By CARROLL DU CHATEAU
The kid from Ngaruawahia was always going to be different.
He loved the freedom of walking to the dairy in his bare feet, and the fact that he lived just down the road from the Maori Queen's official residence.
He also had a brain that would gain him a scholarship at age 17 to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, followed by a double first in aeronautical engineering - and a tap on the shoulder from a tutor recruiting for Britain's Security Intelligence Service when he was only 21. He refused.
But the SIS was persistent. By 1991, when he was a 28-year-old, 1.9m hunk who had spent a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston as a Kennedy Memorial scholar, ridden a motorbike across the Sahara and become fluent in three languages, Richard Tomlinson was persuaded.
As he said in a TVNZ Assignment documentary two years ago: "It was almost a matter of pride among students to get asked ..."
Once inside the SIS, he performed spectacularly. Regarded as the best officer in his intake, he quickly outstripped more plodding probationers.
Within months he became operational officer to the Soviet section, where he developed a scheme to uplift the super-sensitive Mitrokhin archives from Moscow - the same archives that pointed the finger at New Zealand diplomat Paddy Costello and top public servant Dr Bill Sutch.
It was after his second overseas posting - this time to Bosnia - that he was sacked. The date was August 31, 1995, and he had been with MI6 just under four years.
Maybe what the Cambridge talent scout had failed to pick up was that his blend of brilliance and innovation was laced with a tenacity that would drive him to campaign against his former bosses internationally for what he will maintain till the end of his days was his "illegal and unfair dismissal" from MI6.
His mission, he says, is to expose the secrecy and inefficient management of Britain's external security service.
It was always going to be a David-and-Goliath task. By late last month, despite continuing negotiations for mediation between his Auckland barrister, Warren Templeton, and the British Treasury Solicitor, he was running out of options.
Holed up in an apartment in Rimini, Italy, under "constant surveillance" by police and authorities, he was adamant that the only way out was to publish his adventures since he left MI6 and so get his story into the open.
As he said on his cellphone, while speeding along the autoroute from Rome with two "slightly overweight, swarthy, Italian-looking men" shadowing him, "the only way to get this whole thing over is to write the book."
"At the moment I'm thinking of going to Cuba. Quite clearly they [MI6] are putting me under such surveillance here I've got to think seriously about where else I can do it."
Even after five years out of the system, with his options for a safe haven rapidly drying up, he obviously enjoys the thrill. "Cuba seems like quite a good choice."
Why was a man who was so outstanding that he was given tasks normally reserved for experienced SIS personnel kicked out so summarily?
Mr Tomlinson says his dismissal was based on a personnel department claim that he "was not a team player and prone to go off on his own frolics." MI6 has subsequently claimed that he was unreliable.
Other officers, including his immediate superior, protested that he was an excellent performer who should not be dismissed.
After his sacking he was prevented from taking MI6 to an industrial tribunal when his employers placed a security ban on proceedings.
From that day he has fought the perceived injustice with a doggedness and no-holds-barred fury that have forced the SIS to pursue him across three continents.
It was never going to be a fair fight. The outcast spy and the SIS have continued to snipe at each other - and with every move the will to win has gone up another notch.
Mr Tomlinson's opener was to send a six-page synopsis for a book based on his experiences at MI6 to a publisher in Australia - the country where former MI5 assistant director Peter Wright published Spycatcher.
Before you could say Le Carre, his former bosses charged him with breaking the Official Secrets Act and, far from visiting his brother in Australia, he was sentenced to a year in jail.
The probation terms when he was released six months later angered him, too. He was forbidden to communicate with the media, told he could not leave the country and forced to surrender his British and New Zealand passports.
Mr Tomlinson, who was already working on a deal to tell his story to Assignment, employed the tactics he had perfected at MI6. He refused to give up his New Zealand passport and, on the pretext that it was the property of the New Zealand Government, posted it to the New Zealand Embassy in Paris.
Next he skipped to France on a ferry and, after a savage roughing-up from French gendarmes - apparently at the behest of Britain's Special Branch - picked up this passport and headed for Auckland.
Again the SIS used its international connections. When he touched down at Mangere, police were waiting with an injunction from both the British and New Zealand Governments under the Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Act forbidding him to reveal MI6 secrets.
Although his revelations in the Assignment programme broadcast that week did not contain any state secrets, the British Government quickly moved against him.
A Special Branch officer and Auckland police raided his hotel room, seized his laptop and mobile phone and eventually hauled him off a plane bound for Australia. Canberra has now refused him an entry visa.
Once again the perceived injustice only made him more determined.
En route to what he hoped would be political asylum in Switzerland, he stopped in France to give evidence to Magistrate Herve Stephan, who was investigating the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the year before.
Mr Tomlinson suggested that the Princess' death was curiously similar to a fate planned by MI6 for Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Meanwhile, his London lawyer, John Wadham, of the British civil liberties group Liberty, was trying to broker a deal. On February 18, 1997, at a secret location in Spain with no lawyers present, the SIS presented Mr Tomlinson with a draft agreement. Their terms: a 12-month pension and interest-free loan and help to find another job.
