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.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
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.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
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 doodlebugs, Hitler’s pilotless drones packed with explosives, had not yet started. But by May all the grown-ups were tense with waiting. They were expecting the long-awaited Allied invasion of Occupied France. That was when the Texan came and parked his tank on my parents’ lawn.
At the breakfast hour, he was not there, but when I returned in the mid-afternoon from kindergarten, there he was. I thought the tank, which turned out to be a Sherman, was immense and hugely exciting. Its tracks were half on the parental lawn, the fence reduced to matchwood, and half on Elwick Road. It simply had to be explored.
It took a chair from the kitchen and a lot of climbing to reach the top of the tracks, and then there was the turret with its formidable gun. Having reached the top of the turret, I found the hatch open and stared down. A face stared up and there was a muttered conversation down below and a head began to climb towards the light. When a tall lanky figure detached himself from the metal and towered over me, I recognized that he had to be a cowboy. I had seen them in the Saturday morning film shows and they all wore tall hats. I was looking at my first Texan in a Stetson.
He sat on the turret, coming eye to eye with me, and said: “Hiya, kid.” I replied: “Good afternoon.” He seemed to be speaking through his nose, like the cowboys in the movies. He nodded at our home.
“Your house?” I nodded. “Waal, tell your paw I’m real sorry about the fence.”
He reached into the top pocket of his combat fatigues, produced a wafer of something, unwrapped it and offered it to me. I did not know what it was, so I took it, as it would have been rude to refuse. He produced another piece, put it in his mouth and began to chew. I did the same. It tasted of peppermint, but unlike British toffee, it refused to dissolve for swallowing. I had just been introduced to chewing gum.
That tank and its entire crew were convinced that in a few days they would be part of the invasion force that would try to storm Hitler’s Atlantic Wall in the massively fortified Pas-de-Calais. Many must have thought they would never come back. In fact they were all wrong.
My Texan was part of a huge decoy army that the Allied commanders had stuffed into East Kent to dupe the German High Command. Secretly they were planning to invade via Normandy, way down south, with another army then crouching under camouflaged canvas miles away from Kent.
The soldiers of the decoy army might go over later, but not on D-Day. Thinking they would be the first shock wave, with terrible casualties, thousands of them were jamming every bar in Kent to the doors, drinking in the final saloon. A week later, a solemn voice on the radio, which was then called the wireless, announced that British, American and Canadian troops had landed in strength on five beaches in Normandy and were fighting their way inland.
Two days after that, there was an ear-splitting rumble from the front garden and the Sherman rolled away. My Texan was gone. No more chewing gum. Under the guidance of my mother, I knelt at the bedside and prayed to Jesus to look after him. It was a month later that I was taken to Hawkinge.
My father was a major in the army, but for the past ten years he had been a member of Ashford’s amateur fire brigade. Despite his protests, this put him in a “restricted occupation” meaning he could not be posted abroad and go into combat. The country needed every fireman it had. He insisted on a job and was made a welfare officer, answerable to the War Office and charged with overseeing the living conditions of all the soldiers based in East Kent.
I do not know when he ever slept for those five years. My mother ran the family furrier’s shop while Dad spent his days in a khaki uniform and his nights on a fire truck racing around putting out fires. My point is, he had a car and a cherished petrol allowance, without which he could not have done his day job. Hence the trip across the Weald of Kent to visit the grassfield fighter strip at Hawkinge. It was the base of two squadrons of Spitfires.
Back then the Spitfire was not just a fighter plane, it was a national icon. It still is. And for every small boy the men who flew them were heroes to surpass any footballer or showbiz personality. While my father conducted his business with the base commander, I was handed over to the pilots.
