Never did I think I’d nick the title from a David Bowie song and apply it to Frederick Forsyth but, after reading ‘The Outsider,’ it seems entirely appropriate.
I’ve long been a fan of Forsyth’s novels and films. Even if you’re unfamiliar with his books, ‘The Day of the Jackal’ is stamped on most people’s psyches. For me, ‘The Fist of God’ remains one of my favourites.
As mentioned in my last post, I was given his semi-autobiography for Christmas. I say ‘semi’ because Forsyth is at pains to state that it isn’t an autobiography, yet he gives a fascinating insight into his background, his time working for Reuters as a journalist, his thorny and short-lived career at the BBC and, eye-openingly, his stint as a foreign correspondent covering the war between Nigeria and Biafra which, according to Forsyth, was fuelled by the then Wilson government. Having deeply personal experience of the terrible price paid by children during the conflict, Forsyth swears never to forgive those in power for creating such a colossal humanitarian crisis. Shortly after this, broke and with no job, he decided to write his way to success. He’s quite open about his naivety and the fact he knew nothing about publishing or the first thing about how to write a novel. He also admits to being clueless with money. All things considered, he doesn’t appear to have done too badly!
An only child, (left to his own devices, he developed a strong imagination) he spent long holidays posted solo with families in both France and Germany. As a result, he became fluent in French and German at an early age and to the extent that he could pass himself off to native-speakers. Later on, in order to bag a story, he’d often play the part of bumbling Brit abroad and adopt an atrocious accent with a limited vocabulary so that he could listen to those who believed that their conversations were not understood. This served him well, and probably saved his life when, now a published novelist, he carried out a heart-stopping ‘off the books’ job for the ‘Firm’ in East Berlin as a means to return a favour.
But I’ve fast-forwarded.
With a fascination for aircraft, Forsyth was persistent in his attempt to obtain a pilot’s licence and join the RAF where he flew single-seat Vampires. Later, a journalistic posting to Berlin brought him into contact with some fairly unpleasant people and, according to his account, he very nearly started World War III. On more than one occasion, it’s fair to say that he risked his life.
But what did I learn about the man? Like a lot of young men, the younger Frederick Forsyth was clearly addicted to danger and derring-do, but if a guy can have the elusive X-Factor, he had it in spades. Charismatic, a hit with women, he was charming and witty, and I dare say still is. A stickler for intellectual rigour, he doesn’t appear to suffer fools but he’s not one of those sneery individuals who stamps his intelligence on those less mentally agile, rather he employs a robust sense of wry humour. Unimpressed by status, he’s anti-Establishment, hates inaccuracy and cover-up and, I sense, has a long, unforgiving memory for those in power who abuse it. Born from long experience of how the world ticks, he’s a cynic yet also comes across as compassionate and a good reader of people. One of the most attractive aspects is that he puts his success down to sheer luck and does not give the impression that this is false modesty.
Sometimes I play a little game in which I name a famous person – could be a writer, musician or even politician – and ask myself, if invited to dinner, would I accept. You’d be amazed how many folk with whom I wouldn’t care to share a packet of crisps, but dinner with Mr F? I’m in.