March 14, 2017

Marvellous, Electrical: The Artists' Rifles

Don't fret if you're getting this for the second time!
Some technical difficulties with Tinyletter meant that I had to send this newsletter twice.
Stay tuned for another edition at the end of this month.


Mal is surprised to find he has become a TV addict. He's living from week to week, waiting for the next instalment of his new favourite show. He watches it on a tiny black and white screen.

There is a ghost in the show, perhaps, and talk of the Gaia hypothesis, in which the whole planet is seen as a single organism. But you wouldn't call this programme fanciful, exactly. There is murder, and government conspiracy. The deeper our heroes dig, the more incredible and awful the truth reveals itself to be. By the sixth hour of the series, the story is awash with poison both real and metaphorical, and our heroes realise that the price of the truth will be their lives.

Mal is watching the show, Edge of Darkness, in Canberra, Australia's federal capital. Mal isn't your usual television junkie; he's a champion sportsman and a lover of art galleries.

And, in 1986, Mal works for Australia's Defence Intelligence Organisation.

*

These days, Mal is based among the ancillary staff in an Aussie university. He's charming, quiet, and passionate about what he does. It would be fun to extend the parallels between fictional agents and real ones a little further - George Smiley worked as a lecturer, too - but Mal was never such a secret squirrel. "I ran the Applied Economics Desk for the DIO," he says. "It wasn't a secret role; I had the kind of job you could see advertised in the newspaper."

Mal enjoyed his time in Canberra: he proved good, in those barely digital days, at digging the salient points from a mass of paper-based information. He got on well with his staff and coached triathlon in his spare time; life was pretty smooth.

Somewhere in the early 90s, he underwent a fresh round of positive vetting for his high security clearance at the DIO. The process involved not just showing a clean record, but actively proving that you were worthy and reliable.

At his interview for the vetting, Mal decided it was probably time to formally come out to his employers as a gay man.

The official on the other side of the desk seemed more anxious about the discussion than Mal was.

"Th-th-that's n-n-not a worry!" Mal recounts, with an imitation of composure barely maintained. "And d-don't worry about my stutter either."

The vetters were happier to know than not, and happier for Mal to be out, and therefore less susceptible to blackmail, than in the closet.

"It's quite-quite-quite-quite common in the military, in fact," they told him. "In some female units, you'd think it was c-c-c-compulsory."

*

Foreign powers had approached Mal before, but they'd tried to tempt him with women, so it made him wonder how much attention they'd really been paying. There was one time at least that he had been under surveillance. Moving suburbs in the Aussie capital one year, he gained a new neighbour, an Eastern European gentleman who ran a travel agency and was often working from home.

They didn't know each other any better than to wave when mowing their lawns on a Sunday, until one day the man came round to knock on Mal's door.

"I am telling you something that might be more helpful for you than me," said the man.

He described a car that had been parked on their street on several occasions.

"The man in car, he had binoculars on you. I know...because I had binoculars on him!"

A call to the security services and the car was never seen again.

*

Smart and just a little shy in person, Mal has taken on the air of his idols. It's hard not to think of Le Carre, who describes Smiley as having "the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin", when you see this unassuming figure. The other idol, Craven, the detective from Edge of Darkness, isn't really Mal at all. He stands in for someone else.

"Craven was a different kind of hero," Mal says. "Quiet, competent, modest, and decent. The strength of that character drew me in to that show."

While we're talking about the show, Mal reminiscences about a scene where the detective sits beside the hospital bed of a wounded man he is questioning, tenderly holding his hand. It's an unusual, nurturing interrogation. This approach reminded Mal of a friend he had lost.

"I went to Duntroon" - Australia's Royal Military College - "almost by accident. I don't live life with regrets, but I'm not sure if I went back I'd do that again."

Mal hadn't been a sporty kid - "my key recreation in high school was drinking and smoking" - but athletics was one of the ways he coped with army life.

"Dave Sloane got me into sport at Duntroon. He was a friend who really changed my life. I took water polo seriously for a while, but I was too skinny and always getting beat up. It turned out I had the cutlery to compete at a decent level - a bit of a natural gift when it came to endurance - so Dave got me serious about long distance running."

Dave was quiet and determined and kind. Where Mal always felt he was never quite driven enough to compete - "lacking that killer instinct" says the former artillery officer - Dave focussed him on what sport could do for self esteem and how you could play it in a principled way.