They made a great fuss of me, thinking perhaps of their own children or kid brothers far away. One of them picked me up under the armpits, swung me high and dropped me into the cockpit of a Mark 9 Spitfire. I sat on the parachute, overawed, dumbfounded. I sniffed in the odors of petrol, oil, webbing, leather, sweat and fear – for fear also has an aroma. I studied the controls, the firing button, the instruments; I gripped the control stick. I stared ahead along the endless cowling masking the great Rolls Royce Merlin engine to the four-bladed propeller, stark against a duck-egg blue Kentish sky. And in the manner of little boys, I swore a little boy’s oath.
Most small boys swear to something they want to be when they grow up, but usually the promise fades and the dream dies. I swore that one day I was going to be one of them. I was going to wear the pale blue uniform with wings on the chest, and fly single-seaters for the RAF. When I was hoisted back out of the cockpit, I had made up my mind what I was going to do. I would be a fighter pilot and one day I would fly a Spitfire.
I could not foresee the years of discouragement from schools and peer groups, the mockery and disbelief. When my father drove his little Wolseley saloon back to Ashford, I was lost in thought. A month later, I turned six and the dream did not die.
Before the war, my father had been a pillar of the Rotary Club of Ashford. With the departure of so many men into the armed forces or to war work, that was all suspended for the duration. But in 1946, it was restarted and the next year saw a program of “twinning” with our newly-freed neighbors in France. Ashford, beginning with the letter A, was twinned with Amiens in Picardy.
My parents were matched with a French doctor, the Resistance war hero Dr and Madame Colin. Throughout the occupation, he had remained the doctor assigned to the hundreds of railwaymen living and working in the great rail hub of the Amiens marshalling yards. Permitted his own car and free movement, he had observed many things useful to the Allies across the Channel, and at risk of discovery and execution, had passed them on to the Resistance.
The Colins’ came to visit in 1947 and the following year invited my parents back. But the shop came first and they could not take the time off, so I went instead, a pattern that would be repeated for the next five years. Not just for a weekend, but for most of the eight-week summer school vacation.
Like many families of the French bourgeoisie, the Colins had a country house far from the city fumes, buried deep in the countryside of Corrèze in the Massif Central in the middle of France. Thus in July 1948, aged nine, in short trousers and school cap, I accompanied my father on the adventure of crossing the Channel on a ferry. Only at the other side, looking back, could I see for the first time the towering white cliffs of Dover which the German army had been staring at so longingly eight years earlier. Dr. Colin met us at Calais, and my father, pink with embarrassment, was duly embraced and kissed on both cheeks. Then he patted me on the head and re-boarded the ferry for home. Real men did not kiss in those days.
Dr. Colin and I boarded the train for Amiens, and I saw for the first time wooden seats in a railway carriage. The doctor had a complimentary ticket for first class, but he preferred to travel in third with the working class people he served.
At Amiens, I met Madame again, and their four children, all in their early twenties and late teens. Francois, then seventeen, was the wild one, arrested several times by the Gestapo during the Occupation and the source of his mother’s snow-white hair. Not one of them spoke a word of English, and after three terms at a British prep school I could just about manage Bonjour and Merci. Sign language came into its own, but I had been given a primer textbook for the grammar and began to work out what they were saying. Two days later, we all left for Paris and Corrèze.
“Abroad” seemed a very strange but fascinating place. Everything was different – the language, the food, the mannerisms, the customs and those massive French railway engines. But a child, in the manner of learning things, is like blotting paper. They can soak up information. Today, sixty-five years later, stumped by the new internet-connected, digitalized world, I marvel at children little more than toddlers who can do twenty things with an iPhone which I have a problem switching on.
Dr. Colin was not with us. He had to stay in Amiens tending his patients. So Madame and the teenagers travelled south to fulfil the sacred French summer holiday in the country with a small and slightly overwhelmed English boy. We changed train at Ussel onto a branch line to Egletons and thence by wheezing country bus to the ancient village of Lamazière Basse. It was like going back to the Middle Ages.
The family home was large, old, and decrepit, with falling plaster, a leaky roof and many rooms, one of which became mine and where mice ran freely over me as I slept. The lady who lived there was the old family nanny, pensioned off but given a home for the rest of her days. Amazingly, she was English, but had been in France since her girlhood.
