Wednesday Book: A Cold War thriller of a memoir

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The Independent Culture



MARK FRANKLAND was a foreign correspondent for 30 years. I worked with him for a short time at The Observer and was looking forward to reading about his life and times in Russia, Vietnam, America, etc. He certainly had enough of them to fill any amount of pages.

Not that he would. Frankland writes beautifully, but he doesn't like to overdo things. Nor would he want to write about the obvious. He lived in those countries long enough to know something of what people really thought. This, then, was to be a book about the lives that history does not record, friends and enemies, and the tangled-up times of the Cold War.

Or so I thought. And it is, except for the fact that Frankland has also tried to do quite a bit more with Child of My Time. Do not let the fact it is only 214 pages long fool you: this is an ambitious book. It is a memoir that is also journalistic. It is biography, though sometimes it is not clear exactly whose. At heart, it could be a thriller. After all, it is all about the Cold War and he was expelled from Russia in a tit- for-tat spy scandal in 1985. In the end I gave up trying to categorise it. I'm sure Frankland, who probably thinks all categories are deceptive anyway, would find that amusing.

He worked abroad from 1962 to 1992. His first assignment was to go to Russia and he arrived bearing an Observer identity card the size of a wedding invitation. "More useful would have been a manual on how to get hold of this commodity called news that I was now supposed to be dealing in," he writes. The paper's answer to this was a correspondence course and an extravagant overcoat whose detachable lining was made from black rabbit pelts. "It had the look of Edwardian elegance and was as heavy as chain mail."

He also had the names of two people. One was a woman named Vera Petrovna, another a man named Yegor, who taught him to drink Russian-style. There is also the sinister Victor of the KGB, and Alec, who worshipped all things American (and Mark, by virtue of his language, was, of course, almost one). These people are an entertaining, if potentially duplicitous, bunch. Soon there would be others, including Guy Burgess, to stir the plot.

The book does not begin in Russia, however, but on the edge of Windsor Park, in a house of cobwebs. Here lived his grandmother, a Lady Zouche, who seemed more Gypsy than anything else, and whom he loved. She was a puzzle, and here he takes the pieces out for examination. Frankland writes of his own personal history as if it were a foreign country - somehow he finds the distance to do this - and the most moving story in the book is that of his mother, who tried to fill her life with immaculately folded clothes but ended up settling for alcohol instead.

The threads that run throughout are those of secrecy and deception, for this is both detective and spy story. He was a real spy for only a year - his training reads like a particularly ludicrous B movie - but it haunted him for decades. In Russia, he was thought to be a British spy, in Vietnam a Soviet one, and so on.

I must confess that I turned to these bits first. Everyone at The Observer thought that Mark Frankland had been a spy at some time, but it never got more specific than that. Of course, no one ever dared to ask him and he never talked about it, at least not to my knowledge. This is a book of intrigue and intelligence. The writing is supple and light, a joy to read, though sometimes it seems shaded by a sadness. It is about an era that slipped away even as it was being played out - Mark Frankland's time (his family's self-deception gave him a good training for it), and now it is over.

In 1992, he returned "home" to a world that seemed strange to him. He sees it this way: "For here, too, chance now favours those who travel light and know no regret for the times that are past." It's the kind of thing he would notice.