Pilot, journo, writer, spy. Four words, a line filched from Le Carre, and there you have it; a neat summation of nigh on eight decades of an extraordinary life and career, with an incendiary revelation fizzing away between the covers.
Except Frederick Forsyth, the novelist who lit thriller tinder when he first penned The Day of the Jackal back in the 1970s, doesn’t consider his endeavours in subterfuge to be quite so dangerously revelatory anymore.
It is fascinating stuff, and the irony is not lost that he is visiting Cheltenham next Friday for an extremely rare foray into the Literature Festival landscape to talk about his memoirs in The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue, as GCHQ looms large in the background. “I don’t do many,” he tells me. “I’m notorious for it, but the reason for it is that I am naturally reclusive.”
Frederick Forsyth needs little introduction. One of the world’s best-known and best- selling writers, he has written some of the most instantly recognisable titles of recent times, and it’s quite an oeuvre, including The Day of The Jackal, The Odessa File, Dogs of War and The Fourth Protocol for starters. Many have been made into hit films (Day of The Jackal launched Edward Fox’s career and Michael Caine and other such acting luminaries have been happily available for roles). In short, Frederick’s contribution to the world’s bookshelves set the standard for meticulous research and plausible, realistic plot-lines.
His modus operandi is devastatingly effective: plots assembled with the precision of a Swiss pocket watch; characters and dialogue that linger convincingly long after the last page is turned and the cover dog-eared. It is possible to find oneself in Forsyth cold turkey. I have a cherished picture of my father and myself on holiday when I was 13. We are both in clover reading Forsyth. But he hadn’t written that many books back then and we both read quickly. Cue the violins.
But the reason why his novels have endured in popularity for more than 45 years now, is because his cool, reportorial prose spins a convincing yarn; a yarn that unravels with unnerving authenticity. Frederick truly has been in the thick of it, with friends in high and low places and the occasional sleeping with the enemy thrown in for good measure.
Frederick’s life story could trump any fictional tale, and lady luck has been a benevolent if not thoroughly indulgent mistress. If his life was a Bond film, she would slink up to him in the casino, kiss the dice and shake his cocktail (so to speak). As Frederick tells me, Bond is ‘pure fantasy’, but you get the picture. Lucky Frederick. Ergo lucky us.
And what a life he has had. Read on, and imagine you’re in a bar, Frederick is beside you, taking a long drag on a Rothmans and regaling you with anecdote after anecdote: you’ll have the book in a nutshell.
An academically gifted and, thanks to the prescience of his parents, multi-lingual only child, Frederick rejected the idea of a Cambridge education, opting instead to fulfil his dreams by becoming the youngest RAF fighter pilot at just 19.
He survived an horrific car crash at 20, his hand narrowly saved from amputation thanks to a fortuitously located retired surgeon, and his severed ear was reattached. His hearing was unaffected, but Frederick is no prize-winning golfer. And just as an aside, he also narrowly avoided being raped at knifepoint in Paris when he produced a larger knife, and he even had a stint as a trainee matador.
After earning his wings and completing the National Service he had chosen over that Cambridge degree, his desire to travel prompted his decision to train as a journalist. He earned his reporting chops on the Eastern Daily Press. Then luck struck again.
On what he thought a doomed attempt to get an interview in Fleet Street three years later, Frederick, disillusioned, sought solace in a bar, where a friendly chap struck up conversation. It transpired that he had trained at the same newspaper and knew Frederick’s mentor well.
He immediately took young Frederick back to his place of work, which just so happened to be Reuters. Before the sun was over the yard arm they had sussed that Frederick was fluent in French, German and Spanish, and he found himself in Paris as Reuters’ foreign correspondent at just 23 years old.
In Paris he covered the repeatedly unsuccessful assassination attempts on President Charles De Gaulle, and he found himself idly musing on the idea that perhaps a lone hitman would be a more successful option…
The following years were just as remarkable. His next move was to become Reuters man in East Berlin. At the height of the Cold War, Frederick was evading the Stasi past Checkpoint Charlie, whilst nearly triggering world war three, then occasionally sleeping with the enemy…
He went on to cover the Biafran War, falling out with the BBC and going freelance. He started writing to earn money, but when The Day of the Jackal hit the bookshelves, his fate as a writer was sealed. He now lives in Buckinghamshire with his wife Sandy, spending time with his two sons and grandchildren. Living, as he tells me, a simple and occasionally scruffy life.