A lifelong spinster, Mimi Tunc had served the Colin family for many years, and throughout the entire war had passed for French under the noses of the German authorities, thus escaping internment.
Lamazière Basse was, as said, very old and almost medieval. A few homes, but not many, had electricity. For most, oil lamps sufficed. There were one or two archaic tractors, but no combine harvesters. The crops were scythed by hand and brought home in carts hauled by yoked oxen. In the fields, the peasants at midday would stand in silence to murmur the Angelus, like figures from a Millais painting. Both men and women wore wooden clogs or sabots.
There was a church, packed with attendance by the women and children while the men discussed the important things of life in the bar-café across the square. The village priest, always called Monsieur l’Abbé, was friendly to me but slightly distant, convinced that as a Protestant I was tragically destined for hell. Up at the chateau on the hill dwelt Madame de Lamazière, the very old matriarch of the surrounding land. She did not come to church; it came to her in the form of poor Monsieur l’Abbé, sweating up the hill in the summer sun to bring her Mass in her private chapel. The pecking order was very rigid and even God had to recognize the distinctions.
As my French improved, I made friends with a number of village boys to whom I was an object of extreme curiosity. The summer of 1948 was blazingly hot and our daily magnet was the lake a mile outside the village. There, with rods made from reeds, we could fish for the large green frogs whose back legs, dusted with flour and fried in butter, made an excellent supper.
Lunches were always large and taken outside: hams cured black in the chimney smoke, paté, crusty bread, butter from the churn, and fruit from the trees. I was taught to sample watered red wine, like the other boys but not the girls. It was at the lake one sweltering day that first summer that I saw Benoit die.
There were about six boys skylarking in the clearing by the water’s edge when he appeared one midday, clearly very intoxicated. The village youths murmured to me that he was Benoit, the village drunk. To our fascinated bewilderment, he stripped naked and waded into the lake. He was singing out of tune. We thought he was just going to cool off, waist deep. But he went on walking until the water reached his neck. Then he started to swim, but within a few clumsy strokes his head disappeared.
Among the boys I was the strongest swimmer, so after half a minute it was suggested I should swim out and look for him. So I did. Having reached the point where his head had disappeared, I peered downwards. Without a snorkelling mask (unheard of back then), I could see very little. The water was an amber color and there were tangles of weeds and some lilies. Still unable to see much, I took a deep breath and dived.
About ten feet down, on the bottom, was a pale blob lying on its back. Closer up I could see a trickle of bubbles emerging from his mouth. He was clearly not frolicking, but drowning. I turned to re-surface, when a hand gripped my left ankle and held it. Above my head, I could see the sun shining through the dim water, but the surface was two feet away and the grip did not slacken. Feeling the onset of panic, I turned and went back down.
Finger by finger, I peeled the dying hand off my ankle. Benoit’s eyes were open and he stared at me as my lungs began to hurt. Finally the hand was off my leg and I kicked for the surface. I felt the fingers seeking a second grip, but I kicked again, felt an impact with a face and then shot upwards towards the sun.
There was that wonderful inrush of fresh air that all free-divers will recognize when one returns to the surface and I began to splash towards the gravel patch under the trees where the village boys waited open-mouthed. I explained what I had seen and one of them ran for the village. But it was half an hour before men appeared with ropes. One stripped to his long johns and went in. Others waded waist-deep, but no further. The man in the long johns was the only one who could swim. Eventually a connection was made with the object under the water and the body was hauled out by one wrist on the end of a rope.
There was no question of resuscitation even if anyone had known the technique. The boys gathered round before being shooed away. The corpse was bloated and discolored, a trickle of red, whether blood or red wine, dribbling from the corner of the mouth. Eventually an ox-cart appeared and what was left of old, drunk Benoit was taken back to the village.
