From the grand master of international suspense comes his most intriguing story ever—his own.
For more than forty years, Frederick Forsyth has been writing extraordinary real-world novels of intrigue, from The Day of the Jackal on. Whether writing about the murky world of arms dealers or the intricacies of worldwide drug cartels, every plot has been chillingly plausible because every detail has been minutely researched. But what most people don’t know is that some of his greatest stories of intrigue have been in his own life.
He was the RAF’s youngest pilot at the age of nineteen, barely escaped the wrath of an arms dealer in Hamburg, got strafed by a MiG during the Nigerian Civil War, landed during a bloody coup in Guinea-Bissau (and has himself been accused of helping fund a 1973 coup in Equatorial Guinea). The Stasi arrested him, the Israelis feted him, the IRA threatened him, and a certain attractive Czech secret police agent, well, her actions were a bit more . . . intimate. And that’s just for starters.
Nominated for the Edgar Award for best critical/biographical work of 2015.
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Frederick Forsyth is the author of fifteen novels, from 1971’s The Day of the Jackal to 2013’s The Kill List, and two short story collections. A former pilot and print and television reporter for Reuters and the BBC, he won the Diamond Dagger Award from the Crime Writers’ Association in 2012 for a career of sustained excellence. Forsyth lives in England.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2015 Frederick Forsyth
My father was born in 1906, the eldest son of a frequently absent Chief Petty Officer, Royal Navy, in Chatham, Kent, and emerged at twenty from the Dockyard School to an economy that was creating one job for every ten young men in the labor pool. The other nine were destined for the dole queue.
He had studied to be a naval architect, but as the Great Depression loomed, no one wanted ships to be built. The Hitlerian threat had not materialized and there were more merchant ships than anyone needed to carry the diminishing industrial product. After five years scraping a living from little more than odd jobs, he followed the popular advice of the age: Go East, Young Man. He applied for and secured a post as a rubber planter in Malaya.
Today it would seem strange to appoint a young man with not a word of Malay nor knowledge of the Orient to go to the other end of the world to manage many thousands of acres of plantation and a large labour force of Malays and Chinese. But those were the days of empire, when such challenges were perfectly normal.
So he packed his things, said goodbye to his parents and took ship for Singapore. He learned Malay and the intricacies of estate management and rubber production, and ran his estate for five years. Each day, he wrote a love letter to the girl with whom he had been “walking out,” as they called dating back then, and she wrote to him. The next liner from Britain to Singapore brought the week’s supply of letters and they came to the estate in Johore on the weekly riverboat.
Life was lonely and isolated, illuminated by the weekly motorcycle ride south through the jungle, out onto the main road, across the causeway and into Changi for a convivial evening at the planters’ club. His estate consisted of a huge tract of rubber trees set in parallel rows and surrounded by jungle which was home to tigers, black panthers, and the much-feared hamadryad or king cobra. There was no car, because the track to the main road ten miles through the jungle was a narrow, winding line of red laterite gravel, so he rode a motorcycle.
And there was the village in which the labour force of Chinese tappers lived with their wives and families. And like any village there were a few craftsmen – a butcher, a baker, a blacksmith and so forth.
He stuck it for four years until it became plain there was little enough future in it. Rubber had slumped on the market. European rearmament had not yet started, but the new synthetics were taking more and more market share. The planters were asked to take a twenty percent salary cut as a condition of continued employment. For the bachelors, the choice was either send for their fiancées to come and join them, or to go home to England. By 1935, he was havering between the two when something happened.
One night his houseboy roused him with a request.
“Tuan, the village carpenter is outside. He begs to see you.”
The routine was usually rise at five, tour the estate for two hours, then the morning reception when he would sit on the verandah and hear any petitions, complaints or adjudications in quarrels. Because of the early rise, he turned in at nine p.m. and this request was after ten o’clock. He was about to say “In the morning” when it occurred to him that if it could not wait, it might be serious.
“Bring him in,” he said. The houseboy demurred.
“He will not come, tuan. He is not worthy.”
My father rose, opened the screen door and went out to the verandah. Outside, the tropical night was warm velvet and the mosquitos voracious. Standing in a pool of light below the verandah was the village carpenter, a Japanese, the only one in the village. My father knew he had a wife and child and they never mixed with anyone. The man bowed deeply.
“It is my son, tuan. The boy is very ill. I fear for him.”
Dad called for lanterns and they went to the village. The child was about ten and wracked with pain from his stomach. His mother, an agonized face, crouched in the corner.
My father was no doctor, not even a paramedic, but a compulsory course of first aid and a clutch of medical textbooks gave him enough knowledge to recognize acute appendicitis. It was pitch black and closing on midnight. Changi hospital was eighty miles away, but he knew that if appendicitis turned to peritonitis, it would kill.
He ordered his motorcycle brought out, fully fuelled. The father used his wife’s broad sash, the obi, to fasten the child on the pillion, tied to my father’s back, and he set off. He told me later it was a hellish journey, for all the predators hunt at night. It was nearly an hour down the rutted track to the main road, then due south for the Causeway.
Dawn was close to breaking some hours later when he rolled into the forecourt of Changi General Hospital, yelling for someone to come and help him. Nursing staff appeared and wheeled the child away. By luck, a British doctor was coming off night shift, but took one look and rushed the boy to surgery.
The doctor joined my father for tiffin in the canteen and told him he had been just in time. The appendix was just about to burst, with probably lethal results. But the boy would live and was even then asleep. He gave the obi back.
After re-fuelling, my father rode back to his estate to reassure the impassive but hollow-eyed parents and catch up with the delayed day’s work. A fortnight later, the riverboat brought the mail package, the usual stores, and a small Japanese boy with a shy smile and a scar.
