The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue, by Frederick Forsyth
Frederick Forsyth, alliterative rather than literary genius, father of the jet-age airport novel, has influenced a couple of generations of dreamers. One who immediately springs to mind is former ACT MP David Garrett, who was so intrigued by Forsyth’s description of identity theft in The Day of the Jackal he felt he had to steal an identity too. Perhaps he wasn’t happy with his own, which is understandable.
I must have been around 21 when I felt the need to read the hot new novel of its day and I too was impressed with the detailed research and forensic depth of the Forsyth style. Despite having experimented with ammunition as a farm boy, I didn’t feel the need to seal globules of mercury into the tips of rifle bullets and shoot pumpkins as the would-be assassin in the Day of the Jackal did, practising for his mission to “off” Charles de Gaulle. And nor was I moved to steal the identity of a dead baby.
But Forsyth has influenced a legion of other paperback writers. You know the ones – the ones whose own names dominate the covers of their books which shout at you as you buy that Lotto ticket before boarding the flight.
The fact is that Forsyth is a better writer than most and, as a researcher, lays out quite realistic scenarios. So I don’t mind at all that the cover of his memoir, The Outsider, is a bit shouty with a road-cone orange font declaring its author to be FREDERICK FORSYTH. He’s earned that.
But after reading The Outsider, I was left with a dull sense of inadequacy. The sort that nags away inside asking, what have I done with my Iife?
Forsyth’s CV includes Royal Air Force jet fighter pilot, foreign war correspondent, multi-linguist, hugely successful novelist and, only revealed now in The Outsider, a spy. He doesn’t like that word though. He prefers to regard his work for MI6 as just simply helping ‘The Firm’.
And red-hot lover. Forsyth’s now the thick end of 80 and you can almost see his jowly old face creasing with fond memory as he typed out the following lines about his ‘coming of age.’ It was 1956. He was in Spain, learning the language and training to be a bull fighter. Yes, a bull fighter. He had a fling with a 35 year old German countess.
She frequented the training sessions and later taught me many things a lad should know as he steps out on life’s bumpy road. She had the quaint habit of singing the Horst Wessel song during coitus. At the time I did not know what it was and only a year later learning it was the marching song of the Nazis.
But as well as the LOL description of the singing coital countess, Forsyth has an annoying habit of lecturing the reader. Just as he feels the need to explain what the Horst Wessel song was, or, indeed, is, he also feels the need to explain things that need no explanation for anyone with even a basic secondary education.
Here he is describing his first day, enlisting with the RAF:
There were several thousand young men on the camp, well over 99 percent extremely ‘bolshy’, a short form of Bolshevik, meaning seriously truculent.
Forsyth’s first passion, after the tuneful countess, was flying. He describes how as a child he saw dogfights high above, a memory that drove him against considerable odds to get his wings. He flew Vampires and wanted to graduate to Hawker Hunters but because those jobs went to full-time career RAF pilots – he was a national service volunteer – he was told he had no hope.
At best I would get the right hand (co-pilot) seat in a Hastings cargo plane on the mail run to Malta; at worst, and more likely, I would drive a desk.
So I decided to go for my next choice of career. I had long been convinced that there was a lot of world to see. Fifty-seven years later I can still agree with that. There is, and 90 per cent of it is terrific. I had not the money to travel, but I knew people who did: the editors of the great daily newspapers. I would become a foreign correspondent.
His language skills certainly helped – French, German, Spanish, Russian (“I chose Russian on the grounds it would be much harder than Spanish which I could learn later”).
He ‘almost starts the Third World War’. That was in East Germany when he reported a great concentration of troops and armour which, embarrassingly, turned out to be practise for a May Day parade. He meets Moshe Dyan, hero of Israel’s Six Day War, sees the bullet-ridden car of Charles de Gaulle (the failed assassination attempt that gave rise to The Day of the Jackal) and is shot at and mortared in the Nigeria-Biafra war.
He became so taken with the plight of the Biafrans that he returned to cover the conflict and the great starvation of its people after his then employer, the BBC, which in his day acted as an arm of the British government, decided it would stop covering the war.
He has some advice which may seem particularly relevant in the current time when our news media being cowed so much by commercial pressure that journalistic integrity is under pressure.
When a reporter is told by his employer to publish something he knows to be a pack of lies, there are only three things he can do. The first is to look to his security, his salary, his pension pot, and do what he is told.
The second is to sit in the corner blubbing his heart out at the unfairness of it all. The third is to raise a rigid middle finger at the lot of them and walk out. I sat down and wrote a long letter of resignation.
After a narrow escape from Biafra, Forsyth reinvented himself yet. As he explains:
My situation was pretty dire. I had no flat but a mate let me doss on the sofa. I had no savings left but my father loaned me a few hundred pounds to get by. I certainly had no job and no prospects of ever getting one for a long time.
In my absence, I had been comprehensively smeared from the usual official quarters… The situation was so miserable that I decided to do something that even then was seen as crazy by all I knew.
I thought I might get myself out of this mess by writing a novel.
On 2 January 1970, I sat down at the kitchen table in my borrowed flat with my rusty old portable typewriter, with its bullet scar across the tin cover, rolled in the first sheet of paper and began to type.
He wrote for 35 days from when his friend went off to work until her return after dark, all through January, seven days a week, and the first two weeks of February.
Then I typed the last line of the last page.
I rolled the first page back into the machine and stared at it. I had called it The Jackal. That seemed a bit bare and might be taken for a nature documentary set in Africa. So in front of the title I typed The Day Of. If I say it myself, not a single word has been changed since.
So, an airport novelist, THE airport novelist, was off and away. But even as one of the world’s most famous writers, Forsyth continued his work for MI6. His research proved good cover, except for a situation in Hamburg when he was researching The Dogs of War.
He’d been posing as a South African wanting to buy arms for a civil war in Angola.
He got close to a big time arms dealer but his cover was blown when the arms dealer spotted Forsyth’s photograph on the back cover of The Day Of The Jackal. Here’s what happened next:
I was in my hotel room opposite the main station when the phone rang. There were no introductions. A voice spoke, clearly British, with the clipped tones of an education. ‘Freddie, get out of Hamburg now. And I mean now. They are coming for you.’
Forsyth subsequently delivered to and picked up ‘packages’ from British agents in East Germany, all standard cold war spy stuff and a jolly good tale that is too, but the one yarn that resonates strongest is the one about Pik Botha, then South Africa’s foreign minister.
Forsyth, being Forsyth, had met Botha – “the only man among them that I liked” – and they’d developed a casual friendship.
MI6 knew Botha was going to holiday with his sons at a game reserve to shoot an eland, as one did and certain types apparently still do in that part of the world. Apartheid was collapsing and the big fear amongst Western governments was what would South Africa do with the six nuclear bombs the Israelis had helped them build.
So Mi6 sent in their agent, Frederick Forsyth. He took his sons too. It was all very male bonding, braais and shooting:
We were all round the dying fire with the four sleeping boys between the foreign minister and me. So I asked quietly: ‘Pik, when the rainbow revolution comes and the ANC takes over, what are you going to do with the six atom bombs?’
My question hung in the air for a few seconds, then there was a low chuckle from across the embers and a reply in the Afrikaans-inflected voice.
’Freddie, you can go back home and tell your people we are going to destroy the lot.’
So much for the elaborate cover story. The old buzzard knew exactly what I was, who I was asking for and what they wanted to hear.
The outsider? The ultimate insider, more like.
The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue, by Frederick Forsyth (Bantam Press, $37) is available at Unity Books.