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Thwaites, Michael Rayner (1915–2005)

by John Farquharson

Michael Thwaites, who has died in Canberra aged 90, was the improbable spook; a poet who became director of counter espionage in the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and supervised the defection in 1954 of the head of Soviet intelligence in Australia, Vladimir Petrov and his wife, Evdokia.

He had served with the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve in the Battle of the Atlantic and finished the war as a corvette captain with the rank of Lieutenant-Commander. Apart from that his background had been in academia. As 1937 Rhodes scholar from Victoria, he had been studying at Oxford when war broke out. And he returned there after the war to complete his studies, specialising in English literature.

Poetry had been a central thread in his life since he was eight when his father read to him stirring poems such as Kipling’s Ballad of East and West and Tennyson’s Ballad of the Fleet. He pursued his poetry at Oxford where, in 1938, he won the Newdigate Prize, the university’s principal prize for poetry awarded annually since 1806. So far, he is the only Australian to do so. Further recognition was to come. In 1940 he won the King’s Medal for poetry, the first Australian to receive this coveted award, previously won by Laurence Whistler and W. H. Auden.

Back in Australia in 1947, he became a lecturer in the English Department of Melbourne University on a three-year contract. During that time he wrote the weekly column 'Poetry Notebook' for the Age. He hadn’t decided on his next move when, he received a phone call from Colonel Charles Spry, director-general of ASIO, with an invitation to come and see him. Spry told him there was ‘a very effective Soviet spy ring operating in Australia’. The situation was serious and Prime Minister Menzies had asked him to upgrade the security service to deal with it. When Thwaites explained that he had had no intelligence experience, Spry said, ‘You’re a poet aren’t you? You have imagination. We want imagination in the organisation and people with analytical skills’. Setting aside his hopes for a literary-academic career, Thwaites accepted Spry’s offer. He also found out that Sir Edmund (Ned) Herring, Lieutenant-Governor and Chief Justice of Victoria, had recommended him to Spry.

He soon found the ASIO work fascinating and the Spry-Thwaites relationship bloomed. They understood and respected each other. Joining in 1950, Thwaites stayed for 20 years until Peter Barbour replaced Spry as head of ASIO in 1971. Later that year he became assistant parliamentary librarian in Canberra. His specific duty at the library was to run, and upgrade where possible, the research service, building upon the work that Allan Fleming had begun during his time as parliamentary librarian.

In ‘retirement’ he was able to focus more on his poetry and other writing. Meanwhile, he had become more widely known for his role in the Petrov affair. After debriefing them, at Spry’s instigation, he spent some 18 months in a ‘safe house’ at Palm Beach with the Petrovs. They told him their life story and he was the ghost-writer for their book, Empire of Fear, published in 1956. He came to know them better than anybody and built a close friendship that continued until their deaths. Drawing on Empire of Fear and his other inside knowledge, Thwaites wrote Truth Will Out: ASIO and the Petrovs. This was his own account of the Petrov Affair. One of his aims in publishing this book was to answer the widespread allegation that Petrov’s defection was staged-managed to help Menzies win the 1954 Federal election. He pointed out that Petrov timed his own defection, not ASIO or Menzies. Petrov came across when he was due to return to Moscow and his successor had arrived and been installed in the embassy in Canberra. He also stressed that Petrov was an “agent of value”, who had provided the names of some 600 KGB officers disguised as diplomats around the world, information on KGB methods and the first confirmation that the missing British diplomats, Burgess and Maclean were in Moscow.

Michael Thwaites was born in Brisbane on 30 May 1915. His father, who taught at Brisbane Grammar School, was a Yorkshire Englishman, while his mother, was a third generation Australian. Several years after his birth they moved to Victoria, where Thwaites had his early education, attending several schools before he was awarded a scholarship to Geelong Grammar. There he came under the influence of its legendary headmaster, Sir James Darling, who was always a source of encouragement to him. Another formative influence at the school was K. C. Masterman, the classics master. Those influences helped to stimulate his poetic interests, first sparked by his father. He penned several poems, one of which, 'Australia to Her Children' was published in the school magazine, Corian. That poem impressed a young woman, Honor Mary Good, who happened to be a daughter of the school doctor. The two met when he went up to Melbourne University in 1934 and she became the love of his life. From there it was on to Oxford to take up his Rhodes scholarship.