There were no formalities such as an autopsy or inquiry. I suppose the mayor wrote out a death certificate and Monsier l’Abbé presided over a burial somewhere in the churchyard. I spent four happy summer holidays at Lamazière Basse, and when I returned from the fourth, aged twelve, I could pass for French among the French. It was an asset that would later prove extremely useful many times.
That summer of 1948 was the first time I had seen a human corpse. It would not be the last. Not by about fifty thousand.
My father was a remarkable man. His formal education was from the Chatham Dockyard School, math-oriented, and in what he knew he was largely self-taught. He was not rich or famous or titled. Just a shopkeeper from Ashford. But he had a kindness and a humanity that was noted by everyone who knew him.
At the very
end of the war, being a major serving directly under the War Office, he was summoned to London without explanation. In fact it was for a film show, but this one did not star Betty Grable.
With a hundred others, he sat in a darkened hall inside the ministry to see the first films, taken by the army photographic unit, as British soldiers liberated the concentration camp known as Bergen-Belsen. It marked him forever. He told me much later that after five years of war he had not really understood what he and millions of others had been struggling to defeat and destroy until he saw the horrors of Bergen-Belsen. He did not know there could be such cruelty on earth.
My mother told me that he came home, still in uniform, but instead of changing, he stood for two hours in front of the window, staring out, back to the room, impervious to her pleading to tell her what was wrong. He just stared in silence. Finally he tore himself away from his thoughts, went upstairs to change, instructing her as he passed: “I never want to meet one again. I never want one in my house.” He meant Germans.
It did not last. Later, he mellowed, went to Germany, met and spoke civilly to many Germans. But it is a mark of the man that when I was thirteen in 1952, he decided to send me to live during the school holidays with a German family. He wanted his only son to learn German, to know the country and the people. When my bewildered mother asked him why, he simply said: “Because it must never happen again.”
But he would not, by the summer of 1952, have an exchange visit with a German boy, though there were plenty of such offers available. I would go as a paying guest. There was a struggling British-German Friendship Society and I think it was arranged through them. The family chosen farmed outside Göttingen. This time, I flew.
Dad had a friend from his army days who had stayed on and was based with the British Army of the Rhine at the British camp at Osnabrück. He saw me off at Northolt aerodrome outside London and the airplane was an elderly DC Dakota which droned its way across France and Germany to land at the British base there. Father Gilligan, a jovial Irish padre who had been billeted with us in Ashford, was there to meet me. He drove me to Göttingen and handed me over.
It was very strange to be an English boy in Germany back then. I was an oddity. I had had three years of German at prep school, so at least I had a poor smattering of the language, as opposed to my first visit to France five years earlier when I had hardly a word of French. The family was very kind and did all in their power to make me feel at home. It was an uneventful four weeks, of which I recall only one rather strange encounter.
There was a world gliding championship that year and it was held at a place called Öehlinghausen. We all went off there for a family day out. My host’s interest in flying stemmed from the fact that he had been in the Luftwaffe during the war, as an officer but not a flyer.
The huge expanse of grassland was crowded with gliders in a variety of club markings, scattered all over the field, waiting their turn to be towed into the air. And there were notable pilots, around whom admiring crowds were grouped. There was one in particular who was clearly very famous and the center of attention. And she was a woman, though I had not a clue who she was.
In fact she was Hanna Reitsch, Luftwaffe test pilot and Hitler’s personal aviator. If he doted on her, his admiration was as nothing to the adoration she bore towards him.
In April 1945, as the Soviet Army closed on the surrounded heart of Berlin and Hitler, drawn and trembling, moped about his Bunker under the Chancellery, Hanna Reitsch flew into the doomed enclave at the controls of a Fiesler Storch, a high-wing monoplane with an extremely short landing and take-off run. With amazing skill, she put it down on an avenue in the Charlottenburg Zoo, switched off and walked through the shellfire to the bunker.
