“Touch wood,” says Frederick Forsyth, leaning forward to place his fingers on his garden table, “no one has yet called me out, saying my books are un-woke.” His rich baritone voice pronounces this last word slowly and with scorn. His mouth even puckers. “Woke is stupid rather than sinful, but plain stupid.”
What has prompted the outburst is news that the first and most enduring of his 16 thrillers, 1971’s The Day of the Jackal, about a hired assassin who targets the French president Charles de Gaulle, is about to be remade as a television series by Sky, starring Eddie Redmayne in the lead role. It will be the third adaptation to reach the screen, following one fronted by Edward Fox in 1973, and another that Forsyth disowns, with Bruce Willis in 1997.
This time around he is wondering aloud whether details in his original will have to be changed to suit the tastes of the cancel culture. “I’d be horrified if they tried to make The Day of the Jackal woke,” he confides. “There’s not much sex in my books. I don’t deal with homosexuality, one fellow making a pass at another fellow. So I can’t see where wokeness would come in there.”
It is worrying him nonetheless. “What JK Rowling said about who women were and weren’t seemed to me obviously true, yet we are not allowed to say that any more. Say this, don’t do that, you’re not allowed to say the other. She has been given a terrible time.”
He doesn’t know her, he adds, shaking his head, “but feels particular anger on her behalf at the three young stars of the Harry Potter films – Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson – for disowning Rowling when she was attacked by trans activists.
“These idiots were brought from nowhere to star in the films of her work and now they are against her. But without her, they’d be nowhere.”
Loyalty matters to him. Forsyth has long been known – alongside his books – for his outspokenness on political matters as a Conservative, a supporter of Brexit and a defender of what he regards time-honoured British values. Dressed in a crisp shirt and jaunty pair of mustard-coloured cotton trousers, he no more likes disloyalty than he does informal or bad manners.
“I don’t travel a lot now, but in railway carriages, where we used to sit and talk to each other, or look out at the passing landscape, today everyone is staring at the palm pilot in their hand or sharing their secrets with us with their phone on speaker. Nothing is secret anymore.”
It is the sort of remark that has sometimes made Forsyth appear curmudgeonly. Yet today, on the shaded terrace of his bungalow home in a quiet corner of Buckinghamshire, he is in a mellow, reflective mood.
Over the past two decades his principal platform for sharing his views on the shortcomings of contemporary society – and its leaders – has been a weekly column in the Daily Express – a paper that he began writing for in its heyday in the 1960s, filing reports as a journalist on the Biafran War – but to coincide with his 85th birthday last month, he penned his last missive.
It was presented as a retirement, and he concedes that he feels a sense of relief at not having to try to think up something newsworthy each week sitting in front of his trusty electric typewriter – “I can now use an iPad but it takes me much longer to write on it” – in the book-lined office behind where we are sitting. But the real reason is more personal and more painful.
Sandy, his wife of almost 30 years, and once personal assistant to Elizabeth Taylor (he was married before to Carrie the mother of his two sons, Stuart and Shane both now in their 40s), is now in a care home. “I visit her every second day because it is a pretty miserable experience for her laying on a bed waiting for…” He pauses and looks away. “I don’t know.”
On the days when he is not visiting, he is busy and running errands on her behalf and trying to keep up their luxurious home and garden (estimates of his net worth range from £6 million to £68 million), both still filled with Sandy’s favourite Buddhist statues. “She needs hourly if not half-hourly attention, which is why I can’t cope here. She has accepted this for the moment, so I minister at her bedside in the care home. I get by.”
He has a couple who come each day to help him with domestic chores, but his family is far away. “Among the sadnesses in my life is that my two sons emigrated. One lives in Sweden with his wife and three children, and the other in Ibiza with his wife and my fourth grandchild.”
He talks to them on FaceTime, he says – overcoming his strong aversion to technology (he shuns mobile phones, and when the house phone rings out unanswered, shrugs and says, “bad luck”) – but it is not the same as face-to-face contact.
“My grandchildren stare at the screen and wonder who this whisker-y old fellow is. They’ve been taught to say grandpa, but it’s not playing ball with them or having a cuddle.”
With so much on his plate, Forsyth seldom gives interviews any more, but has agreed to this meeting because he is a patron of Chiltern Kills, a local literary festival in Buckinghamshire. He has agreed to make a rare public appearance there at the start of October, along with 70 other crime writers gathered on a single day.
