When I interviewed Frederick Forsyth in 1982, he spoke about his time as a BBC correspondent in Biafra during the late 1960s. He had predicted a genocidal race war there, but his editors didn’t want to hear about it. This led to his departure from Fleet Street and a two-year odyssey as a freelance reporting on the mercenary “hard squads” in the region, which resulted in his first little-known book, The Biafra Story. In the prologue to a new 2015 edition, Forsyth writes that the catastrophe in Biafra “should and need never have happened.” He notes that Biafra “was bludgeoned into submission by a tidal wave of military hardware, mainly supplied by Britain… Nothing can or ever will minimize the injustice and brutality perpetrated upon the Biafran people, nor diminish the shamefulness of a British government’s frantic, albeit indirect, participation.” My sketch of him below, first published in the Chicago Sun-Times, is included in The Z Collection, about writers I have known, written about, or worked with, and is published by AC Books in New York. Forsyth never let on to me about his involvement with MI6 at the time, now revealed in his forthcoming autobiography, The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue.
NOT FAR FROM LONDON’S HYDE PARK in the sleek intimacy of the Montcalm Hotel foyer, he sank into a soft leather couch and ordered a glass of white wine. The barman knew him. So did the concierge and the bellmen. Frederick Forsyth had kept appointments there for years, coming up weekly from his country home in Surrey, where he had lived since 1979 with his Irish wife, Carrie, a former actress, and their two sons.
“We got a little homesick for the old place,” he said. They had returned to England after six years abroad.
The idea of Forsyth as a family man was strange, and he hardly seemed domesticated in appearance. Lacking the telltale paunch of the married man, he looked, at 43, like a military officer in tweeds — lean, fit, almost movie-star handsome, with a tan offset by curly blondish hair, and a brisk manner suggesting efficiency and authority. Different certainly from the various dissemblers — shady and otherwise — in the story collection No Comebacks that he’d just published.
Best known as the author of thrillers — The Day of the Jackal (1971); The Odessa File (1972); The Dogs of War (1974); The Devil’s Alternative (1979), which had made him a millionaire virtually overnight — Forsyth was once the youngest fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force. He also used to trot the globe as a Reuters man, BBC correspondent, and freelance war reporter who tagged along with the mercenary “hard squads” of Africa.
I asked why he had turned to short fiction for the first time in his writing career, especially when story collections were noted for their dismal commercial success. He replied simply: “By default.” His agent and his publisher had asked whether he had a novel for them. He didn’t. But he mentioned that he had 10 stories — two written, eight in note form. “The publisher jumped round and said, ‘That’s enough for a book!’”
In fact, Forsyth did have a novel percolating in his head, but he hadn’t committed anything to paper. “If I’m not satisfied, I don’t start writing,” he said. “I felt that after the large canvas of The Devil’s Alternative I didn’t want to turn in a rather poor potboiler about some kind of payroll heist just to keep the name out front. It would disappoint a hell of a lot of people.”
The two stories Forsyth had finished — “No Comebacks” and “Money With Menaces” — set the tone for the collection. The first was about a bored tycoon who gets more than he bargains for from a hired killer; the second was about a harmless insurance clerk who gives his blackmailers more than they expect. All of the stories, told in quick strokes, turned out to be dominated by themes of revenge, violence, weird coincidence, confidence men and, most of all, by black humor full of ironies.
When I asked Forsyth about his background, he told me he had grown up in Ashford, a small village southeast of London, and was the son of shopkeepers. His father was a furrier, his mother a dressmaker. He recalled living “in a nice middle-class house on a tree-lined avenue” and getting a scholarship to Tunbridge, a boarding school that expected its top graduates to go on to Oxford or Cambridge. Forsyth, who had passed his exams more than a year early, at 17, wanted no part of university.
“I wanted, first, to fly airplanes and, second, to be a reporter,” he recalled in a clipped British accent. “I read the usual boy’s stuff, but then I moved on mostly to technical manuals. I actually memorized every bird in The Observer’s Book of Birds. One hundred fifty pages. Then I got All the World’s Aircraft, which is a thing of about 1,500 pages. In my mid-teens I reached a point where I could probably recognize every plane in the world by its silhouette.”
Flying and journalism were absolutely not what the school had in mind for him. “They thought it was beneath the dignity of one of their public school scholars. One ought to have gone into the more respectable professions: stocks and bonds, law, medicine, insurance. I pointed out that it was my life anyway, and I was damned well going to do it. So I did.”
Forsyth had one other obsession in his teens — bullfighting — inspired by a reading of Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. With six months to kill until he was old enough for pilot training, Forsyth went to Malaga, Spain, where he spent the time learning cape work from “an old, gimpy ex-bullfighter who had taken one corada too many.”
Forsyth’s memory was razor sharp. Drawing on a cigarette, he recounted the events of his life with names, dates, and places as though everything they had happened yesterday. By 1956 he was flying the Vampire, a RAF jet fighter. Two years later, still not 20, he took his first job as a reporter on a provincial newspaper. Three years later he went to Reuters and was posted to Paris.
