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Frederick Forsyth: “They put a price on my head, so I had to get out”

Spy author Frederick Forsyth on resigning from the BBC, covering civil war in Nigeria, and why British democracy is the best in the world

I was a very impatient 16-year-old. I was the scholarship kid in a very snobbish public school and I didn’t like it. I left as soon as my dad let me. I was in a hurry, I wanted to travel, I wanted to see the world. But most of all, I wanted to fly.

After school I was determined to join the RAF. I was raised during the Second World War and I had pictures of fighter pilots on my wall. My big dream was, one day I’m going to fly a Spitfire. These were the days of national service so I was a bit odd; all my contemporaries were trying to get out of it and I was trying to get in early. Everyone going one way and me pushing the other – that’s been a common factor of much of my life. I joined the Air Force when I was underage, and at 19 I got my wings after two years. I asked for a guarantee that I’d get a Hunter, a single-seat frontline jet fighter, if I stayed on. They couldn’t give me that so I decided to leave and fulfil my next ambition; to see the world.

I decided the best way to travel and make money was to become a foreign correspondent for a newspaper. I did three years in a daily provincial in Norfolk, then I got a lucky break. I got a job at Reuters news agency, then the guy stationed in Paris got a heart murmur and had to come home. A man stuck his head around the door of my office and said, anyone here speak French? Within days I was on the plane to Paris.

My life has been a series of being given chances and grabbing at every one of them. I’ve taken some big leaps, some of which could have been career killers. I was sent to cover the Nigeria civil war by the BBC, from the rebel side. I reported exactly what I saw in eastern Nigeria, which became Biafra, but it wasn’t what the Foreign Office wanted to hear. I was summoned and accused of biased reporting. They said, that’s not what we’re being told. I said, do we work for the Foreign Office? “Don’t be impertinent.” So I said, tell you what, screw you. I’m resigning.

I got my spirit from my dad. He was a shopkeeper in Ashford but he had seen a bit of the world, when he was a rubber planter in Malaya. He was tolerant and kind, very patriotic and loved this country. But his father was Irish and he had this rebellious streak of what they call being ‘agin the government’. If someone in authority ordered him to ‘come here’, he’d say ‘why?’ I think that’s why when the stream flows one way, I like to have my back to it. But that can destroy you, taking on the establishment. I was lucky, did all the wrong things, and I came out good.

After I resigned I went back to cover the civil war as a freelancer in Biafra, this awful story of these dying kids. It came to be a huge international story, which I was right in the heart of. The Nigerians came to crush the Biafran people, and they put a price on my head, so I had to get out. I was eking a living as a freelance journalist but I was in debt. So I had this crazy idea to write a novel. I knew the chances of it being a bestseller were thousands to one. But I went ahead and wrote The Day of the Jackal. And after that, everything changed.

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You don’t have to hurt people to succeed. Don’t lie, cheat, betray or swindle but don’t be afraid to dare.

Deep inside, I’m still a journalist, rather than a novelist. I tapped out these manuscripts and made a good living but I still had the spirit of the journalist, it never leaves you. That insatiable curiosity about why things happen, the scepticism of the good investigative journalist – I always questioned what we were being told by the establishment. In fiction, I invent a situation so I can investigate it. Maybe it really happened and we never found out. That’s what drives me. But novelists make a lot more money than journalists. Though not as much as pop stars. One of my gripes is that if you sell 80 million books, as I have, yeah you make a lot of money. But if those were albums, you could add another zero.

I’ve seen men killed. But I have quite a fatalistic view of life. You can live as carefully as possible then one day a boy racer comes ramming round the corner and wham! It’s all over. You’re in a body bag. I always thought, I’m not going looking for death but I’m not going to live my life in a polythene bag either. I’m not in the roaring hurry I was once – if you don’t slow down by the time you’re 78 you’re mad – but I enjoy my life.

I’d tell my younger self, you don’t have to hurt people to succeed. Don’t lie, cheat, betray or swindle. But don’t be afraid to dare. Try not to get killed doing it – I think five journalists were killed during the Nigerian war, and in Vietnam many more – but without taking insane risks, dare. The nervous and the timid rarely succeed – except maybe in the civil service.

Having seen so many places, some very attractive, eventually I concluded, there is just no place like this country. We’re sitting in the middle of a British summer, and it’s grey and rain is going to come before nightfall. But the grass is green and the flowers are blooming – I’ve seen deserts and many parched places. I’ve seen, in governmental terms, the good, the bad and the ugly. And for me, there is only one system which is permissible, and that’s democracy. The British parliamentary democracy is the best in the world – and I’ve seen the others. It’s kind of downplayed these days – yeah, yeah, yeah, democracy. You try living without it.

There have been moments in my life when I’ve been consumed by pleasure and pride. I think when my two sons were born… when a father looks down at that little walnut, his newborn baby, in the arms of his mother, he gets a feeling. It’s a completely new dimension in your life. Something really to care for, look after, raise, teach, love.

I was ambitious for them but I never bullied them, told them I wanted them to get a first at Oxford or anything like that. Maybe I was too tolerant, I don’t know. I’ll be brutally frank, neither of them are intellectuals. Neither of them went to university. One lives in Sweden with his wife, who’s big in banking. The other is a property developer but he’s not a tycoon or anything, just a lowly hand buying and refurbishing. I’m on my second marriage now but I think they understand why the first one failed eventually, after 17 years. We love each other.

The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue by Frederick Forsyth is out now. Forsyth is in conversation with Ian Rankin at Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 16

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