The first questions on opening an autobiography are usually “did this person have an interesting life” and “can he (or she) write?” With the subject and author being Frederick Forsyth the answer is clearly a resounding yes so I plunged in with great anticipation.
As Forsyth notes in the introduction, this is not a conventional autobiography. Rather than a chronological narration of every stage of his life, the author has opted for a series of recollections which are delivered in pretty much chronological order. This approach has the benefit of producing a much crisper narrative than would be the case if, for example, he recounted every part of his life at school. We get what he thinks is the important stuff, undiluted by the drudgery of the mundane. If it’s on the page, it’s worth reading. This also suits the authors style, honed as a journalist and refined as a thriller writer resulting in a fast pace. Fittingly for the author of the Day of The Jackal, this reads more as a thriller than an autobiography. And it’s a ripping yarn.
We start with his early life. A child during the Second World War, a chance visit to an RAF field led to him sitting in a Spitfire which gave him an immediate ambition to become a pilot. While many children may have the same reaction few of them keep the ambition and fewer achieve it. It tells one a lot about Frederick Forsyth that he became an RAF pilot at pretty much the first opportunity. Along the way he acquired fluency in four languages, a head for alcohol and a second ambition; to become a foreign correspondent.
After serving an apprenticeship in local news, which reinforced his deeply held belief in checking facts, he joined a press agency and reported from Paris in the time of de Gaulle and Berlin as the cold War tightened. Eventually he ended up in Biafra for the BBC. At the time the UK was supporting the Nigerian regime against the Biafran secession and the BBC was required to support this. Forsyth witnessed the deterioration of the war into the inevitable humanitarian disaster while having to endure editorial restrictions on his coverage that he understandably found intolerable. Predictably matters came to a head, he was recalled and found himself out of work in London.
In desperation he wrote a book about what he knew, from his time in Paris chatting to French counter terrorist police (where no doubt his head for alcohol was at least as useful as his fluent French). That book became The Day of the Jackal. Shamelessly he blagged a meeting with a publisher, secured an advance on a three book deal and The Odessa File and The Dogs of War followed. The reader is taken through the research process –the Odessa file was actually a true story.
Or not quite. A financial fraud wiped out his wealth, so he started again from scratch with a further series of novels. This involved a fair amount of travel as Forsyth believes in facts and those require research. His loss became his readers’ gain and I am confident that the Forsyth finances are now back on an even keel.
There’s plenty more and there is no doubt that Forsyth has led a full and fascinating life. He worked out what he wanted to be, the steps required and simply got on with it – taking the rough with the smooth. It is a very controlled account with little superfluous detail which means that it is not easy to empathise – although admiration comes easily.
Christmas is coming and this would make an excellent present for any Forsyth fan. It you’re really lucky someone will give you a copy as well.