Because of who she was, she was allowed into the final redoubt where Hitler would blow his brains out a few days later, and ushered into the presence. There she begged the man she admired so much to let her fly him out of the Berlin deathtrap and down to the Bergdorf, his fortified home at Berchtesgarten in southern Bavaria. There, she urged him, surrounded by SS last-ditch fanatics, the resistance could continue.
Hitler thanked her, but refused. He was determined to die and bring all Germany down to ruin with him. They were not worthy of him, he explained, a notable exception being Hanna Reitch.
A friend of my host, another veteran of the Luftwaffe, secured our admission into the admiring circle round the ace aviator. She was beaming and shook hands with my host and his wife and their teenage children. Then she turned to me and held out her hand.
That was when my host made a mistake. “Our young house guest,” he said. “Er ist ein Engländer.”
The smile froze, the hand was withdrawn. I recall a pair of blazing blue eyes and the voice rising in rage. “Ein Engländer???” she squawked, and stalked off.
Like my father, it appeared she had not quite forgotten either.
BACK TO GERMANY
In the following year, 1953, I returned to Germany, but the farming family outside Göttingen could not have me back, so I went to stay with Herr Dewald and his wife and children. He was a schoolteacher of Halle, Westphalia.
Back then Germany still seemed like a country under some form of occupation even though the German Federal Republic had been formed under the chancellorship of Konrad Adenauer in 1949. But the old Germany was divided into East and West, with the capital of West Germany not at Berlin but in Bonn, a small town on the Rhine, chosen because it was Chancellor Adenauer’s hometown.
The reason for the impression of occupation was the omni-presence of the NATO forces, which were not there to occupy but to defend; it was NATO that held the line against the expansionist Soviet bloc in the grip of the brutal tyrant Josef Stalin. Westphalia was in the British Zone, which was studded with British army camps and air bases. This force was simply known as the British Army of the Rhine and its vehicles could often be seen speeding through the streets. The invasion threat from east of the Iron Curtain was seen as very real.
The eastern third of Germany was behind that Iron Curtain and part of the Soviet empire. It was known as East Germany or, weirdly, the German Democratic Republic. It was very far from being democratic, being a harsh dictatorship with a nominal German Communist government eager to do the bidding of the real masters, the twenty-two divisions of the Soviet Army and the Soviet embassy. The Western powers retained, by treaty, only one enclave, the encircled West Berlin, stuck ninety miles inside East Germany.
The infamous Berlin Wall, completing the encirclement of West Berlin, would not go up until 1961 to prevent the constant flow of East German graduates pouring out of the technical colleges and universities via West Berlin to seek a better life in West Germany. But the general air of threat after the Berlin Blockade of 1948/1949 which nearly sparked World War Three meant that the British Army, far from being resented by the Germans, was much appreciated.
In my own class, I had a more practical use as a guest with a German family. Using my stiff blue passport, I could enter a British base, go to the on-site duty-free shop and buy real coffee which, after years of drinking bitter substitutes, ranked with gold dust.
I arrived in Halle after the break-up for the Easter holidays of British schools, but before that of German ones. As Herr Dewald was a teacher and his children were still at school, it was thought practical that I should attend the German school until its holidays began a fortnight later. Here I was very much a figure of curiosity, the first Britisher they had ever seen and presumed to have fanged teeth or at least a forked tail. There was considerable mutual relief that we all looked much the same. Both in the Dewald home and at the high school, my German was improving rapidly.
A characteristic of German society that I was introduced to, and which somewhat bewildered me, was the worship of nature, the open countryside. Having been brought up amid the fields and woods of Kent, I pretty much accepted Mother Nature as just being there with no need to adulate it. But the Germans made great play of going on long walks through it. These were called Wandering Days. The whole school, age group by age group, would be lined up to go on these country hikes. During the first I ever went on, I noticed something strange.
While a similar group of British kids would simply amble along in an untidy mass, the German children within half a mile had somehow formed themselves into a column, rank upon rank, three abreast. Then the walking slowly transformed, with all the feet coming up and down in unison until we were marching.