“Basically it is. I spend most of my time around the house in canvas jeans and a farm work shirt, and sometimes I don’t shave! Wow! No, I enjoy spending time here. Anyone thinking I’ve got to have caviar, nah! A ploughman’s lunch at the Jolly Cricketers and I’m perfectly happy,” said Frederick.
But, as revealing as this may be, it is remarkably only a couple of years since Frederick wrote The Kill List, when his unwavering perfectionism prompted a research trip to Mogadishu, Somalia. He was 75 at the time, and Sandy was not impressed. So did he miss the thrill and danger of it all?
“I didn’t really miss it, that’s too much. The last time I was, I suppose, in a dicey situation was writing The Kill List. I decided I had got to describe Mogadishu, Somalia and I read some stuff online but it was absolutely pathetic. It wasn’t anything like what I knew what it must be, and I read some other writers who clearly hadn’t been there. One could tell by just looking at what they had written about Mogadishu and Somalia generally, they just hadn’t been there.
“So I said I’m going to have to go, and my wife Sandy said ‘you’re a damn fool, you’re not the youth you used to be’. I said ‘I’m 75, but on the other hand, I’ve got to go’. So I went. So that was that. There was a possibility of something happening there, but to say did I miss it? No, no. I’ve reached the stage now at 77 that I’m perfectly happy, to play with the grandchildren and take the Jack Russells for a walk. I don’t really need to go into the weird situations anymore!” I venture that such a trip at 75 was still quite remarkable, and Frederick chuckles.
“She said if you ever do that again I’m going to sue you with Fiona Shackleton!”
Sandy can probably sleep more easily now, as Frederick has no plans to write another thriller.
“I said the last one would be my last novel. I still think it will be for a whole range of things. I haven’t got any other stories that intrigue me, and also the complexity of technology nowadays in that world, the underworld, so to speak, is just baffling me. I can’t even understand it. So the old days – and I almost said the good old days – when you had things like microfilm and you wrote things on paper, they’re long gone. I think your spook today is just sitting there tapping things into a screen, which I can’t find very dramatic!”
But there have been some baffling espionage-related cases in recent times that could be straight out of one of his books, such as the Litvinenko poisoning and the unexplained death of former GCHQ worker Gareth Williams, whose body was mysteriously found in a padlocked holdall in his bath five years ago. So was it foul play – reminiscent of a Forsyth-esque plot?
Frederick concedes: “It might have been, because obviously it was weird, and inexplicable, and I don’t think we ever got to the bottom of it properly and we never will now. And occasionally murders, and it was clearly murder I think, but there are murders of course that are never ever solved and this may well be one.”
So is his contacts book locked up safely in a vault now? Frederick laughs: “It’s right in front of me – I’m staring at it!” Never say never, eh Frederick?
“I don’t know about other writers, but I think we all have this in common: we need isolation to write. Some people are at their desk every day writing, then they re-write. I mean Jeffrey Archer does about 15 or 16 rewrites. I couldn’t. That would drive me potty. I mean, to go all the way back to page one and start again? No! I just do one, meticulously careful, but just one copy and that goes to the editors. But I do prepare meticulously, I do the research over six months and then write over two. The only thing I don’t have any more is deadlines.
“One of the things I like about it is that, unlike commerce for example where it’s all about market share, you don’t have to crush anybody else to be successful, it can be gentle. So if I see another young man having a blistering success I am delighted, because there’s room.”
And his admission in the book about his role as an asset for MI6 may well ruffle Whitehall feathers yet.
“Well, it’s called asset or agent but really it’s errand runner. I just ran a few errands, that’s all,” he tells me.
“A lot of people back then in the Cold War did, as I never cease to say, a lot of business men were approached. If you were going to a trade fair in a rather difficult to get at city, it was ‘would you just do a little favour for us? If an envelope came under your hotel door would you put it in your attached case and bring it home?’ And most said ‘yeah, yeah’. It’s why we had, or have, a brilliant intelligence service at a very cheap rate. The taxpayer is not being short-changed, believe me!”
Is he expecting any reprimand for his
contra-Official Secrets Act admission?