In return, Mr Tomlinson had to agree to give up his manuscript; return all material relating to his work at the SIS; assign to the Crown copyright to everything he had written concerning his work and SIS activities; acknowledge his obligations under the Official Secrets Act; and comply with his contractual undertaking regarding non-publication of information relating to security and intelligence activities.
Fearing for his life, he signed.
As he says now: "I was forced into signing. They said that if I didn't, 'We'll harass you around the world for the rest of your life'."
The SIS was not joking. After he had tried, hated and left the job provided for him with the Formula One racing-car organisation Stewart Grand Prix, he again attempted to talk to the media.
Immediately, the SIS was tipped off. When journalists invited him to New York, he was arrested at Kennedy Airport, shackled to a chair for six hours and promptly sent back to Geneva.
His former bosses were also constantly irritated by a series of MI6 leaks, mainly to the British Sunday Times and alleged to originate with him. Most of this he denies, alleging that he has been set up and painted into a corner.
The leaks included: allegations that MI6 ran a "high-level mole" in Germany's central bank between 1995 and 1997, working under diplomatic immunity in Bonn; that the Serbs donated sterling 100,000 to the British Conservative Party; and that MI6 stole top-secret technology from the French Navy for tracking nuclear submarines.
There was also an alleged letter from an Internet cafe in Geneva to a parliamentary committee, alleging that MI6 had been involved in economic spying on France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. The letter also repeated allegations that MI6 had drawn up contingency plans to eliminate President Milosevic by supporting a dissident operation or sending in the SAS.
But the gesture that ended his stay in Geneva was his audacious threat to publish names of MI6 spies on his Web page - a threat that backfired when the kind of list he had been talking about, naming around 160 MI6 spies, hit cyberspace.
Although officials now acknowledge that the list did not come from Mr Tomlinson, it fuelled MI6's anger still further.
Technology finally got the better of the spymasters. When the British Government banned his Web page, sympathisers "mirrored" it all over the Internet.
Said Mr Tomlinson: "This shows the freedom of speech provided by the Internet is far more powerful than the outdated secrecy laws of a minor state."
Right or wrong, in June 1999 he was forced to flee Geneva only hours before the Swiss authorities were to throw him out on allegations that he had violated a civil order not to publish the list.
By now his options were running out. Hounded out of most of Europe, he moved to Germany and then to Italy, working in a bar, writing the odd tantalising spy story for newspapers and exercising his particular brand of humour in advertisements such as the one in the November 14, 1999, issue of Private Eye in which Mr Tomlinson shows up looking for a job as a snowboarding instructor in the Bavarian Alps.
But the SIS did not find him remotely funny. Last month, after an approach from Moscow publisher Narody Varant to write a book about his adventures since leaving MI6, his laptop, electronic organiser, cellphone and even a blanket were lifted from his Italian apartment by police.
He explains: "This book doesn't break the Official Secrets Act. It's just about things that happened since I left MI6. I've been arrested 11 times, they've put injunctions on every other publisher. The publisher thinks it's very funny and I think it's ironic, really, that the freedom of speech is in Russia now."
Meanwhile, the SIS has also stepped up its campaign against leaks to the press by ordering top Whitehall spymaster Michael Packenham to crack down on "unauthorised disclosures" by dissenting SIS agents such as Mr Tomlinson and David Shayler, who is in prison in France.
On May 21, Special Branch officers moved to investigate the Sunday Times article about the MI6 mole in Germany's central bank. The paper is resisting its demands.
Now aged 37 but still with the rugged good looks that make him so easy to spot, Mr Tomlinson does not dare visit his parents in England, his brother in Australia - or New Zealand, the land of his birth and the country where he would one day like to settle.
Meanwhile, settlement negotiations between his Auckland lawyer and Britain's Treasury Solicitor have moved from stalemate to satisfactory since correspondence over the dispute was sent to the intelligence security committee of the House of Commons six months ago.
Mr Tomlinson is pushing ahead with his publishing plans with the kind of dogged determination that made him a top spy in the first place, and MI6 is blocking him at every turn.
He is gagged from writing about his extraordinary life in Britain, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, France, Thailand, Switzerland and now Italy.
His apartment is under constant surveillance to a point where his landlord has asked him to move out. His Fiat is constantly tailed.
The ironic thing is that political shifts, both in the British security Establishment and the wider world, will probably succeed where traditional MI6 tactics have failed. Last month, the former head of the internal security service MI5, Dame Stella Rimington, announced plans to write her memoirs as a spy chief.
And although Mr Tomlinson's former bosses at MI6 were outraged, it is probable that public opinion, coupled with the European Convention on Human Rights which Britain will sign this year, will ensure that the book goes ahead.
As Mr Tomlinson said during his car chase through Italy last week: "It's absurd really. There's a huge amount of Government resources being wasted ... I've just got to get away from this harassment."