As relayed to Sue Fox for The Velvet Rocket from September 17, 2006:
The alarm goes off at 7am and I go down in my dressing gown to let the jack russells out — Stella and her daughter, Shen, which in Chinese means “mystic mountain”. Sandy liked the sound of it. I crush a fresh grapefruit and put the kettle on. That’s breakfast.
At 7.30, Dan, our groundsman, driver and handyman, appears with the Mail and the Telegraph. We’re a Conservative household. I’m very depressed about how this country has been abysmally governed since Maggie was politically assassinated. Major’s regime was dreadful. Blair is even worse. I skim the paper before showering. If it’s a farm day, I wear khaki drill slacks with an open-necked shirt in cotton or linen.
By then the dogs are clamouring to come in for their morning treat and I go out to find David, my farm manager. Cutting hay isn’t me, but I can drive a tractor. I couldn’t manage without David. We have 170 acres, with alpacas and sheep. If the going gets heavy during lambing, I put on my gloves and help.
A wad of letters arrives around 11am. I’m chairman of the Society of Stars, a charity raising money for children with cerebral palsy. I’m also involved with the NSPCC’s Stop campaign to fight the abuse of children. Peggy, my secretary, is over 80 and bright as a button. But neither of us is computer-literate. I stick to an electronic typewriter and Tipp-Ex. I type like I did when I was a cub reporter: two fingers and a thumb for the space bar. I don’t have a mobile phone, but about 12 times a year I really need one — I’m quite impudent and go up to complete strangers and say: “Could you conceivably ring this number for me?” Mostly they say: “All right, mate.”
I’ve converted the upper floor of the old dairy into a long, vaulted writing room, where I keep the curtains closed. Preparation for writing a novel is a lengthy process. I’ll spend a year researching and getting the characters and plot inside my head before I write a word. For my new book I went to Washington, Kabul, Islamabad and Peshawar. Normally I have a contact, a friend, or friend of a friend, who can set up meetings with people I need to speak to: the chief of police, the governor of the jail, the head of special forces.
Sandy stays in London and goes with friends to art galleries and theatres, which I don’t enjoy. My taste in theatre is so lowbrow that, translated literally, it would be somewhere around my kneecaps.
I was an only child with no one to play with and a mum and dad who were both readers. Adventure stories — Fenimore Cooper, Hemingway — took you out of small-town Ashford and showed you other worlds. These days I read war memoirs and books like Damien Lewis’s Bloody Heroes. I write quickly — 10 pages a day for 45 days. My head is somewhere else then. Sandy understands: 45 days of me getting up at 6am, being a total absentee, is just about bearable. She puts a lunch tray of salad in front of me and a supper tray of something simple like cold meat, pickles and fruit. I eat and stare at the TV for an hour before bed at 10pm.
I don’t have a lust for money. I just want to be comfortable for the rest of my life. I make foolish economies in one area and silly extravagances in another. I got a top-of-the-range Rover when they went bankrupt, but it has no warranty or spare parts, so I’ll have to run it into the ground. Writing has made my two passions, scuba-diving and big-game fishing, possible. They can only be indulged in the tropics, so I go for 10 days four times a year. Sandy comes and swims gently. She doesn’t have my empathy with the sea. I love that feeling of freedom and being removed from the world.
If there’s no book on the go, I have lunch with friends in London once or twice a week — brigadiers or members of the Special Forces Club — to keep up my contacts. And I’ll go out with Sandy for dinner with friends. Sometimes we stay over at her flat near Marylebone High Street. When we met, she told me she was born and bred in Chelsea and couldn’t be a Farmer Giles wife for ever, so she kept her flat. I have to ask permission to go there.
Between 5 and 7 I take the dogs out. They chase round, doing three miles to my one. By then they’re happy to come in to sleep. I don’t cook. If Sandy’s out, she leaves something with instructions on how to heat it up.
I might polish off a few letters at 9pm. When we’re both at home we watch separate TVs. I’ll want to see Death Wish 2, which is greeted with a “God Almighty!” and Sandy storming off to watch something more erudite.
I look at the news until 12.45, then go up to bed. Much to Sandy’s chagrin, I sleep like a log. I’m gone in 30 seconds.
And this interview by Mark Anstead from October 1, 2009:
Have you learnt any difficult lessons about money through mistakes?
I’ve lost money twice, first in the mid-Seventies under Edward Heath when we were looking at inflation of 22pc or 23pc per annum. After Margaret Thatcher we all forgot what hyperinflation was, but at 23pc everybody’s assets were disappearing down the plug hole.