"Principled but not over-regulated," he adds. In the early days of Australian Iron Man events, there was a sense that there no rules, and that the territory of experience was uncharted.

"People ate weird things and trained in weird ways," Mal explains. "It felt very free - until it got wrecked by regulation. The same pompous souls who run surf lifesaving clubs migrated over to triathlons, it felt like overnight. Suddenly you had these blokes in uniforms like baseball referees riding around your triathlon course on mopeds. It was both strange and disappointing."

Dave continued on to increasingly extreme sports, chasing that unregulated sense of adventure.

Ultimately he died in an avalanche, while ice climbing on Ganesh IV.

*

Mal continued to serve in the army and pursue sport in a more restrained way. A 50m barracks pool, largely unused by the forces based there, was one escape when he was posted to Townsville - which at the time felt "as far away from civilisation as you could get." Then there were also road trips to set up positions for wargames, driving around Far North Queensland with two Land Rovers, a few gunnery sergeants, and as many cases of beer as they could fit inside.

"There was a lot of drinking alcohol and pretending to be straight," Mal explains. "I never could especially take my alcohol but that didn't really stop me."

That's not to say Mal didn't enjoy his time in the armed forces, imperfect as the fit was. He points out that military life also has its own queer, camp quality: "It's all about dressing up, isn't it? There's no mystery to the hierarchy: everyone is peacocking around in these green uniforms with bright flashes of colour."

In any case, Mal thinks the post-Vietnam period was a strange time for the Australian army in general. "There was a feeling that the forces had to change to reflect the changes in society, so my intake of officers-to-be was pretty motley. We were misfits and oddballs, smoking pot on rubber mattresses in the barracks, not wild about authority."

"The corner of the army that we saw was pretty tolerant and forgiving. And we were too apathetic to either bully or be bullied; we were just pleased to have avoided conscription and be keeping our heads down at Duntroon as the Vietnam War exhausted itself."

"Today's army wouldn't even have taken our kind. Of my graduating class, a fair few of them have ended up historians and journalists...although others are now driving trucks for a living."

*

Mal's time at Defence Intelligence effectively came to an end because of the glass ceiling: he was the highest ranking openly gay civilian in the organisation.

"No one hassled me for that," he says, "but they didn't know what to make of me. I wasn't flamboyant or stereotypically gay. I was an international-level endurance athlete so I could match or surpass most of them physically, which also threw them."

"I get bored quickly too - just like those two year tours of duty with the army - so I was looking for something different in any case. As an army officer, I'd got tired of artillery and they'd sent me to an electronic warfare unit. Then I'd resigned from the army to take the civilian intelligence role. Now, the DIO sent me over to the Australian War Memorial."

At Australia's national military museum, Mal served a stint as a rotation on an 18-month leadership course - a good reason to get him out of his old office. They wanted him to write a business plan - not something he'd done before, but given his time in economic intelligence, they argued he must be able to get the job done.

Mal says it was "the blind leading the partially sighted", but the war memorial team must have been happy enough - they asked him back, and he eventually headed up the museum's library and archive.

"It was much like being a young artillery officer," he says. "Back then I was reliant on my gun sergeants - they showed me what to do, once they saw I was going to treat them with integrity. I had the same treatment from my librarians - the team showed me the way."

Mal still got in his share of adventures as an archivist. He ended his time with the Memorial on a high, visiting troops on active duty in the Middle East and recording their experiences while amassing material for the museum's collections.

"Those soldiers were just kids," Mal says. "They were so pleased someone was bothering to pay attention. And my question, as the librarian I've become, is: what are we collecting as a legacy for generations a hundred years from now? How do we make sure the public hear the stories of what it's really like in these institutions?"

Invited to join a physical training session on the deck of a battleship, Mal was still in good enough shape to impress the instructors with his rope climbing, which scored him a seat on a boat patrolling offshore oil platforms for pirates - armed only with a camera in heavy seas.

In between these jaunts, Mal was photographing operations with a digital camera, collecting maps that were going to be thrown away during the withdrawal of Australian forces in 2008, and capturing the stories of Aussie soldiers.

Suddenly that awkward time as a laid-back artillery officer made complete sense.

"Having gone to Duntroon really paid off," he laughs. "They gave me VIP treatment well above my notional military rank. When I asked them why they said: too many of your old schoolmates are generals..."
 

Not a subscriber? Join Marvellous, Electrical here.