He is looking forward, he says, to meeting others working in the same genre. One of the world’s most successful thriller writers, with 70 million sales to his credit, translations into 30 languages and a shelf-full of prizes, including Edgar Awards in 1972 and 1983, and a Cartier Diamond Dagger in 2012; his last thriller, The Fox, appeared in 2018. Does he have any favourite writers among the new generation?
“I used to be a keen reader, but so many are pouring on to the market now that I can’t keep up. I have a two-foot column of books that are sent to me by publishers asking for an endorsement, but the answer is no. I just don’t have time to read two books a week any more.”
His tastes, when he does snatch a moment, have turned more to history. Although the fiction in his books is based on fact – he was, for example, a young reporter for Reuters in Paris in 1960 when there were assassination attempts on General de Gaulle and drew on them for The Day of the Jackal – he now prefers what he calls “real history that takes what has happened in our lifetimes and recreates it in close-eye, visual form that reanimates history. It means you don’t need fiction.”
He enjoys such books about espionage, he says, which leads us naturally on to Forsyth’s own service in the 1960s at MI6, long suspected by those who loved his thrillers, but kept secret by him until in 2015 he published a memoir, The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue. It all began, he recalls, when he was posted by Reuters in 1963 to its East Berlin office soon after the Wall had gone up.
“I was in West Berlin having a drink, when two nicely-turned out, very polite gents asked me, ‘could we possibly offer you dinner?’ [he has a gift for accents and affects something strangulated and upper class]. I didn’t know who they were, but I said yes, and soon released what they wanted. Would I take something into East Berlin.”
Was it a hard decision to make? “Your country asks you to do something to help. What do you say? Naff off? Leave me alone?” He shakes his head.
He went on to carry out various missions – though he doesn’t use such self-aggrandising language – taking and bringing back messages under the noses of East Germany’s notorious Stasi, as well as in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Was he ever afraid for his life?
This time he looks back at me in horror as if I am some 20-something snowflake. “Only if I had been caught in flagrante with something on me.”
In the memoir, he talks of having a relationship in East Berlin with a woman who turned out to be the wife of a prominent politician there, and having to hotfoot it to the West for safety when he found out.
“I wasn’t jittering,” he corrects me. “There were times when I would think, this is getting f--ing dangerous [he doesn’t follow Gillian Keegan’s example, and just uses the first letter] because the Stasi were right behind me.”
The attraction of spying – as well as doing his patriotic duty – had nothing to do with the image created by James Bond of the dashing Brit abroad. “That is ridiculous, pure fantasy.” Rather it was something in his upbringing, which he feels also made him such a successful writer.
Forsyth grew up in Ashford in Kent, where his parents, Frederick and Phyllis, were both shopkeepers, one a furrier and the other running a dress shop. He was an only child.
“My father was far-sighted and decided it would be wise for his son to learn a foreign language.” Aged just 11, he was therefore sent – through his father’s connections in the Rotarian movement – to spend several summers with a French family, developing a fluency that won him a scholarship to the local public school at Tonbridge. Then the experiment was repeated with the same results with a family in Germany.
Being able to pass for a native speaker in Germany and France was no doubt what drew the men “from Vauxhall Cross” [MI6 headquarters] to him, he remarks. Not that his languages helped him once at school.
“They were four years I deeply disliked. It drove me into myself and made me solitary.” Back then the class division was very rigid – professional, trade and working class. I was trade, and a scholarship boy, so the bullying was relentless from those whose dads were accountants or doctors or lawyers. My desk was upset, my prep destroyed and in what they called scragging, I was dragged into the showers and the cold water turned on.
A terrible ordeal, then, but that instinct it created in him to operate alone later worked in his favour, once he had completed his journalist training on the Eastern Daily Press, turning down a permanent job as reporter in King’s Lynn to become a foreign correspondent. And later as a spy, operating alone in hostile territory.
“It has never left me,” he reflects. “I enjoy being alone. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it is something that writers need – absolute silence, close the door, draw the curtains and put a sheet of paper in the typewriter.”
His background in foreign affairs, as a journalist, a spy and later a thriller writer, has made him a keen observer and – until very recently – well-informed commentator on global political tensions. It is an arena, he says, where facts are bearing out his own thrillers, notably of late with what he believes was the assassination by pro-Putin operatives in Russia of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner leader, who died in a plane crash last month.