My financial advisers told me to hedge against inflation by buying either gold or diamonds and I bought gem diamonds because their carat rating can be certified. It was a gross mistake – I invested about £200,000 and got back just £133,000 three years later.
My second mistake was trusting Roger Levitt. I saw him as a personal friend, but he turned out to be a con man. He wasn’t like Bernard Madoff – Levitt never promised ridiculous levels of return.
His talent was to recommend a portfolio of about 20 shares and then suggest that, since there was a lot of paperwork and you would have to sign 20 cheques, why not let him do it for you? You just gave him one cheque payable to the Levitt Group and he promised to do all the hard work, but in fact I never saw the money again.
How much did you lose with Levitt?
At last count in 1988 my portfolio was worth around £2.2m. I know that because I parted with my wife that year and, because we didn’t want to quarrel, I gave her my properties while I took the shares. Then a few years later Levitt was arrested and my portfolio turned out to be worthless – so I went from having been worth £4.6m before my divorce to zero. I had to start all over again and I worked my butt off writing five books in five years to make my second fortune.
Do you still invest much?
Yes. I still have a portfolio of shares, but now I do everything directly and I tell my broker I don’t mind if he asks me for 50 cheques – I want to see them going into the different companies. The chances of being ripped off by all of them are then very slight.
Has the fall in market values dramatically affected you?
I’m philosophical about it. I recognise that return on investment is minimal at the moment, but the values of shares are now coming back, so I don’t run around tearing my hair out. You hear about people who were worth £100m and their net worth fell to £3m, but £100m is a hell of a lot and probably a large part of that was either borrowed or highly speculative. I am only invested in very solid blue-chip companies or funds operated by known investors who always appear in the top quartile in terms of performance.
How did your childhood experience influence your attitude to money?
There is an old Jesuit saying, “Give me the boy until the age of seven and I will give you the man.” The attitude my parents took to money is stamped into my psyche and has never left me.
As middle-class English shopkeepers in the small town of Ashford in Kent, they felt you had to earn money by hard work alone. The idea that anyone could win money, marry it or inherit it was out of the question for them, and cheating, lying, stealing or embezzling was beyond taboo. So I grew up knowing I needed to be very industrious.
I was raised in a fairly substantial semi-detached five-bedroom Edwardian house, and as an only child I had the top floor to myself – a bedroom and a nursery. My father told me that whatever I wanted to do he would support me, and when I left school early to go into the Royal Air Force, he was thoroughly approving.
Are you cautious with money or liberal? Where does that tendency come from?
I’m illogical. I will save and reuse envelopes, telling myself that I’m saving trees, but all I’m really trying to do is save money. On the other hand I’ll give money to good causes and then laugh to myself that I save envelopes. I’ll turn the lights off in empty rooms because it offends me to see money wasted and I resent people who fritter money away in casinos when it could have been used by someone who needs it.
Now that you are better off, are you happier?
Yes, I think so, but I had it drilled into me as a boy never to worship money. I was in my late thirties before financial success came to me and by then I had travelled the world and had a lot of experience.
Financial freedom is what I value most – I don’t have to get up in the morning and go into an office and bow to the boss. And there is comfort in knowing that if I want something, I can usually have it, within reason. I wouldn’t think it reasonable to own a private yacht or jet.
How do you separate responsibility for finance with Sandy?
I don’t give her an allowance – she just shares a credit card with me and whatever the house needs in terms of food and other consumables is charged to that card. Sandy also has her own bank account and some of her own assets. She has shrewdly invested in a portfolio of shares that generates enough income for her own clothes, but I pay for everything else.
How do you prefer to pay for things, cash, card or cheque?
I’m still very old-fashioned – I like to pay most of my bills by cheque. I am constantly being asked to pay by direct debit, but I keep seeing a high level of inaccuracy in my bills and I often query them because a figure is wrong. So I much prefer to stare at a bill first and then hand over a cheque.
But I also pay by credit card and, thankfully, I’ve never experienced credit card fraud. But I’m very dubious about it because when you pay over the phone they always ask you for all the details from the card, including the security card number on the back. What’s the point of having a security number if you have to tell everybody what it is?
How do you tip? Are you an easy tipper or do they have to work hard with you?
I like to tip in the upper to mid range. I first check to see if it is already included on the bill and if it is I will usually leave a little extra, but if it’s down to customer discretion I leave between 12.5pc and 15pc.
What’s been your greatest extravagance?
