Frederick Forsyth: Writer, Handler, Soldier, Spy

by Adam Conway

Photo by John Swannell

Last week the university had the pleasure of welcoming guest speaker Frederick Forsyth as part of the Writing in British Intelligence events. I was initially unfamiliar with most of his work, having read only Dogs of War years ago and, at the behest of my grandfather, watched the film based on his most popular novel The Day of the Jackal.

Of course, this writer wasn’t always a typical novelist, having worked as a pilot and then for MI6, attempting to save lives and even prevent nuclear weapons from falling into enemy hands. In his talk, Forsyth recounted how he’d started off as a pilot, before going on to work in journalism for Reuters and the BBC, where he was recruited by MI6. “Spy work isn’t like Ian’s Fleming’s novels,” according to Forsyth. “Spies are often people travelling, missionaries and journalists, who are asked if they can report back to the agency.”

Forsyth said there are three types of spies: those who travel carrying packages, those who handle agents and those who are recruited to betray their own countries. The final category he called ‘real spies’; he himself had never been one but he had handled a few in his day and on rare occasions they would actually provide information useful to the protection of our borders. Often, we think of people being sent into organisations and countries working their way up the ladder for their country, but according to Forsyth, it just didn’t work like that. It was easier to find someone and turn him with a handler to get information than plant someone just for a chance of information. Most information the handlers collected was rather useless, he said, but occasionally it would be something that saved lives.

Forsyth said that spy work happened in strange places, such as bumping into people in a public toilet; MI6 had even managed to persuade a U.S.S.R foreign affairs agent to feed them information, just because a journalist had overheard him having an argument with his boss whilst going to relieve himself. The agent hadn’t provided anything useful after ten years of working with MI6, but that particular information proved invaluable.

What made Forsyth quit spy work, however, was working for MI6 in Nigeria during the Biafra crisis. When he returned to the UK, he discovered that he had no job and no money, so he decided to become a writer. His friends told him it would’ve been easier to rob a bank, but he planned his first novel, The Day of the Jackal, based on an assassination he had planned for real. It went on to sell twelve million copies.

One of the things that inspired him to write was that being a writer was a great cover story for a spy. Often, he would say he was writing a book or an article and this allowed him to ask questions and see things that the enemies of Britain didn’t want him to see, from strikes in the U.S.S.R to the locations of certain government officials. Forsyth’s work was inspired by his life as an MI6 agent.

As a fellow writer, I found what he had to say interesting. All the skills required to be a spy are skills needed to be a writer, from research to finding a powerful story amongst the little details. Even skills such as sitting quietly were important to be a writer as well as a spy. His wife would ask him what he was doing as he stared at walls trying to think about his stories. When he told her he was working, she’d get annoyed and tell him he wasn’t doing anything. It was a great relief to hear that the hours I’ve spent staring into space, trying to decipher how to write my own stories, have not been wasted. Forsyth is, after all, a man, who has written twenty-four books and worked on five movies based on his books.

Forsyth taught me skills such as being patient and waiting for a story, how to gather information and most importantly being willing to stand up for my principles both as a writer and as a human being. So, I ask you fellow writers out there: do you feel the same way? Do you, like Frederick Forsyth, feel that you have the skills of a writer, handler, soldier, spy?

Frederick Forsyth was in conversation with Paul Lashmar as part of the Writing in British Intelligence series of talks. Click HERE to find out more. Frederick Forsyth’s latest novel, The Fox, came out in 2018 and can be bought HERE.

Adam Conway has done over forty jobs including butcher, baker and missionary, so he figured he could add writer to the mix and write about his and others’ experiences. He is currently writing his third novel and is the editor of the Brunel Anthology 2023.