The Outsider by Frederick Forsyth, published by Bantam Press, 2015.
It’s been a long time since I galloped through an autobiography with such enthusiasm and speed. Forsyth fans who digested The Day of the Jackal, and all his subsequent thrillers will find this, the real story, as exciting as any of his novels.
He sums up key moments in his life as follows: “I’ve barely escaped the wrath of an arms dealer in Hamburg, been strafed by a MiG during the Nigerian civil war and landed during a bloody coup in Guinea-Bissau. The Stasi arrested me, the Israelis regaled me, the IRA prompted a quick move from Ireland to England, and a certain attractive Czech secret police agent – well, her actions were a bit more intimate…”
Written in his relaxed, understated British way, Forsyth entertains with key events in an extraordinary life after an ordinary start. This only child of shopkeepers was born at the start of the second World War, and grew up in Ashford, close to the English Channel where the family grew used to the Luftwaffe bombers droning overhead on route to London. While most of his school mates were evacuated to foster homes, Frederick spent the war at home, used to solitude and eventually preferring it.
Owing to war duties his father had a petrol allowance which enabled him to take his son to a nearby base of Spitfire squadrons, a national icon then and now. From that day Frederick nursed an ambition to fly one of these planes, a dream fulfilled twice in later life.
Speaking French like a local came easily as his parents “twinned” with a family from Amiens where Frederick spent summer holidays. Later his parents sent him to German families so that by his mid-teens he could pass for a German in that country, an asset that proved useful in future sticky situations .
Before leaving school he succeeded in getting a Royal Air Force flying scholarship, and followed by joining the RAF where he got his wings. As Frederick had no intention of making this his career, he then became an apprentice journalist at a Norfolk newspaper. With a sound basic training under his belt, he headed for Fleet Street where his proficiency in languages catapaulted him into a post as foreign editor for Reuters.
From a stint shadowing De Gaulle during the 1962 clashes between Algerians and the French government, Forsyth twas assigned to East Berlin, where he was a one-man band, covering East Germany ,Czechoslovakia and Hungary for Reuters. There the first of many adventures and lucky escapes ensued but eventually his escapades made his position too precarious and he had to return to Paris.
Forsyth is particularly scathing about the actions of both the British government, the Commonwealth Office and the BBC during the Nigerian civil war. Having accepted a post with the latter, he was appalled at the incompetence of the Foreign Office and the slavishness of the famous broadcaster in following the official line, which was to deny the existence of a war in which a million children starved to death. He resigned, and went back as a freelancer, telling the story like it was.
Back in the UK he and other journos - including Winston Churchill, grandson of the war leader - were smeared by those in official quarters for writing the truth about events in Nigeria. With no job and little money Forsyth decided to write a novel. He sat down with his portable typewriter in January 1970 and 35 days later The Day of the Jackal was completed: His career as novelist was about to take off.
In susbsequent years The Firm, aka British intelligence, asked Forsyth for occasional favours. One such assignment in 1992 involved South Africa, where - along with his two sons - Forsyth arrived, posing as an author looking for information for his next book. They booked into a Kalahari game lodge favoured by then foreign minister Pik Botha for a bit of game hunting. As they relaxed around the camp fire before settling for the night Frederick asked Pik what he planned to do with their six atom bombs once the ANC took over. Chuckling, Botha replied that Forsyth could go home and reassure his government that the plan was to destroy the lot.
My Life in Intrigue is an immensely entertaining read.