I have indulged in classic sports cars over the years – I’ve got a Jaguar XKSS and an Austin Healey 3000 – and I love diving or snorkelling twice a year in the tropics.
What kind of a home do you live in?
It’s a farm. When I grew up in Ashford it was all agricultural and I was often visiting friends on their farms. I thought one day I would like to have one of my own with all the animals and constant activity. Then in 1988 I bought my Queen Anne Grade II listed farmhouse near Hertford with 175 acres for £350,000 and I love it here – they’ll have to carry me out in a box.
Do you invest in individual savings accounts (ISAs)?
Yes, because my accountant thinks they are worthwhile. I never really need the money I put into them so it just sits there and grows tax-free.
Do you use high-interest savings accounts?
I have a deposit account with one small private bank and I simply transfer money from that account into my Barclays current account as I have need. I haven’t spread my money around because my bank is run by very frugal people and I don’t think it was ever at risk. I ask virtually nothing of Barclays for my current account – I’ve been with them for 40 years and I just keep it running at just above zero.
Do you bank online?
No, because I’m not computer-literate. And anyway, I’m suspicious of it – I read about people having their accounts penetrated and identities stolen through computer hacking. Every day I sit at my little Japanese typewriter and I tell people it’s impossible to hack into a typewriter.
Is there a reduced demand for your services because of the current squeeze?
Thankfully, I negotiated the contract on my new book before the recession started. I only get paid royalties when the advance has been topped out, but my excellent agent usually manages to secure such a ludicrously large advance that it takes several years before that ever happens.
Do you think pensions are a good idea? If not, why not?
When I was a young man I could never envisage being old. I started saving into a pension fund when I was about 40, but I haven’t touched the money yet so it’s just accruing. I’ll either be a rich old b—— in a wheelchair or a rich old corpse.
Frederick Forsyth’s next novel, ‘Cobra’, to be published next year, has already raised £990 for Leonard Cheshire Disability last month after a charity auction to name a character in the thriller
Or this one by Olga Craig from August 15, 2010:
Frederick Forsyth in Paris in 1984 on the balcony of his flat in Paris Photo: CORBIS
Sometimes, one has to suffer for one’s art and pay the price of fame. Something Frederick Forsyth knows an awful lot about. Forsyth, bestselling author of 11 novels, is not only renowned for the cracking pace of his pulsating spy thrillers and his adrenalin-charged political novels, but also for their meticulous accuracy. When Forsyth writes of the murky world of arms dealers, the shadowy Nazi underground movement or the intricacies of worldwide drug cartels, every scenario is entirely plausible. Every detail is minutely researched. By him.
“Well, I’m getting on a bit. It’s becoming more and more difficult,” he says. “And, yes, it has led to some hairy moments.”
Such as when the young Forsyth, fresh from the success of his debut novel, The Day of the Jackal, travelled to Hamburg in the early Seventies posing as an arms dealer for his third book, The Dogs of War. The novel, which tells the story of a British mining executive who hires mercenaries to overthrow an African government in a bid to install a puppet regime that will give him access to its colossal platinum ore reserves, meant that he needed to infiltrate the highly dangerous world of the arms trade.
“I managed to penetrate their world and was feeling rather proud of myself actually,” Forsyth recalls. “What I didn’t know was that the arms dealer had passed a bookshop shortly after our meeting. And there, in the window, was The Day of the Jackal. With a great big picture of me – the man he thought was a South African arms buyer – on the back cover.”
A few minutes later, back at his hotel, Forsyth received a phone call warning him that he had 80 seconds to get out of the country. “I left all my clothes, grabbed my money and passport and ran across the square to the train station. There was a train pulling out so I did a parachute roll through the window, landing on a bewildered businessman. The ticket conductor asked me where I was going. I asked him where the train was going and he said Amsterdam. So am I, I said.”
Forsyth, a big bear of a man with a surprisingly softly spoken voice and impeccable manners, has announced his retirement, how shall we say, several times. With the publication of his new book, The Cobra, a hairy account of a White House-hatched plan to let loose a seasoned Special Operations former CIA operative – who had been ‘retired’ for being too ruthless – on the worldwide cocaine industry, with the remit that there were no boundaries, no rules, he insists he has no plans to write any more books. “That said,” he laughs, “I’ve said that at least three times now. So, who knows?”
If he does hang up his typewriter – Forsyth holds no truck with technology, writing on an old Canon manual in the study of the Hertfordshire home he shares with Sandy, his wife of 21 years – it will be an immense blow to his fans.
