Fred­er­ick Forsyth opens up on his se­cret ser­vice

Fred­er­ick Forsyth opens up about his es­pi­onage ca­reer in a new memoir, writes Rosie Kinchen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - The Sun­day Times

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

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