Right, Said Fred
I do not want to be stuck in a tunnel. I am already late to meet Frederick Forsyth, the author hugely popular thriller such as The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File and The Dogs of War. I have heard he is a High Tory curmudgeon, a bad-tempered toff, an irritable contrarian who does not suffer fools gladly – and I am nothing if not a fool.
His public-relations person has been emailing for two weeks, to ensure our arrangements are still in place. It is as if she somehow knows I am the type of journalist who would turn up behind schedule, and at the wrong hotel.
Forsyth, 68, has come in to London early from Hertfordshire, just for this interview. It is his wife Sandy’s 58th birthday, and he does not want to linger any longer than necessary. I am still reading Forsyth’s new novel, The Afghan, while I wait for the tube to Marble Arch, where I am supposed to rendezvous with Forsyth at the Montcalm Hotel. It tells the story of a former Special Forces soldier who goes back into action for One Last Job against al Qaeda.
Trains arrive on every platform but mine. I field text messages from Forsyth’s anxious publicist, asking if I am going to be on time. My train wheezes onto the platform, I jump into a seat, we shudder to a start, and immediately get stuck in a tunnel.
Nobody wants to be trapped in the London Underground, one year after the July 11 al Qaeda-inspired tube bombings, reading a novel about al Qaeda terrorism. But the delay is short, and I arrive at Marble Arch only five minutes late. Surely, even Forsyth can forgive this, although panicky texts continue to flow from the publicist.
I jog out of the station, dash around the corner and into a hotel. The publicist tells me to take to the lift to the fifth floor, and I will see the stairs to the penthouse. I follow her instructions, but find no stairs. A team of eastern European cleaners seem unfamiliar with the word “penthouse”. Or “stairs”.
It suddenly dawns on me that I am in the wrong pub. This must be the Day of the Jackass.
I scamper up to road to the Montcalm, and finally reach Forsyth’s room a quarter of an hour behind schedule. I am prepared to be lambasted and abused, but the author greets me with the warmth of the well bred. (I perspire, meanwhile, with the sweat of the proletariat.)
Forsyth has a large, cheerfully lugubrious face. He is wearing a pink shirt and beige slacks, and there is a little of the aged airman about his manner, a faint hint of the officers’ mess.
Forsyth is an only child, born in 1938, to parents who were shopkeepers in Ashford, Kent, “which was then very much a market town,” says Forsyth, set in a county that was then called ‘the garden of England’. Now it’s just a bloody great strip of concrete on the road from London to the Channel Tunnel.”
He was raised “loving the countryside and farms”. “Many of my playmates’ dads had farms,” he says, “and I decided one day I would have a farm of my own, which I now have.”
He won a scholarship to Tonbridge School, a private boys’ academy that is part of the prestigious Eton Group.
“I was more of a scholar than a sportsman,” he says. “The only things I was reasonably good at were squash and fives.
“Do you play fives in Australia?” he asks, rather charmingly. “It’s a game where you hit a ball against the wall with a padded glove.
“I was regarded as a swot,” he says. “Swots were not popular. We were beaten the shit out of, just for being swots. Home was very gentle. School was rough. [The other pupils] really beat you, with canes.”
Was he a fag?
“Not gay, no. A fag? Yes. You had to spend your first year fagging for a senior boy: running errands, doing his shoes, pressing his kit, polishing his boots. It’s all abolished now. And the beatings – that’s all abolished. And quite rightly too. It didn’t do me any good.
“It was deeply painful,” he says. “I’ve no fond memories of school. Some people get all tearful about it. They go to the reunions and meet these guys and go [warmly], ‘Hello, Harry. Fifty years, it’s been.’ I think [with narrowed eyes], ‘You were a right little shit, and I don’t want to meet you again, now that you’re a retired stockbroker.’
“I’ve only got two mates from school that I still correspond with,” he says, “but we were all outcasts. We formed a little three member club of own. We rebelled against the system, the brutality, the discipline.”
Forsyth left school at 17, and marched straight into national service. He served two years with the Royal Air Force, and marched out with his pilot’s wings. This was a rare accomplishment for a national serviceman, and Forsyth was one of the youngest – and last – men to achieve it. The idea was that the pilots would return to civilian life and train at weekends with the Auxiliary Air Force, to battle the USSR should the cold war ever boil over
“Then it became clear that the standard of flying required to take on the MIGs simply wasn’t for amateurs,” says Forsyth. “You weren’t going to be able to be a chartered accountant Monday to Friday and fly frontline combat fighters Saturday and Sunday, so they [temporarily] disbanded the Auxiliary Air Force, and that meant there was no point whatever in the national-service pilot. But anyway, I got the wings. Wearing those precious wings was a boyhood dream.”
Forsyth still has a twinkle of boyishness. When I ask if, in the tiresome manner of most interviewees, he considers his children his finest achievement, he says, “Wearing the wings of an RAF pilot, two sons. Yeah, those are the important things.”
