as Cousin Janet must have struck any other fellow guest taking tea at the Palace in the middle of Kalgoorlie as entirely wholesome, and almost certain, should the sordid facts of it ever be disclosed to certain organs of state security back in Sofia, or the evidence of incriminating photographs (grainy, yes, but quite good enough)—photographs that, prior to their generous distribution to the pertinent allied case officers in London and Langley, Virginia, might easily arouse in the mind of Miss Wilberforce the conflicting emotions of disgust and exhilaration; shame and pride; pain and, I daresay, a modicum of secret pleasure, not only because this was a superb piece of tradecraft on Cousin Janet’s part but possibly also because the quality of her work reawakened fond memories of a certain intervarsity lady swimming chum with whom Miss Wilberforce had been intimate many years earlier—almost certain, as I say, should these photographs be shared with the Bulgarian foreign ministry or the central collegium, to consign our rash consular official to internal exile, or to raise the question whether that punishment were sufficiently harsh for an agent who had so seriously strayed beyond the remit of his secret mission.

Angus Trumble is senior curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.