Frederick Forsyth’s two terriers hadn’t run off on that cloudless June morning, many rabbits who later died would have stayed alive, and the world would have taken a different course. But the Jack Russells of War are a law unto themselves.
The scent of a small, burrowing, plant-eating mammal is to them as is the smell of kippers to an airport security guard…
Scholars of Forsyth style will have guessed by now where this homage is heading. The clue is in the word ‘kippers’. Semtex-H, the most popular of all the RDX plastic explosives derivatives, has always been a Czech product and under Communism was made completely free of odour. This is why it became the terrorists’ favourite device.
When he came to power in 1989, the Czech president, Vaclav Havel, acceded to a Western request to change the formula and add a particularly foul odour to make the stuff detectable in transit. The odour was similar to rotten fish, more specifically to kippers.
Such technical minutiae is the stuff of which Forsyth fiction is made – and the author will lovingly introduce it on the flimsiest of narrative pretexts. Conversely, he has little truck with characterisation and will always try to get the beastly business over as briskly as possible.
If he were introducing himself in this interview, for instance, he would write: For a 58-year-old, Frederick Forsyth is in good shape. He is tanned and wiry-haired. He is also a best-selling author who has just published Icon, his latest -“and last” – paperback thriller. The book tells the story of a genocidal rightwing fanatic who wants to save Russia from social collapse by setting himself up as an icon who would unite the people.
Today, however, right-wing fanatics are the last thing on the author’s mind – today his Jack Russells have gone missing. “Got everyone out looking for them,” he barks. “Blasted things.” Forsyth lives with his second wife and two teenage sons in a 26-room Queen Anne manor house set in 175 acres of rolling Hertfordshire farmland in the south of England.
For some reason, the sight of the wistaria that creeps up the weathered red bricks of this house and the dazzling white picket-fence that surrounds it, seem incongruous. It’s all too effeminate and genteel – not at all the anonymous greystone building halfway up St. James’ Street in London in which nearly all Forsyth characters have their clandestine meetings and in which, somehow, you imagine the rugged author himself will live. Because of the ramrod bearing he seems to have in photographs, you also expect the author to be taller, less round-shouldered and, at the very least, to be wearing a cravat. Instead he is wearing faded jeans – even if pressed – and ox-blood loafers which, though well polished, have tassels. At least the famous cigarette holder is here, next to the full ashtray, on top of a copy of The Daily Telegraph.
Missing dogs apart, it has been a stressful day for Forsyth. He has just returned from London where he’s been delivering an impromptu televised address to the people of Switzerland. As the unofficial, self-appointed world spokesman for the cause of anti-Eurofederalism, Forsyth feels it his duty to take part in such things.
He’d been asked to do this programme because the producers had seen an interview with him on a German channel. That in turn had been prompted by the controversial open letter he wrote in April to the magazine Der Spiegel, in which he compared Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s obsession with a single European currency to the “road to madness” that led to the Holocaust.
Forsyth stuffs into his cigarette holder the first of ten Rothmans that he is to smoke in the two hours that follow. It’s the chain-smoking that accounts for the wheezy chuckle – “hhum hhum” – which concludes most of his good-natured tirades.
At 17 he went off to study Spanish in Spain only to train as a matador instead – an unusual departure for the son of Kentish shopkeepers. At 19, instead of going to university, he gained his wings and became the youngest pilot in the RAF before leaving to join Reuters.
It was as a journalist that, one night in 1963, he nearly started World War 111 when he stumbled across a column of Russian tanks and missile carriers clattering around the streets of East Berlin. He had transmitted a panicky invasion alert back to London which led to President Lyndon Johnson and British Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home being woken up for an emergency conference.
Then someone realised it was just a rehearsal for a May Day parade. A few years later, disillusioned with journalism, Forsyth decided to try his hand at writing novels. The nine bestsellers that followed sold 50 million copies in more than 30 languages and yielded five films including The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, The Dogs of War and The Fourth Protocol.
By now he had decided that he hated writing. Was bored with it. Never wanted to go near his typewriter again. But, in l990, he was forced out of early retirement when he lost millions – sorry, mills – through financial adviser and one-time friend Roger Levitt who later admitted to fraudulent dealing and was banned by the courts from being a company director. The two-book deal Forsyth signed shortly afterwards was reportedly worth £9 million.
In one book he predicted the election of Thatcher, in another the fall of the Shah of Iran. Twenty-five years after he described, in The Odessa File, how the Nazis had stored stolen Jewish gold in Swiss banks, the story has come true and made headline news.
He correctly guessed the outcome of the 1992 British election to within one point and wrote down the number and put it in a sealed envelope to be opened after the vote. Like all good Forsyth characters, Forsyth himself is, if not irrationally suspicious, certainly well disposed to conspiracy theories. He is, he says, lowering his voice and leaning forward in his chair, deeply concerned about the draconian style of the Blair government. “(Harold) Wilson was bad enough,” he says. “He would say his backbenchers were allowed to bark but not bite. Within a couple of months, though, Blair has shown himself to be much more paranoid about criticism in the ranks. They are literally not allowed to lunch with journalists without permission. That is unprecedented. There is a mighty computer, Excalibur, which racks up every quote an MP makes and every foible going back to childhood. That’s open government? I haven’t seen anything like this since East Berlin in the Sixties.”
The comment makes you nervously scan the room for sharp objects. Even so, you find yourself asking the sage what should be done? Should MI5 start bugging Downing Street as it did in Wilson’s day?
“No. I think it’ll be the other way round,” Forsyth says, warming to his theme. “At the height of the Cold War you had an MI5 whose very job was to protect this nation from the infiltration of Soviet agents. Wilson had put together a kitchen cabinet because he thought it was the only place that wasn’t bugged. Some of that cabinet was bizarre…” Forsyth stops in mid-flow and looks toward the door. Sandy – slim, blonde and pretty – is standing motionless, framed in the open doorway. “We’ve found the dogs,” she says, taking off her sunglasses. “David found them in the tractor, at the bottom of the field.”
“Stupid idiots,” Forsyth says under his breath, trying to hide the look of relief playing across his face. So he is a bit of softie at heart, then? “No. Hhum hhum. Knew they would be around somewhere. Probably found a cool patch under an oak. Stupid idiots.”
“Knew they would be around somewhere. Probably found a cool patch under an oak. Stupid idiots,” says Forsyth.