“I had been a language student at school,” he said. “I spoke French, German, Spanish, and some Russian. Reuters was interested in that. They took me on. Paris was a good break. A guy was called out of the bureau there with bleeding ulcers. So a fellow put his head ’round the door in London and said, ‘Anyone here speak French?’ I said, ‘Moi.’ He said, ‘All right, you’re on your way.’”
Forsyth arrived in Paris in May 1962. Algerian independence was due on July 1. He thus had a ringside seat as the OAS (the Secret Army Organization) terrorized France in protest. His first thriller, The Day of the Jackal, which was written eight years later, took that as its subject and wove it into a plot to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, the French president.
The Odessa File, his second thriller, had much the same theme: manhunt. A stationary target is hunted by a mobile hunter who himself is hunted by the target. The suspense is created by who will get to whom first. What astonished readers of Jackal was how accurate and credible it seemed.
“Most of my note taking was mental,” Forsyth told me. “People thought I researched for years. What I had in front of me were a half dozen brown envelopes with some notes scribbled on them in the streets of Paris. When I actually sat down to write, I didn’t intend to become a novelist. I just happened to be out of work and was financially a little embarrassed.
“I was a freelance just back from Biafra. I had nothing much to do. It was January 1970. It was freezing cold. There was snow on the streets. I didn’t have an apartment. I was going down on the sofa in a friend’s London flat. It was more than embarrassing. I was really pretty desperate. So I said, ‘Hell, I have this idea. I’ve had it since Paris. I’ve thought it over in my head but never got around to writing it. I will write it now.’ It was all from memory.”
How Forsyth became a freelance is instructive. Hired away from Reuters by the BBC, he was assigned to cover Biafra for 10 weeks in July, 1967, but had been hauled back, he said, because his stories predicted a bloody race war and, ultimately, genocide.
“They said, ‘Your reports have upset a lot of people and, uh, they’re not what they wanted to hear.’ I said, ‘I’m prepared to back my judgment.’ Six months went by and what I had forecast would happen duly began to happen. I said, ‘Can I go back?’ And they said, ‘Absolutely not. We’re not covering the story at all.’ I said, ‘I don’t like managed news. I suspect this is managed news. I will not be part of it. I’m off.’”
Word went around Fleet Street one day in 1968 that BBC correspondent Freddie Forsyth had “gone missing.” Fellow reporters chortled that Freddie didn’t even give three months’ notice. “The so-called mystery as to what happened to me was no mystery at all,” Forsyth said. “The BBC was so embarrassed by the whole thing that they declined to release my letter of resignation. I hadn’t gone missing at all. I told them where I was going and what I was doing and why I was doing it.
“I went straight from the BBC house to my apartment, grabbed a suitcase, and took the next flight to Lisbon, and then I went and saw an American arms runner who was flying old Super Connies from Lisbon to Biafra. He sandwiched me between a couple of crates of mortars and we went in that same night.”
Forsyth’s sudden departure became a two-year odyssey, resulting in his first, little-known book of nonfiction, The Biafra Story. It appeared in 1969. It also brought him into close contact with the world of mercenaries in Africa and elsewhere, which would become a matrix for much of his later fiction, notably The Dogs of War.
“I was trying to make a living down there, and the mercenaries were where the action was,” he recounted. “I went and saw the Biafran general [Odumengwu] Ojukwu. I said, ‘Do you mind if I tag along?’ He said, ‘What do you want to go with them for?’ I said, ‘To file stories about what’s going on. You know the newspapers aren’t going to buy your propaganda bulletins.’ They were by and large as fanciful as the Nigerian propaganda bulletins, and they were written by clerks in offices miles from the front.
“The only copy real newspapers would buy from a freelance was on-site eyewitness action combat stories. At that time the story of the children dying of starvation had not yet begun to happen. That really began around June, 1968, when the 12-month lack of protein began to hit in a big way, and you saw skeletons walking around called kids.”
As might be expected, Forsyth is very much “a man’s writer.” Romance hardly made an appearance in his work. When it did, it was rarely descriptive or even credible. He believed it was not necessary — not “for my kind of stuff,” he said — and he refused “to put in a couple of gratuitous pages of screwing.”
“I don’t think it sells one extra copy,” Forsyth said. “For Harold Robbins maybe. A book of his with no sex just isn’t a Harold Robbins book. It’s what his readers expect. I write about romance extremely badly anyway. My wife is the first to say, ‘Your sex scenes are pathetic beyond belief.’ She doesn’t mind the practice, but she feels my descriptions are appalling from a woman’s point of view. I concede that. I am not a romantic writer.”
Nor was he writing for the ages. Forsyth said there are basically three kinds of writer. The first has a message for humanity. “He will put it over whether the reader likes it or not. I evidently do not have a message.” The second is “the compulsive writer.” He is unhappy when not flogging away at his typewriting eight hours a day 352 days a year. He will turn out “literally hundreds of books.”
“The third guy,” Forsyth said, “actually doesn’t like being locked away in a small room facing shuttered windows with the sun shining. He is wondering, ‘What am I doing in here anyway?’ He’s really writing to get to the last line of the last chapter. And when it’s over he is so bloody relieved! That’s me.”
The Z Collection by Jan Herman on AC Books