“I may be rebuked yet! It’s the big word isn’t it? S.P.Y. The media, and I know you are of the media and it’s like shoving heroin to a junkie, but it wasn’t so spectacular. James Bond was a fantasy, and always will be a fantasy. The stuff that was really pretty much accurate the way it was, was the George Smiley stuff. But that came from David Cornwall (aka John Le Carre) of course who was in it, and now admitted belatedly that he was. But he was on the staff you see, I was never on the staff. I was just serving as a volunteer and occasionally, now and again.
“And again the phrase ‘over twenty years’. It was four or five things over that span, just errands, favours. And the only reason that I felt that I would be allowed was because I didn’t ask. There might be someone miffed down there that I broke the code. But I just think it’s so far back and we’ve had so many released secrets now; the 30-year rule cabinet documents, private and very secret memos exchanged between Prime Ministers which were all released under the 30-year rule, and I’m talking 45 years ago. And you know, East Germany has gone, the Stasis have gone, the USSR has gone. Communism has gone, except in the Labour party!” he laughs.
“It was a different world, and I don’t see how anybody could be endangered by some Boys’ Own paper anecdotes of 45 years ago. I don’t know, the professionals might say ‘I shouldn’t have told anybody anything’, but then I do remember far enough back to when we never officially told anyone we had an intelligence service.”
Frederick is hard-pushed to say which of his thrillers was the most enjoyable to write.
“Oh Lord, I can’t recall, I really can’t. But the most traumatic was the stuff in Biafra. That was at the other end of the scale because that did scar me. I was there two years in a hell hole situation and I watched many, many children die of starvation… a black and white picture in the paper or even on TV is not the same as being there. So Biafra was revelatory and horrible and to this day I can’t forget it.”
But, the horrors of conflict aside, Frederick happily acknowledges that he has had more than his fair share of good fortune.
“I had a wonderful childhood. My father was in his way a great man. He was just a shopkeeper, but a kind, decent man.
“I have had amazing luck. I have some outbreaks of ill luck, like when I foolishly entrusted the guardianship of all my life savings to a man I thought was a friend, who turned out to be a conman and a swindler, and he embezzled all of my life savings going back to zero at the age of 50, and I had to start all over again… but most of my luck has been the other way, it’s been good.
“I look back with great gratitude, but I don’t quite know who to thank! I’m not a great believer but I will have to make my mind up soon; I may have to meet him!”
Frederick reads mostly non-fiction, and he finds the last 50 years the most interesting time to read about. He reckons more change occurred within the last 50 years than in the previous 200. It has been an interesting time to live through.
And he is still bemused that his creation of The Jackal has passed into common-parlance for hit men when the Venezuelan assassin Carlos the Jackal was exposed and later caught.
“I was asked ‘why did you name him (The Jackal) after Carlos?’ And I went pink ‘I didn’t! The press named Carlos after Jackal! I wrote Jackal in 1971 and he was exposed in public in ’74!”
He is still very good friends with the film’s Jackal, actor Edward Fox, they met for lunch at The Ivy just last week: “Edward’s a great guy – we met just as I described in the book.”
Frederick tells the tale in his book of the man who read his palm when he was in hospital. He was loath to do it, Frederick insisted, and his predictions have been remarkably accurate this far.
“Well, like all fortune tellers he was very vague, but he was pretty accurate on most of the things about the personal life: the sons, the wives, and writing, he seemed to foresee that. He said one day you will write creatively, and I said ‘Oh really?” It wasn’t what I had in mind. I was 20 years old and as far as I was concerned I was just dedicated to becoming a journalist. Is that writing? Well, yes it was, but it’s not novels. But he did say that I would pop off one day, over 80 he said. I specifically remember that! Alone, and far away in a foreign land in the sun, which seems to indicate that it would be in the Caribbean somewhere, but I’m not going yet!”
Frederick has a picture on his study wall, of ‘the old codger sitting in his spitfire’, as he puts it. He finally got to fly the spitfire he had dreamed of since he was five years old last year. There are two pictures here. Look at them; the sheer joy on his face is the culmination of childhood dreams. Look again; that is a five year-old child.
So: Spitfire pilot, journo, writer, spy, husband, father, grandfather, friend and occasional political thorn in the side. Is there anything that he would change? It seems those boyhood dreams still count.
“For me it’s very simple. I would have loved to fly with the few, just that, but I was 16 years too young
“I’ve had a lot of fun, I’ve had a great time and, well, I did the best I could.”