Four days later, the carpenter appeared again, this time in daylight. He was waiting near the bungalow when Dad returned from the latex store for tea. He kept his eyes on the ground as he spoke.
‘Tuan, my son will live. In my culture when a man owes what I owe you, he must offer the most valuable thing that he has. But I am a poor man and have nothing to offer save one thing. Advice.’
Then he raised his eyes and stared my father in the face.
‘Leave Malaya, tuan. If you value your life, leave Malaya.’
To the end of his days in 1991, my father never knew if those words caused his decision or merely reinforced it. But the next year, 1936, instead of sending for his fiancée, he resigned and came home. In 1941, Imperial Japanese forces invaded Malaya. In 1945, of all his contemporaries, not one came home from the camps.
There was nothing spontaneous about the Japanese invasion of Malaya. It was meticulously planned and the imperial forces swept down the peninsular as an unstoppable tide. British and Australian troops were rushed up the spine of the colony to man defensive points along the main roads south. But the Japanese did not come that way.
Out of the rubber estates came scores of sleeper agents, infiltrated years before. On hundreds of bicycles, the Japanese rode south along tiny, unknown jungle tracks, guided by the agents. Others came by sea, leapfrogging down the coast, guided inshore by winking lanterns held by fellow countrymen who knew the coast and all the inlets.
The British and Australians were outflanked over and over again as the Japanese appeared behind them, and in strength, always guided by the agents. It was all over in days and the supposedly impregnable fortress of Singapore was taken from the landward side, her massive guns facing out to sea.
When I was a child but old enough to understand, my father told me this story and swore it was absolutely true and it happened nearly seven years before the invasion of December 1941. But he was never quite certain that his village carpenter was one of those agents, only that had he been taken, he, too, would have died. So perhaps a few whispered words from a grateful carpenter caused me to appear on this earth at all. Since 1945, the Japanese have been held responsible for many things, but surely not this as well?
A LARGE JAR OF TALC
The spring of 1940 was not a relaxing time to be in East Kent. Hitler had swept across Europe. France was overrun in three weeks. Denmark and Norway were gone, Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland swallowed.
The outflanked British army in France had been driven into the sea off Dunkirk and Calais, and only rescued, minus all their equipment, by a miracle of small inshore boats manned by civilians who chugged across the Channel from the English coast and brought 330,000 of them off the sand dunes against all the odds.
All Europe was either occupied by Hitler, putting into office servile collaborator governments, or sheltering in their neutrality. The British prime minister had been tossed out, to be replaced by Winston Churchill, who vowed we would fight on. But with what? Britain was completely isolated and alone.
All Kent waited for the invasion, the famed Operation Sealion which, on Eagle Day, would see the German army roar up the beaches to invade, conquer and occupy.
My father had already volunteered for the army, but still based in his native Kent and living at home. He and my mother decided that if it came, they would not survive. They would use the last gallon of petrol in the old Wolsey and, with a length of hose, end their lives. But they did not want to take me with them. With my crown of blond curls, I would be accepted by the Nazis as of good Aryan stock and raised in an orphanage. But how to see me safely evacuated somewhere else?
The solution came in one of the customers at my mother’s dress shop. She was the principal of the Norland Institute, the training school of the famous Norland nannies who for decades had gone out to raise the children of the rich and royal worldwide. The Institute was at Hothfield, a village outside Ashford. It was going to evacuate to Devon, far away in the southwest. My mother put it to her client: would they take me with them?
The principal was dubious, but her deputy proposed to her that nannies in training would always need babies to practice on, so why not this one? The deal was done. When the train bearing the Norland Institute steamed out of Ashford, I went with them. May 1940: I was twenty months old.
It is hard to describe in the modern world, or explain to the new generation, the anguish of those parents as Ashford was emptied of its evacuees, seen off by weeping mothers and a few fathers who thought never to see them again. But that was the way it was on Ashford station.
I cannot recall those five months I was in Devon, as class after class of eager young nannies experimented at putting me to bed, getting me up, and constantly changing my nappies. That was before velcro fastenings and absorbent padding. It was all terry-towelling and pins back then.
It seems I could hardly pass wind or let go a few drops before the whole lot came off to be replaced by a new one. And the standby was talc: lots and lots of talc. I must have had the most talc-dusted rear end in the kingdom.
But the Few in their Spitfires and Hurricanes did the job. On September 15th, Adolf simply gave up. His vast army on the French coast turned round, took a last look at the white cliffs across the Channel which they would not conquer after all, and marched east. Hitler was preparing his June 1941 invasion of Russia. The landing barges bobbed uselessly at their moorings off Boulogne and Calais.
Sealion was off; Eagle Day would not happen.
Our photographic recce planes noted this and reported back. England was saved or at least saved to struggle on. But the Luftwaffe bombing raids on London and the southeast would not cease. Most of the evacuated children would stay far from their parents, but at least with a good chance of reunification one day.
My own parents had had enough. They sent for me and back I came, to spend the rest of the war in the family home in Elwick Road, Ashford. I recall none of this, not the going away, the ceaseless attention to the nether parts in Devon, nor the return. But something must have struck in the subconscious. It took years until I ceased to feel trepidation every time I was approached by a beaming young lady with a large jar of talc.
A LITTLE BOY’S DREAM
The summer of 1944 brought two great excitements to a small boy of five in East Kent. The nightly droning of German bombers overhead, heading from the French coast for the target of London, had ceased as the Royal Air Force won back control of the skies. The rhythmic throb-throb of the V1 rockets or dood...
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