But probably an immense relief to Sandy. While researching The Cobra, Forsyth went to Guinea-Bissau. “I needed to get into the subject,” he says, “which probably indicates I have no imagination.” As he flew over the country, some 30,000 feet below the president was being blown up and beheaded. “I landed straight in the middle of it. I spent the night hanging out of my hotel window watching the military avenge their leader, with rocket-propelled grenades going off everywhere”.
Forsyth also managed to pick up a nasty blood infection. When he returned to England, he developed cellulitis and very nearly lost his leg. “It does concentrate the mind,” he admits.
Forsyth didn’t set out to be a writer. Indeed he wrote The Day of the Jackal in just 35 days. “I didn’t have a penny. I was bust,” he says matter of factly. “When I was a kid, I longed to be a Spitfire pilot. My father took me to a squadron in Woking, and I remember sitting in the cockpit. The smell, the sound; I was enthralled.”
Forsyth fulfilled his ambition, becoming the RAF’s youngest pilot at 19. But two years later, learning that he was destined for a desk job, he resigned. He has never regretted it, simply that he was born too late. “The pilots of the Battle of Britain, they were the heroes,” he says wistfully. “When people ask what era I would like to have lived through, for me there is only one. The Second World War. To have flown with ‘the few’.”
His father, a furrier in Kent, instilled in him a yearning to travel. “Journalism seemed like a good idea. It meant I could travel and keep my own timetable.” After a stint in Fleet Street, Forsyth joined Reuters, the foreign news agency. It was there that he honed the journalistic skills that are a hallmark of his novels. “I suppose I created a genre,” he agrees. “I was the first novelist to set fiction in the factual setting. Lumbered myself with it, I suppose.”
It was during a stint with the BBC, covering the war in Biafra, that the restraints of journalism led Forsyth into the altogether more lucrative world of fiction. Though he didn’t think so at the time.
The deeply conservative BBC took issue with his political line, and Forsyth left. “I didn’t go into journalism to be a PR for Whitehall,” he says drily. “And it isn’t much different today. The hard-hitting investigative programmes no longer exist. The BBC is an arm of the Government.”
Broke, he approached a publisher with The Day of the Jackal, little thinking it would become a worldwide seller. He was immediately signed up for a three-book deal, promising that he was “brimming with ideas”. In fact, he didn’t have any. “I thought to myself, ‘What else do I know about?’ Well, I knew about the underground Nazi movement in Germany and a bit about mercenaries, so I bashed out a synopsis and we were off.”
Forsyth writes at a rattling pace. “Twelve pages a day, 3,000 words, seven days a week. But it’s the research that takes the time. And, yes, I have to force myself to write. Sounds ungrateful, I know.”
Neither is he romantic about the need to write. “I am slightly mercenary. I write for money,” he admits. “I feel no compulsion to write. If someone said, ‘You are not going to write another word of fiction’, it wouldn’t matter a damn.”
Forsyth claims he hasn’t a clue about his current wealth – though it is vast – but he did not, he confides, make as much as one might think from The Day of the Jackal. “In fact, I made a lot less than people think. It sold for £2 and 10 shillings – of which 10 per cent went to the author. These days, it is 15 per cent. The publishers said they would buy me out of the book – which was a lunatic decision on my part – but I didn’t know it would still be selling years later, so I did, for £75,000. When the film possibility came up, I was offered £17,500 and five per cent of the action. Or £20,000. I took the upfront cash. So I sold the right to both for money. In retrospect, I could have retired on that one book.”
Forsyth also lost money when he become tangled with the fraudster and disgraced financial adviser, Roger Levitt. “To discover every penny you have earned has been embezzled is, well, dispiriting,” he says with an understated air. “But I was lucky. I was 51 and young enough to start over. But I am very vague about money. Though I don’t travel first class and I’m not into luxury items”.
Is he embarrassed that he was conned? “I trusted a man who turned out to be a crook,” he says philosophically. “I did ask him, and he swore on the heads of his children that he wasn’t lying. He was. I now have utter contempt for him. One friend did suggest I put a hit man onto him. I politely declined.” Indeed, it is not for nothing that his contacts’ book is the envy of many investigative journalists. “Let’s say, I do have friends in low places,” he smiles.
There are few sex scenes in Forsyth’s books, but he happily admits he has had several intriguing liaisons in his past. Once, when he worked in Prague for Reuters, he was constantly followed by the secret agency, the STB. One night, at a disco, he met a beautiful girl called Jana. “We had a drink and a dance. It was a hot August night, and I suggested we have a swim in the lake. So we went skinny dipping, then I spread out a rug and we made love. As I drove her back to the hotel, I remarked that there were no headlights in my rear view mirror. “Where the hell are the STB,” I said. She replied, ‘You just made love to it’.”