“We’ve come full circle. After Gorbachev, and the dissolution of the USSR, the Cold War was over, but then he fell and Yeltsin took over, and was drunk 24 hours a day. The man at his elbow was Putin, ex-KGB and you don’t get any harder. He has been steadily resuscitating the Cold War.”
How dangerous is Putin to Western interests? “I don’t think he will use nuclear weapons on us. It isn’t entirely down to him. It takes more than one man to press the red button. That is a nice fiction.”
If Putin tried to act on the veiled nuclear threats he has issued, says Forsyth, “he would have to bring along with him his generals and the scientists. They would say, ‘slow down, this guy may be going just a little bit too far.’ The generals would finally rise against him.”
The other big global threat, China, is, in his opinion, currently weakened. “It has a currency that is beginning to look as if it may fall. It was predicted their economy would overtake that of the US and becomes the biggest in the world, but it hasn’t and that is looking less and less likely to happen.”
He argues, though, against complacency – especially in America. “It is a country in absolute chaos, with two bizarre candidates for president, one geriatric, who will need a miracle even to get through the year-long presidential campaign, and then there is the disaster of Donald Trump.”
He has more to say against Joe Biden than Trump, so if he had a vote which one would he choose? “Against all my instincts, I’d have to abstain, but I am passionate that a lot of people have given their lives so we can have a vote. Not to use it is to chicken out.”
It feels logical to move on to the UK situation. Forsyth was a big admirer of Margaret Thatcher. How does Rishi Sunak measure up?
“Agreeable, but uninspiring and not a natural leader. No one knows where he is going. Nothing works. The whole country is in a mess.”
Keir Starmer impresses him even less – “changes his position every time he changes his shirt”. While he will do it without enthusiasm, he says he will most likely vote for the Conservatives next year. If it was “the bald, ex-soldier at Defence”, he’d be keener, but Ben Wallace has stood down.
“I like the look of Penny Mordaunt.” Now he is perking up. “It’s not entirely the way she carried the sword [of state, at the Coronation]. I think she has dignity and that is unusual in our age.”
In one of his last newspaper columns, Forsyth told readers not to write off Boris Johnson yet. Does he stand by that?
“Whatever golden touch he once had when he got the big calls right on Brexit, taking on Theresa May, and holding a general election in December 2019, he has lost it.”
The change came, he suggests, after Johnson “went to the brink of death” with Covid. “After that – except for Ukraine – it was one miscall after the other. You can’t run a premiership on being affable. The forces ranged against him now are too powerful.”
As anecdotal evidence of the state of the nation, Forsyth mentions his own recent and much reported brush with the Metropolitan Police and the courts over a speeding fine for doing 37mph in a 30 zone in his Suzuki Jeep. He insists he paid his £60 (by cheque), filled in and posted the relevant paperwork on time and correctly, but the authorities said he didn’t and launched a court case.
A letter Forsyth wrote to the magistrate hearing the case received no reply, but was leaked to the press. His phrase comparing the Met with its enforcement cameras to the Stasi in East Germany made headlines. He chuckles as he recalls the details.
“It’s all settled now, but a magistrate or one of his staff leaking my letter? It wasn’t so much the fine that bothered me. It was the possible loss of licence. That would have pinned me to this house.” And stopped him visiting his wife, though he doesn’t say it out loud.
Forsyth isn’t anticipating any involvement with the new Jackal film – the title of his book belongs to the film company that made the first firm. He did, though, have an enjoyable outing to a disused RAF base to meet John Travolta, starring in a forthcoming big screen adaption of his 1975 short story, The Shepherd. “We are both plane freaks.”
He stopped writing thrillers after 2018 when Sandy told him he was too old to go and do his research in dangerous corners of the world but, he confesses, he has one last story he is itching to tell. “It’s been going round and round in my head, but I don’t know when I am going to have the absolute solitude and peace to write it. I don’t think it will be more than 100 pages, which at three of four sides of A4 a day should take me – because I go more slowly now and get tired – about 25 days.”
He won’t be drawn on the details – but based on his track record so far there will be elements of his own life and extraordinary experiences in it. How would he like to be remembered – for all his books, for The Day of the Jackal, about to be given new life by the TV series?
“Oh dear,” he replies to the invitation to look forward. “At 85, it really is every day as it comes. I don’t think I’d want to be remembered for a book, but for being what I was – two phrases: he loved his country; and he did what he could.”
Frederick Forsyth appears at Chiltern Kills on October 7