Though professional duties took precedence, he never stopped writing poetry. Then a flowering came after the move to Canberra, where the Thwaites said they enjoyed their happiest years. Those years also saw the publication of his popular Honey Man collection, which went to three printings. Probably his best-known poem remains 'The Jervis Bay', a narrative of that ship’s doomed, but gallant encounter with the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer, first published in London and New York in 1942 to great acclaim. It has remained in print ever since in anthologies in the United States and many Commonwealth countries. The Jervis Bay also figures in Atlantic Odyssey, his personal memoir, published in 1999 and centred on the unique voyage of the anti-submarine escort trawler HMS Wastwater, in which he was First Lieutenant, from Iceland to New York, Bermuda, Brazil and West Africa at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic and during the worst gales for 20 years. His poetry has been slow to build a national reputation, though that has begun to change. His work has been more readily appreciated overseas, beginning with the publication in The Times of his wartime poem 'The Prophetic Hour'. Other poems have been published in the Faber Book of War Poetry, in The Voice of War, an anthology of poems by men and women who served in World War II, and in Literary Links (between Britain and Australia). The BBC program 'Poetry Please' has also used his poems and, one of them, 'Message to My Grandson', was chosen for the program’s 25th anniversary CD of 'most requested poems'. But due recognition of his work in Australia came in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 2002 when he became an Officer in the General Division of the Order of Australia (AO). His old college, Trinity, at Melbourne University also honoured him by installing him as a Fellow of the college.

His last literary endeavour, by which he set great store, was the publication of his poems spanning 72 years – from 1932 to 2004 under the title Unfinished Journey. In launching it at University House, Canberra, last December, Professor Ralph Elliott reminded his audience of what Bob Brissenden, former chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council, had said about Thwaites’ poetry, ‘Fashions come and go, while the genuine article endures’. Asserting that Thwaites’ poems would undoubtedly endure, Professor Elliott recalled A. D. Hope saying they were ‘notable for their various intelligent and effective rhythms, and their often deeply moving tone’. Alec Hope added, ‘Michael Thwaites is too modest; he should be much better known’, a sentiment echoed by Peter Pierce, Professor of Australian Literature at James Cook University, who described Unfinished Journey as, ‘A collection of grace, one from a person used to a world of action, who also knows the benison of contemplation’.

Much of his poetry was written for people or about people reflecting his innate humanity, while also giving expression to his love for his country and for Canberra which he always unashamedly ‘talked up’. His Christian faith, strengthened and deepened through his lifelong involvement with Moral Re-Armament, also infused much of his verse, as did his feeling for family, wife, children and for Australia’s Aboriginal people, mirrored in the poem for the burial of Yarmuk, Elder of the Ulupua Tribe on the Murray in 1959.

Together with his wife, Honor, Michael composed the fine patriotic hymn 'For Australia' to a tune by Henry Purcell. It was sung during an Anzac Day service in Westminster Abbey, as well as at the Australia Day Bicentennial celebration at the Sydney Opera House and when the Queen officially opened the new Parliament House in May 1988. The first verse contains these lines, ‘Lord of earth and all creation/ let your love possess our land/ … may we share, in faith and friendship/ gifts unmeasured from your hand’. Those lines epitomise the abiding passion of a man who, in his wife’s words, had a ‘fantastic, magical’ journey.

His four children, Peter, Penelope, Richard and Joe and nine grandchildren survive him. His wife, Honor, whom he married in Oxford in 1939, predeceased him in 1993.

Michael Rayner Thwaites, born 30 May 1915; died 1 November 2005.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 9 November 2005
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 December 2005
  • Age (Melbourne), 5 December 2005

Additional Resources

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Thwaites, Michael Rayner (1915–2005)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/thwaites-michael-rayner-971/text972, accessed 11 December 2018.

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