Frederick Forsyth opens up on his secret service
Frederick Forsyth opens up about his espionage career in a new memoir, writes Rosie Kinchen
Frederick Forsyth doesn’t enjoy holidays, not because he doesn’t like taking time off but because he has already been everywhere worth seeing. “I know Australia, Asia, Africa, Europe — intimately,” he growls. Occasionally his second wife, Sandy — whom he refers to as “the commanding officer” — will drag him to New York. “She’ll ask, ‘ Do you want to see the Guggenheim?’ But I’ve seen it. Or, ‘Do you want to go to the Met?’ Yawwn.” He lets out a deep sigh.
The celebrated author is happiest at home in the green hills of Buckinghamshire. It is there I find him: compact, cantankerous and surrounded by Buddhas. Sandy is an “orientalist”, he says, gesturing towards the kimono in the hall and the enormous pagoda in the garden. Not even the jack russell has escaped her fervour: she is called Shen, meaning mystic mountain in Chinese.
Forsyth, 77, occupies a British enclave of the sitting room lined with tomes such as Winston Churchill’s The Second World War in six volumes. Here, nestled into an armchair, he talks about his years running errands for MI6, years he covers in detail in his new memoir, The Outsider: My Life of Intrigue.
As an author Forsyth adhered wherever possible to the truth. The Day of the Jackal broke all the rules of a traditional thriller, not least because Charles de Gaulle was a real person. He has visited the settings of almost all of his 20odd books, from Mogadishu to Guinea-Bissau, and refuses to trust “this thing called online”.
So it is perfectly logical that his knowledge of the Secret Intelligence Service, too, was based on firsthand experience. He is talking about it now because “it is 55-60 years later. There have been memoirs written, highly secret minutes have been published. There’s no East Germany, no Stasi, no KGB, no Soviet Union, so where’s the harm?” Which has not stopped him receiving “a wigging”, he adds with a mischievous grin. What kind of wigging? “Lunch in the West End. It was very gentle. Lots of teeth-sucking.”
Forsyth was never an employee of MI6 but a useful friend who could be called “to the club” and asked to lend a hand. There are no signs of the gentleman spy on show today: his lucky bullet necklace (it flew through his hair in Biafra and lodged in a doorpost) is tucked away upstairs and he is wearing a jumper in a delicate shade of lilac.
He was first approached by the agency while covering the Biafran war as a freelance reporter. Forsyth, who had befriended the Ibo leader Emeka Ojukwu, had already left the BBC under a cloud for suggesting the situation was not clear-cut. MI6 disagreed with the stance of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and needed someone on the ground to confirm this. At first he was reluctant. “I had to be convinced that what was going wrong in London was that the pro-Lagos policy bias was triumphing because there was no counterbalancing information coming from the other side.”
By this point the scale of human suffering was becoming clear to him — the hundreds of thousands of children dying from malnutrition — and he hoped, with enough information, “there was a chance, only a chance, that the government could be persuaded to urge a ceasefire, which would have meant free access to the relief planes”. He passed information back home through “missionaries and aid workers” for the next 1½ years.
Forsyth insists he has never “compulsively” sought out danger, and wrote books only because it was “easier” and “more lucrative” than “getting my head blown off in some rain ditch in Africa”. But with his talent for languages — he speaks French and German — and a mischievous streak, it is easy to see why espionage appealed to him.
As Reuters correspondent in East Berlin, he delighted in goading the Stasi. He would remove the bug in his television and shake off his official tail whenever possible. “The Stasi were as thick as planks; the Communist establishment, with its zero sense of humour, seemed to be there just to have the mickey taken out of it,” he chortles.
He returned to London from Nigeria in 1971, penniless and “more or less unemployable”. He then began to flesh out an idea he had had years earlier in Paris. Thirty-five days later he had finished The Day of the Jackal.
Forsyth was born in Ashford, Kent, the only child of a furrier and his wife. He realised at a young age that he “would rather shovel gravel” than “board the 7.41 from Ashford to Charing Cross every morning”. His father encouraged him “to get the hell out”. He went to Tonbridge School, deliberately flunked an interview at Clare College, Cambridge, and joined the RAF — leaving when he realised it was likely to lead to a desk job.
Journalism was his plan B and as a fledgling reporter he was posted to Paris with Reuters in the early 1960s. It was during the war for Algerian independence when far-right extremists, the OAS (Organisation de l’armee secrete), were intent on assassinating de Gaulle.
Forsyth was given the job of following the president in case they succeeded. He quickly realised they would not because French intelligence had thoroughly infiltrated the group. “I thought, the only way you’re going to do it is if you bring in an outsider who is utterly unknown and might pass unspotted.”
This was the seed of The Day of the Jackal. The book made his name, landed him a threebook publishing deal and spawned the hit film starring Edward Fox.
It was in 1973, when he was working on his third novel, The Dogs of War, that the agency called again. “The full briefing took place in a flat in Mayfair,” he says. “It was all very friendly and jolly — first names and all that. What they are trying to say is, we need someone to do an errand for us, and so I said yeah.”
The errand involved going back to East Germany. There were huge risks involved and Forsyth was by now an established author. Did it cross his mind to say no? “It was the Cold War,” he says. “The USSR, the Politburo, the KGB, were regarded as genuine threats to all we had, to our sovereignty, to our freedom, to our democracy, to our country. So when someone said ‘ Will you do something for your country?’, you took it seriously.”
As the relationship developed, MI6, it seems, was happy to return the favour. Did he consult with it on later books? “Yes. I could check. I had a number to ring. I would have a lunch at the club; I’d ask, ‘Is it OK?’ They’d check with superiors then say, ‘ Yes, you can use that, with one proviso: that sheets must be provided for vetting.’ Just in case I went too far.” He made use of this arrangement “perhaps a dozen” times.
A wealthy man, Forsyth could have been far wealthier were it not for some catastrophic financial decisions. When the Labour Party won the British election in 1974 and raised the top tax rate to 83 per cent, he sold the Jackal royalties to his publisher for £75,000. “I thought that was a lot; I’d never seen anything like it. But 44 years later it’s still selling.” Here, too, he begins to creak with mirth.
Frederick Forsyth with wife Sandy and his CBE medal in 1997, far left; Edward Fox as the Jackal in The Day of the Jackal, below