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Monday, June 01, 2020

The scribe who came in from the cold

Foreign correspondent and author Frederick Forsyth has chosen to be irresponsible by going behind the story in journalism in his memoir.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published: September 26, 2015 12:59:35 am

book-1If newspaper readers knew everything that journalists know, they would die laughing. The responsible journalist never tells all, for that would persuade readers that humans lead meaningless lives in an uncaring, amoral universe where the bizarre is normal, and the suicide rate would skyrocket, accompanied by crazed laughter.

But in his memoir, foreign correspondent and author Frederick Forsyth has chosen to be irresponsible by going behind the story. For instance, in Hong Kong, a British agent takes him to a restaurant where the waiters are Chinese agents with whom the Brit collaborates against the Russians. British newspaper readers must be appalled to learn how their tax money is spent.

Earlier, Forsyth had literally given an escaped Nazi a heart attack with The Odessa File. Now, The Outsider must have embarrassed and enraged prominent citizens across Europe and Africa, though time and Alzheimer’s may have thinned the numbers somewhat. Cowardly politicians, disgusting secret policemen and scumbag journalists of the 20th century are outed by name. The fallout is most intense over Biafra, where Forsyth covered the civil war for the BBC, which sacked him for reporting that the foreign office was lying to an uncritical media. It turns out that the BBC, which the world trusted so much that Soviet citizens tuned in secretly during the Cold War, was occasionally a government mouthpiece.

Before that incident made him unemployable and in need of a new profession, Forsyth had picked up the plot for his first bestseller as a Reuters reporter in Paris. He was one of the ghoulish crew which used to lay in wait for Charles de Gaulle to drive out and tailed his Citroen, assuming that it would be shot up. And once, it was. The target survived and observed laconically: “Can’t even shoot straight.”

Reporting in Africa incubated The Day of the Jackal, and Forsyth almost failed to survive additional research for the book in Hamburg, where he had gone undercover to learn the gun-running business. The German edition of Jackal was released at the same time and on the jacket, a gun-runner saw the mugshot of what he thought was his latest client. An anonymous British voice on the phone advised Forsyth to bail out of Hamburg, which he did by leaping in the window of a running Amsterdam-bound train, minus baggage.

Forsyth’s autobiography got tremendous pre-release publicity in the UK because in it, he confirms that he had been an asset for MI6 in Africa and East Germany. However, the most interesting revelation in this racy memoir is the reason why he had to remain hard at work well after he was a bestselling novelist. He was bankrupt.

In a chapter titled ‘Back to Zero — Start again’, Forsyth writes that after his divorce, his fortune was completely in privately managed funds, and the person managing them was privately sucking them dry. When he bought a farm, the manager had even convinced him to take a loan against his (nonexistent) holdings instead of selling them, and when the scam came out, not only was Forsyth penniless, he owed a million pounds. This fiscal stimulus kept Forsyth writing for a decade after he had planned to retire, to the delight of his fans.

Forsyth was blooded in action early. As a baby, he was evacuated from his Kentish village in anticipation of a German invasion, and lived alone in a nanny training agency whose students practised changing his diapers. He got his first stick of gum from the crew of a Sherman tank waiting to invade in the opposite direction. Dropped into a Spitfire cockpit at the age of five, he became obsessed with flying and while still a student, buzzed his public school in a Tiger Moth. He joined the RAF to see the world and flew Vampires, but figured that being a foreign correspondent offered greater mobility.

Indeed, without that career switch, his contribution to the world of books could have been deep stuff on Nato’s missile shield or a Harrier maintenance manual rather than thrillers, carefully researched on the job as a foreign correspondent playing an innocent abroad.

The Outsider
Author: Frederick Forsyth
Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 368 ; Prics: 399

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