An outspoken critic of the Labour government – Forsyth once called Gordon Brown a “numpty” – he insists his jury is still out on the Coalition. He knows, and likes, David Cameron but is still sore that the Tories missed a golden opportunity to win an outright majority. Still, he isn’t tempted to become a tax exile. “I can live with 50 per cent tax,” he says. “I have no desire to live abroad. I’m 72 now and I like being able to pop into London for dinner with friends. You can’t do that on the Florida Keys.”
Or this by Bridget Osborne on August 18th, 2010:
Frederick Forsyth, bestselling author of thrillers like The Day of the Jackal and The Dogs of War, was in the West African state of Guinea-Bissau last year when the president was assassinated.
His presence there, he now believes, led suspicious US intelligence forces to launch a cyber-attack on his wife’s computer.
As he landed at Bissau airport in the middle of the equatorial night, to research his latest novel, he found that the head of the army, General Batista Tagme Na Wai, had been killed.
“Fortunately, I was met by a wonderful man who lived there, but in the rear view mirror on the way back to the hotel there was a glow of lights on the horizon – that was the army coming in to town to avenge their lost general,” he recalled.
Unable to sleep in his hotel room, he was reading when he heard an explosion. It turned out to be a rocket-propelled grenade ripping through the president’s residence some 500 yards up the road.
When Forsyth went out the next day to see what had happened, he heard that President Joao Bernardo Viera had staggered out of the rubble and had been chopped to death with machetes.
“Part of you says, ‘For God’s sake get under the bed.’ The other part says ‘Strewth, I wonder what’s happening?'” said Forsyth.
The 71-year-old started out as a foreign correspondent for Reuters and the BBC before he turned to writing fiction. “The urge to investigate never leaves you,” he says.
Everything up there in the ether is intercepted, probably by the National Security Agency at Fort Meade in Maryland
Forsyth still writes a column for the Daily Express and says he thought he had better tell them what was going on in Guinea-Bissau. He does not use computers or mobile phones but borrowed a phone and dictated 1,000 words of copy.
“Unfortunately, the American intelligence services listened to it and wasted my wife’s computer screen and totalled all her lunch dates,” he claims.
Friends in ‘low places’
Mr Forsyth has no proof for this claim.
He suspected foul play as soon as he got back home to his farm in Berkshire and discovered that his wife’s computer had ceased to function.
He claims his suspicions were confirmed to him by his sources – the mysterious people who inform his thriller writing, whom he likes to describe as his “friends in low places”.
“Everything up there in the ether is intercepted, probably by the National Security Agency at Fort Meade in Maryland, and I think my report ended up somewhere on a desk at Fort Meade,” he says.
He thinks they assumed he might be involved in the attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau in some way because he had previous experience in the region, and had written about a fictional coup in Equatorial Guinea in The Dogs of War.
Not only that, but he had discussed the details of such a coup in 1973 with real-life plotters and given them money in return for information. The coup never materialised as the participants were arrested before it came off.
But Frederick Forsyth believes the security services have long memories.
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde badly, to be involved in one West African coup attempt and for that to be found out might be considered a misfortune, but to be caught up in what appears to be a second West African coup attempt looks like carelessness.
Or this from Transworld some years ago:
When did you first start to write and why?
If by ‘write’ you mean creative fiction (I was a journalist for twelve years before turning to novels) it was in January 1970 that I sat down to write what became titled ‘The Day of the Jackal’. It was my first attempt at fiction. I had little idea I cold even tell a story, but I had to give it a try because I was flat broke!! The basic outlines of the story I worked out as a sort of mental ‘what if’ while in Paris in 1962/63, reporting for Reuters as the OAS really tried (and failed) to kill De Gaulle. I just thought an imported professional would do better.
Who or what has influenced you the most?
My father, but not as a writer. I still think he was the most decent, kind, honest and tolerant man I have known, and try to treat others on this planet with me as he would have done. He started as a working class dockyard kid from Chatham and almost self-taught. But he was a real gent.
What are the top five books in your genre / Who are your top 5 authors?