(His sons are Stuart, 29, a “professional poker player” who studied English Literature at Sydney University, and Shane, 27, who is “trying to build and manage rental holiday properties overseas”. His friend of 20 years, Australian entertainer Barry Humphries, says, “He loves nothing better, when he’s finished his books, than going off fishing with his sons.”)
After the RAF, Forsyth trained as a journalist, and eventually was posted by Reuters to East Berlin then by the BBC to Biafra, a breakaway region of Nigeria. His first book, The Biafra Story is reportage of the Biafran War, published in 1969 and described by the New Yorker as “one of the few cogent accounts of what took place”. His next, The Day of the Jackal, a novel imagining an assassination attempt on the French leader Charles de Gaulle, proved a massive bestseller in 1971.
The principals in Jackal – and most of Forsyth’s subsequent books – operate like functional pieces of military ordnance. They have few emotions (one each, on average) and fewer relationships with women. The books are all believable in the sense that they are famously well researched – if Forsyth says the fifth house on the left has a blue door, it probably has – but the dialogue is as nuanced as Morse code.
His style never evolved. So much of The Afghan is a product of research, it is almost a work of non-fiction. Some men – and Forsyth has estimated that 80 per cent of his audience are men – feel as though reading fiction is an unnecessary diversion, a waste of time, like listening to a blatherskite big note himself at the bar. They would rather be absorbing facts, and Forsyth’s books are packed with facts: about armaments, military procedure, politics and geography.
Several times, Forsyth has said he “hates” writing fiction, and he all but gave it up in the 1980s, only to be forced back at the end of the decade when he was swindled out of £2.2 million by financial advisor Roger Levitt.
He returned with a volley of thrillers punctuated by the unusual romance, The Phantom of Manhattan, in which he sought to answer the rarely asked question: what happened to the Phantom of the Opera after the end of Gaston Leroux’s novel (or, more accurately, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical)?
In the UK, Forsyth occupies a curious position as a writer of popular fiction who comments on politics from the right. The only previous holder of this sinecure was the charlatan Jeffrey Archer. Forsyth is a noted patriot and Eurosceptic, although he expatriated himself for tax reasons during the 1970s, and went to live in Spain.
He still has an opinion column in The Daily Express, but lost his spot on as a commentator on Radio Four’s Today programme in 2004. He uses his various media platforms to denounce the Blair government for its allegedly totalitarian agenda, rail against the European Union for its allegedly totalitarian agenda, and attack militant Islamists for their undoubtedly totalitarian agenda.
He joined the Conservative Party in 1997, and resents the fact that “the phrase ‘right-wing’ has now become pejorative”.
“It implies neo-fascist,” he says. “This is a clever distortion of words that New Labour’s propagandists have managed to achieve. The right-wing of the Tory Party is now regarded as foaming-at-the-mouth hangers and floggers, dinosaurs looking back to the Empire, all this garbage. The image was created by New Labour.”
This particular analysis clearly is not a product of Forsyth’s famously meticulous research. One of Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 general election-winning manifesto promises was a free vote on capital punishment in the House of Commons, and “Hang Nelson Mandela” posters were promoted with merry pride by members of the since-disbanded Federation of Conservative Students during the early-Thatcher/late-apartheid years. Forsyth calls himself “a traditionalist”.
“I loathe flogging,” he says. “I won’t tolerate hanging. I don’t foam. Much.
“I’ll contemplate a new innovation if it seems beneficial, but not just for the sake of it.”
He has yet to be convinced about the value of the mobile phone, for instance, or the word processor.
“About 12 times a year,” he says, “I’m in some kind of emergency where I’m not near a landline and I really could use a mobile phone. So far, I’ve always been able to lean over to a guy and say, ‘Have you got a mobile? You couldn’t just tap in the number, could you?’
“What I notice about a mobile – particularly with my wife, for example – is the old thing about traffic: If you’ve got a two-lane road that’s jammed with traffic, and you spend millions to make it a four-lane road, you say, ‘We’ll never have a traffic jam on this road again.’ Oh yes, you will. In four months’ time, the traffic will have multiplied to fill the road. We don’t know how it happens, but it does. The bigger the roads, the more they’re jammed. And it’s the same with mobiles. I swear to God we got along perfectly well making about 5000 phone calls a year. I bet people are now making *50,000* calls. *She*’s never off the bloody thing. Either she rings her girlfriends, or it’s ringing. They go off in restaurants; they go off in bars; you can’t lunch with anybody, without them intercepting four incomers.”
Forsyth uses the mobile phone as an instrument of death in The Afghan, when the US assassinates a terrorists after pinpointing the location of his SIM card.
“Osama bin laden won’t make a phone call,” says Forsyth. “He knows there’ll be a Tomahawk Cruise coming down his chimney within minutes.”
Is that what lies at the root of Forsyth’s fear of phones?
“No,” he says. “I’m not fussed about being intercepted by the Americans and bombed.”
Barry Humphries is a regular visitor to Forsyth’s Hertfordshire farm.