This was soon accompanied by singing, specifically a song I can remember sixty years later. It started “Whom God wishes truly to favour He sends out into the wide world to see his miracles in mountain, forest and field.” All good, healthy stuff.
After a while, I noted a stick had gone up into the air at the head of the column, held high so that we could all march behind it. There was no flag, but soon a hat appeared on the stick like a sort of banner.
We were now deep in the forest, marching down a sandy track behind our leader, singing away, when far ahead a jeep appeared, speeding towards us. It was a British Army vehicle; I could make out the regimental insignia on the front mudguard and it was clearly not going to stop.
The children broke ranks and jumped to one side to let it pass. It was open-topped with a red-headed corporal driving and a sergeant beside him. As it swept past, the corporal leaned out and shouted something in a clear East London accent. As the tail disappeared down the track and the sand and dust settled, the German children gathered eagerly round me to ask:
“Fritz, what was that the soldier called out to us?” I felt it wise to be diplomatic.
“He said: ‘Have a happy Wandering Day,’” I reported.
They were delighted. “Ach Fritz,” I was told, “your British soldiers are so nice.”
I had not the heart to tell them what he had really shouted. It was: “Practizing for the next time, are we, lads?”
There is simply no substitute for Cockney humor, and there was obviously a certain amount of reconciliation yet to be achieved.
I spent a third vacation with a German family the next year – the Dewalds again – and by 1954 could pass for a German in Germany. That, too, was to prove extremely useful when, a decade later, I was posted for a year to live in East Berlin and, after shaking my secret police “tail”, used to disappear into the heart of East Germany.
It is sometimes thought that to speak a foreign language – really speak it rather than just get by with fifty words, a phrase book and a lot of gestures – it suffices to master grammar and vocabulary. Not so: those are two, but there are, in all, five aspects to passing unnoticed in a foreign language.
Thirdly, there is the accent. The British are spectacularly useless at mimicking foreign accents and there is absolutely no substitute for starting young and living with a family of the foreign country involved, with the one proviso that the family should speak hardly a word of the student’s language. With English now the common language of virtually the whole world, this is harder and harder. Everyone wants to practize their English.
But after the accent comes the slang. Perfect, academic language is an immediate giveaway – because every people constantly sprinkles their native language with phrases that appear in no dictionary or guidebook and simply cannot be translated word for word. We do not even notice how often we do this, but it is constant. Listen in a crowded bar or at a lively dining table and it will become clear that almost once per sentence a speaker will use a colloquialism that will never be taught at any language class.
The fifth aspect is even harder to quantify or imitate. It is the body language. All foreign languages and the speaking of them are accompanied by facial expression and hand gestures that are probably unique to that language group and are picked up by children watching their parents and schoolteachers.
Thus, when in 1951 at the age of thirteen, I went to Tonbridge School to try for a scholarship in modern languages, I recall the senior teacher in French, Mr. A.E. Foster (always known in the absence of political correctness as Frog Foster) sitting in some bemusement facing a small boy jabbering away in French complete with colloquialisms and gestures. A few days later, Mr. Logie Bruce Lockhart had the same experience in German. I got the scholarship and transferred to the upper school in September.
A year later, having swotted hard at Latin, history, geography and the hated math and science, I collected my Ordinary Levels, and at fifteen, three Advanced Levels — all in languages.
But Tonbridge, whatever its other failings, was academically excellent and, discovering a teacher who had served on the Arctic convoys to Russia and spoke Russian, offered a third language. The choice was Russian or Spanish. I chose Russian on the grounds that it would be much harder than Spanish, which I could learn later.
The summer of 1954 would entail O-Level Russian, and my dad thought some holiday tutelage might help. Somehow he tracked down a pair of Russian princesses in Paris who tutored in Russian and took in young paying guests. Their services were much patronized by the Royal Navy (I think it was a Navy contact who recommended them.) So that spring I was sent over during the school holidays to reside for three weeks at their apartment in Paris.
