James McNeish – Books – The Sixth Man and others

In New Zealand we have have had a 4.5 week lockdown and now we are 2 days into a still restricted time period to help manage the health risks from covid-19. There are many responses to this kind of enforced stay at home but one of my first thoughts was finally I can finish off some of the books I have been reading.

One of those is The Sixth Man by James McNeish.

“Tells of Paddy Costello, New Zealand’s most brilliant envoy, the man who blew the whistle on Soviet possession of the atom bomb, and the first Western diplomat to penetrate the Nazi death camps at the end of the war. Costello was a scholar, diplomat, exemplary father, maverick – but was he also a spy?”

 
Spoiler: Costello was not a spy but he spoke 9 or 10 languages and besides many other things he was a diplomat who was based in Moscow for New Zealand at a time immediately after WW2 when the west was allied with Russia but didn’t know Stalin was really one of the bad guys.

A Guardian review of Costello described himGuardian review of Costello described him

“He was funny, noisy, irreverent, argumentative, and occasionally appallingly drunk. He would have been a dreadful spy.
 
But he was a perfect suspect. He was a natural internationalist, fluent in nine languages including Russian, and the British establishment distrusts such people. He was an outsider, married to a Jewish Communist.”

 
He had gone to study at Cambridge in 1932. McNeish writes

“A number of luminaries including the poet A.E Housman and Wittgenstein the philosopher ..was already there.”

 
Dance of the PeacocksCostello was one of a group of expat New Zealanders that McNeish had written about earlier in another historical biography called Dance of the Peacocks. Subtitled ‘New Zealanders in Exile in the Time of Hitler and Mao Tse Tung’. Those five were James Bertram, Geoffrey Cox, Dan Davin, Ian Milner and John Mulgan.

Costello served as part of an intelligence team in WW2 with Geoffrey Cox and Dan Davin as part of Freybergs team. The Peacocks book came out in 2003 and I would have read it not long after. In that context Costello was the 6th Man which became the title of this book published in 2008.

The book is very well researched and is full of stories about Costello who was a brilliant man. It is true to times that NZ never appreciated him and that there really was no place for him in 1950’s NZ. He ended up as a Professor of Russian at Manchester University until he died in 1963.

It is good that these brilliant scholars all found a way to make their mark in the UK and elsewhere but I can’t help wondering what NZ would have been like if they had been welcomed back to NZ. Only one of the six ever returned.

The books (both of them) are for New Zealanders who want to learn more about our history. Being war times opened up opportunities and challenges that were out of the ordinary.

As I write this in 2020 there are approximately 1m expat New Zealanders offshore. Not many, if any are as brilliant as this group of six but I am sure there are quite a few. An inspiring read.