When it comes to thrillers there are scores of top writers now, and thousands of that genre of book. But the Brits were the inventors and pioneers. So Wilkie Collins with the first ‘thriller’ as we would recognise the word: ‘The Lady in White’. Erskine Childers with ‘The Riddle of the Sands’. Any early John Buchan. Any early Eric Ambler (he got espionage out of the gentlemen’s club and into the back alleys where it really takes place). ‘Rogue Male’ by Geoffrey Household (an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler with a sniper rifle.) ‘The Spy who cam in from the Cold’ – John le Carre’s Cold War classic.
Where did you grow up, how did this influence you?
I was lucky; a great boyhood in the fields and lanes of rural East Kent. Right in Darling Buds of May country. Fields, orchards, the smell of roasting hops on the air in season. Like many country boys I had to leave for the city to make a career. But despite having travelled to every corner of the earth, I have never lost what was instilled in those years: a fierce love of this country and its beautiful countryside.
What is the most interesting job you’ve ever had and why?
The word ‘interesting’ must, I suppose, refer to the way you saw it at the time, because tastes change over fifty years. When I was eighteen, lifting a Vampire single-seat jet off the tarmac for the first time was heaven come true. At twenty-three landing in Paris to find crisis and near civil war as terrorists tried and tried to kill the president, and me in the middle of it, was enough to set the pulses racing. Communist East Germany, civil war in Africa .. all had their moments. Tapping out novels in a farm in Hertfordshire pays better, but it is pretty samey. On the other hand, I’m too old and slow to go racing up and down the Afghan mountains. I leave those excitements to the youngsters now!
What are you reading at the moment?
I have just finished THE LIBERATORS by Robert Harvey, the true history of the six men who liberated Central and South America from the Spanish empire. Next comes GULAG by Anne Applebaum.
Name your top five web sites.
I don’t have a computer so I never get square-eyed.
What is your favourite TV moment of this century so far?
The Golden Jubilee twelve months ago. That great tidal wave of humanity surging up The Mall at the end proved the Old Country is not a bloodless Euro-Region just yet. And after the Hate Britain brigade had confidently predicted no one would show up!!
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?
Scuba diving coral reefs and watching the fish, is my main hobby, even though I have to travel across the world for the best dive-sites. After that, deep-sea big-game fishing (also tropical waters.) Here at home, reading, walking the dogs, dining with good mates and amusing conversation.
What would you like as your epitaph?
I would prefer to be buried at sea. No tomb, no ashes, no epitaph.
Or this lunch with FT classic:
Lunch with the FT: Forsyth’s saga
By John Lloyd
Published: October 13 2006 13:54 |
Forsyth himself could not be a man of many disguises: he has a long, strong and fleshy face and an upmarket Home Counties accent. The two adjoining tables fell silent to listen when he spoke. Not that they had far to fall: at the table on my left was a couple who looked long-married, occasionally addressing a brief sentence to each other; to the right were two men whose conversation was barely more animated: “Do you get a car with the new job?” one would ask. (Long pause.) “Yes, a rather nice one actually.” (Long pause.) “What sort?” (Long pause, sweet smile.) “I’m not sure I know.” (Long pause, self-deprecating smile.) “No, of course.”
Bellamy’s, in a lane off Berkeley Square in Mayfair, was Forsyth’s choice and is a polished facsimile of an exclusive brasserie. The Queen dined there in March and had smoked eel mousse with 25g of Sevruga caviar followed by roast quail. Forsyth is a big enough name for the manager, Chris Steiger (formerly of Annabel’s), to come over and make wonderful-to-see-you small talk.
Oblivious of the Queen’s example, Forsyth chose oeuf en gele, I chose whitebait, and he ordered a bottle of Puligny- Montrachet. In these surroundings and thus fortified, he talked of global terror.
At the core of his book is the implicit belief that the world has become a network for potential Armageddon, in which young men become radicalised and hand over their lives to charismatic Islamists. Then, working in association with al-Qaeda, kindred organisations or in their own self-created groups, they plot mass murder. Like many of his novels, only more so, The Afghan hangs its fictional characters on real events and makes them interact with real people – such as John Negroponte, director of US National Intelligence – who play important roles, if off-stage.
“You’ve got movements proselytising and converting at an extraordinary rate,” Forsyth told me. “They are now converting people in most major prisons – in the US, the Caribbean, and here. If you are looking for a spiritual home – something to cling to, a kind of brotherhood, membership of a sort of fraternity – they offer you all of this. I think a number of young black men are in that mood. There are a few whites, Anglo-Saxons I suppose you’d call them. The shoe-bomber was half white. And, well, there’s Cat Stevens, but he’s absolutely against terror, a good egg, goes around preaching for peace.”