Forsyth, says Humphries, “spends two years pondering his next book, making chicken coops. Then he really does go into purdah when he’s writing. He gets up at six o’clock in the morning, feeds the chickens, sits down and writes 10 pages a day for 50 days, on an old-fashioned electric typewriter. When he’s finished, he gathers up the file, takes it down to the local village, puts it in an envelope and posts it to his agent. In due course, proofs come back, which are then corrected. It’s extraordinary how close his original book is to his final published work. He has thought it through from beginning to end in those two years.”
“I still use the typewriter, still Tipp-ex,” says Forsyth. “To be honest with you, I think I’m the only guy who’s keeping the Tipp-ex factory going.
“It’s a German product, but I still use it,” he adds, mysteriously. “I could change, I suppose, and get a word processor. They always say, ‘It’s a marvellous editing machine,’ but I’ve got editors – lovely young ladies – so why should I put them out of business by turning in a perfect manuscript?”
The “lovely young ladies” could have done a tighter job on The Afghan, however. Cliché is Forsyth’s metaphor of choice. Two dissimilar siblings are “like chalk and cheese”; the Taliban die in combat “like flies”; frequent flights are “regular as clockwork”; a good signal is “clear as crystal” and so on. Forsyth has likened his level of writing to painting by numbers, with some justification. The novel feels a little like a long film treatment, with characters waiting to be fleshed out by actors
On the whole, Forsyth prefers farming to writing. He keeps sheep, goats, alpacas and poultry on his acreage in Hertfordshire.
“The farmhouse is not large,” says Humphries, of Forsyth’s 26-room Queen Anne manor house. “When I’m in London, all my eggs come from him.”
Indeed, Humphries’ pantomime persona, Dame Edna Everage, has confessed, “I think of Frederick Forsyth more as a chicken farmer than a novelist.”
“Yes,” sighs Humphries, at the thought of the intractable Dame. “Who knows what she would say?”
Humphries met Forsyth through Forsyth’s first wife, Carrie. The couple divorced in 1988, and Forsyth found his second wife, scriptwriter Sandy, at a literary lunch in 1989.
“We’ve got the same kind of humour,” says Forsyth. “She’s emotional, volatile. I’m a bit subdued. I calm her down, she beats me up a bit.”
“He and his wife are at many social events,” says Humphries. “They’re always out and about in town.”
They socialise with Humphries’ mutual friend, Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, and the actor Robert Powell. The late Lord Litchfield was also a close friend.
Humphries calls Forsyth “a mysterious figure”.
“He has an amazing range of contacts that he uses in researching his books,” he says. “Occasionally, at lunch at his farm, I’ll meet an ex-KGB man, or a retired naval commander, or someone from the CIA.”
Forsyth says he conducts much of his research at the Special Forces Club in London, an establishment that is open to “almost anybody who’s done a bit of spookery”.
“If you want to meet somebody who’d prefer not to meet in a hotel,” says Forsyth, “it’s a good place to say, ‘Meet you at the bar, we’ll have a drink and a meal and talk about Afghanistan, covert action, or something.”
There is talk on the internet that Forsyth himself has been involved in “spookery”, and owns shares in a mercenary “private-security” firm.
He says he does not – “This is why you shouldn’t rely on the internet” – but I leave with the fool’s nagging feeling that I did not ask quite the right question.
On the surface, however, Forsyth would seem unsympathetic to the guard dogs of war.
“I’ve never,” he says, “reconciled myself to arbitrary brutality, arbitrary rules, arbitrary penalties, arbitrary punishment imposed by some half-inch-foreheaded idiot, who may wear a uniform, or a flash on his arm that says ‘security’.
“Don’t sit over there,” he commands, imitating the vicious stupidity of unwarranted authority.
“F—k off,” he replies, to his invisible tormentor.
“It’s amazing I haven’t been arrested,” he says, “I just won’t take it. And that probably derives from school.”
Frederick Forsyth is good company. He is chummy and plummy, sharp and reasonable, and his eyes sparkle dolefully as speaks of conspiracies and inconveniences, bullies and boors.
He believes the world was changed forever by the September 11 attacks.
“I don’t think we’ll ever walk onto a plane again unchecked,” he says. “All air traffic will be misery, thanks to these people.”
And I’ll never spend five minutes stuck in a tunnel on the London Underground, without thinking…
“…who’s the guy next to me, and what’s that haversack?” says Forsyth. “Yeah.”
The paranoia of Forsyth’s world is seductive. On the tube back to my hotel, the man sitting next to me is reading a pocket book on thin paper with small type. It looks at first like poetry, but it is actually – I’m not kidding – the Qur’an.
What if he is preparing himself for martyrdom? What should I do if he suddenly makes his move? My only weapon is a hardback copy of The Afghan: half a kilo of solid counter-terrorism, signed by the author himself. I glance around at my fellow passengers. They appear sanguine and untroubled, as well they might. They are in safe hands.
MARK DAPIN | GOOD WEEKEND, 2006