He finished his own good egg, and our main courses arrived: bouillabaisse for me, rabbit stew for him. I asked if he believed that there was something inherent in Islam which predisposed its adherents to violence. He doesn’t think so; and since he’s not a man for political correctness, it rang true. “I spent hours with Koranic scholars, including Muslims. They all said – two of them got very angry, not with me, with the bombers – that the Koran is absolutely explicit. They admitted that there were passages which, if taken out of context, could justify the killing of infidels, but not one passage in which it’s written: ‘Oh, by the way, if women and children get in the way, that’s OK by me, Mohammed.’”
I could not put to him the more robust opinion of the Pope – quoting the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus, to the effect that Islam had brought nought but inhumanity and evil – since the pontiff had not yet spoken. But Forsyth would have disagreed: he’s much softer on Islam than the Holy Father. “Mohammed did say you should carry the battle to infidels but only in certain circumstances. He said that those who believe in the one true god – the People of the Book, including Christians and Jews – might be taxed under Islamic rule but not killed unless they declare war. But even that does not include women or children. The idolaters, people who have no god – atheists, animists, worshippers of many gods like I suppose Hindus – they are profoundly outside the pale.”
“Not good for community relations in a multicultural society,” I suggest.
“Not good for community relations, but of course Hindus are broadly in India, and when the [Muslim] Mughal emperors ruled India they didn’t wipe them out.”
The Labour leadership row was blazing a mile or so from Berkeley Square on the day we met, and Forsyth condescended to say of Tony Blair: “I don’t like the man.” Three years ago, he had found himself in the awkward spot of agreeing with the prime minister about the invasion of Iraq. Now, however, he can return with obvious relief to dislike, with an added reason for feeling so: he thinks Blair is a liar, and outlined this view to me in some detail.
“Red-faced as it makes one now, I did believe he had seen intelligence which he did not share which allowed him to say that he had authoritative proof that WMD was there and was ready for deployment. I now know it was not so. And the Secret Intelligence Service did not say they did. Then, later, the US weapons inspector David Kay scoured the country – and came back and said he found nothing.”
I interjected: “But Kay also said that he was more sure than ever that we should have gone to war against Saddam Hussein, because of the threat he would become.”
Forsyth responded: “The weird truth is that this extraordinary man Saddam did destroy his facilities – but then postured that he still had them. But you don’t go to war on the basis of guess. You go to war on a solid conviction, not lies.”
Unconvinced except by his vehemence, I asked Forsyth about the special services – the elite troops of various detachments that figure prominently in The Afghan. His passion is clearly for soldiering and weaponry: once engaged in this, his already fluent conversation became more so. Turning angrily on Blair’s rival for the Labour leadership, he accused Gordon Brown of meanness in depriving the military of such “kit” as Predator drones (an armed, unmanned aircraft used with great effect in his novel) and Apache helicopters. Instead, he said, they wasted money on the Eurofighter, “a useless thing, when we could buy the F-16, much better, already tried and tested”.
He has, he said, been accorded the signal honour of eating in the NCOs’ mess of the SAS regiment. “They really run the operation, you know. You will find a corporal in charge of crucial missions. The officers come and go – the men call them ‘boss’, and they get respect if they deserve it – but their tour is only three years and then they return to the regiments from which they were seconded. The men and NCOs stay. They go through training which is almost designed to kill them – some have died. But it’s an extraordinary solidarity. If you break ranks, you’re out forever. Look at Andy MacNab [the former SAS man and popular author]. Out.”
Forsyth’s study of the Middle East – long predating the five months of research he did for the novel – has given him another bugbear: “I think this nation must get rid of its oil dependency. Ten years from now we might be looking at a world where, if we are dependent on oil for our power stations and our transport, we will be over a barrel – no pun – to Opec, and will be dominated by our worst enemies: Ahmadinejad in Iran, whoever might succeed the house of Saud, and Mr Chavez in Venezuela, no friend of ours. If they started to raise the prices then we might have to give up everything that makes life pleasant.
“That’s why I’m for alternative sources – like nuclear power.”
“You agree with the prime minister on this?”
“Oddly, yes,” Forsyth conceded, adding that Conservative leader David Cameron might also have supported nuclear power “if it hadn’t been for Zac Goldsmith [editor of The Ecologist] advising him – an agreeable young man but quite preposterous.”
By now, the tables to both sides had emptied and the lunchtime hubbub in the restaurant had subsided. Time for us to go. The famous novelist slipped away, to be lost in a Mayfair crowd unaware of the all-too real perils that his latest fictional creation had faced on their behalf.
18 Bruton Place, London W1
1 x whitebait
1 x oeuf en gele
1 x bouillabaisse
1 x rabbit stew
2 x double espresso
1 x sparkling water
1 x Puligny-Montrachet
Or this from The Telegraph:
Interview by Deany Judd
21 Jul 2011
Which was your best holiday?
I’ve been scuba diving since 1978 and so my favourite holidays have been anywhere that I get the chance to do a lot of that. Up near Cairns, in Australia, and the Maldives are some of the best dive sites, and maybe the British Virgin Islands, too. I enjoy scuba diving, but to be honest I’m getting lazy – getting the kit on and off feels like hard work these days, and so I prefer to snorkel. I’m pretty well travelled; I went to about 70 countries as a foreign correspondent, so I have no desire to seek out pastures new.
And the best hotel you’ve stayed in?
The Four Seasons at Landaa Giraavaru, in the Maldives, stands out. We’ve been twice now and it really is exceptional. It has the most amazing private coral reef island with huts built over the lagoon, which means that everything is close by and that makes life easy. The spa is wonderful and the staff are charming.
What do you need for the perfect holiday?
We holiday three or four times a year but never for more than 10 days; any longer than that and I’m bored. Next, I need sun and heat. I have never understood why anyone would go on a ski holiday – it’s minus 15 degrees and almost always one of the party breaks a limb. We have been on holiday with friends and that’s good fun, but broadly speaking we prefer our own company. However, we need different things when we get there – my wife Sandy wants a wonderful spa and I need to be doing something every day. I hate just sitting on a sun lounger.
What do you always take with you?
We take a water heater because we like to make our own coffee and tea and we also take our own mugs because we hate drinking out of small cups. Sandy takes her iPad and a laptop and I take books for the flight. I raid the bookshop at the airport and buy a James Patterson or a John Grisham – that’s the only time I read fiction.
What’s your best piece of travel advice?
Train yourself to block everything out and retreat into your own world. Everybody says there is no pleasure left in flying, but I’m able to wrap myself in a mental cocoon and just get on with it.
Where do you want to go next?
We haven’t been to the Bahamas before but we’re going later this year. We’ve done a lot of research, so hopefully that will pay off. There’s nowhere I have a burning desire to go to. I’m not a museum man or a pile-of-rubble man; sightseeing trips don’t appeal to me. I’ve seen the best of them and I don’t want to see them again.
Which was your worst holiday?
I’ve had some pretty bad ones. The problem is that what you read in the brochure doesn’t always match what you get when you arrive. We went to Alaska 10 years ago, which was an unusual choice for us. One day we went kayaking in a glacier bay and we ended up on a shingle beach in the middle of nowhere surrounded by black bears. The group leader was clearly insane. We managed to flag down a passing American cruise ship, boarded and got back safely. The entire holiday was awful.
And your worst experience on holiday?
Years ago, I was doing research for a novel that required me to go to Bissau in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa. I arrived in the middle of a coup d’état, which was problematic, to say the least. Shortly after arriving I was then bitten by something and the next thing I knew I had septicaemia. I managed to return to London where I was rushed to hospital. For eight or nine days, I was on industrial-strength antibiotics and at one point they were even talking about taking my leg off. It was an awful experience.
And the biggest packing mistake you’ve made?
I tend to skimp on packing – you only need two pairs of shorts, not seven. Admittedly, when I get there I realise that I don’t have what I want, but a lot of the time it’s scuba diving equipment and I can always get that wherever I am.
And the worst hotel you’ve stayed in?
About seven years ago we went to a hotel on Virgin Gorda, one of the British Virgin Islands. We do a lot of research before we book up but all I can say is that this one was highly exaggerated. In the brochure it looked like the hotel was sitting in a beautiful bay, but it was miles from the beach. The staff were dreadful, the room was awful, the food was poor – it was disappointing on every level.
What do you hate about holidays?
Airports – you have to be numb to get through them. There are no surprises at airports; the old spirit of adventure is long gone – all that waiting. Why do you have to be there two hours beforehand? You shuffle along, then queue, and then you shuffle again and queue some more.
What do you avoid on holiday?
I don’t buy a newspaper. I avoid television, too. But above all else I avoid bores. In particular bores who ask me how I write my books. I’m more than happy to talk about that in England, but when I’m on the beach wearing swimming trunks the last thing I want to talk about is how I thought of the plot of The Day of the Jackal.