They were the Princesses Dadiani and they were actually Georgian, but pillars of the White Russian community of Paris. They were completely divorced from Planet Earth and charmingly dotty. But huge fun.
Their world had more or less stopped when, in 1921, as the White forces lost the civil war to the Red Soviet army, they were evacuated by their father, the last king of Georgia, and arrived with only a suitcase of jewellery in Paris, which was then teeming with refugees from the Russian aristocracy.
Thirty years later, they were still convinced that the Georgian people would rise any day, throw off the Soviet yoke and restore them to their palaces and oil wells in Baku. The jewels had lasted about five years – they had no taste for economizing – so after that, they took in paying guests. They had a contract with the Royal Navy, who sent them midshipmen and sub-lieutenants whom they much favored because the Navy paid promptly and had manners.
Their flat was frequented by counts, dukes and the occasional prince, who either drove taxis or appeared as artists or singers at the Opera. It always appeared to be clearing up after a party or preparing for the next one.
At Easter they took me to high mass at the extremely impressive Russian Orthodox cathedral, which was then followed by the father and mother of all parties. I was plied with incredibly sweet Russian Easter delicacies and a vodka that was like an explosion in the pit of the stomach.
It had nothing to do with the stuff in a modern bottle shop. It was thick and viscous, and each slug had to be downed in a single gulp, accompanied by Christos Voskressiya, or Christ is Risen.
I never recall any formal lessons in Russian. I and the other three young Navy men simply had to pick it up by listening and asking questions. But I recall them with affection. Those three weeks helped me to get O-Level Russian in the summer exams and, years later, to listen to Russians talking in East Berlin while pretending to understand not a word.
And the following year, summer of 1955, which was a very busy time, I would have need of their sofa.
A STEP NEARER TO THE STARS
It must have been a small advertisement in one of the flying magazines which I spent much time devouring, but I do not now recall which one. It introduced me to a new scheme being offered by the Royal Air Force – the concept of the RAF Flying Scholarship. The idea was that if you could pass all the tests, the RAF would pay for a young enthusiast to go to his local flying club and learn to fly to Private Pilot’s License level. Of course, I applied at once. That was spring 1955.
The RAF had no intention of wasting its money subsidizing young men with defective eyesight, or other flaws that meant they would never fly anyway. The point was to help eager youngsters develop the flying bug and later join up. The first thing that arrived at my parental home in Ashford was a small buff envelope requiring me to attend a thorough medical examination at RAF Hornchurch, a base in Essex. There was also a rail pass.
If I thought the tests would involve just a few minutes with a stethoscope on the chest or some taps to the kneecap, I was much mistaken. Hornchurch was a five-day residential course designed to pull you to pieces and see if the tiniest flaw could be detected. I arrived with a small suitcase, changed into boxer shorts and overalls, presuming myself to be flawlessly fit, and then they got started.
For two days, it was just the physical. One after another, young applicants who were not there for the scholarship but, older than I, were trying to get accepted for flying training, were sent home disappointed. The medics and the opticians discovered color blindness, lack of night vision, longsightedness, myopia, or some other eye defect that the applicant had lived with and never suspected.
Others had a shadow on the lungs, fallen arches in the feet, something wrong somewhere, something less than a hundred percent. Day Three was dedicated to reflexes, reaction speed to emergencies, dexterity, hand/eye coordination. Four was for initiative exercises. Two white lines on the parade ground to represent a chasm. Some poles, ropes and an oil drum. Get the team safely over the gulf.
The last day was interviews in the morning, with time left over to go home in the afternoon. I kept quiet about the languages, for fear they would accept me but for the education branch or even intelligence. Three officers, two with wings on the chest. Bored stiff. All right, lad. Why do you want to fly?
For heaven’s sake. Why did I want to lose my virginity? Because it sounded fun and I was sixteen and life was racing by. But no humor, please. Not in front of a board of officers. So serious answers and an assurance that I had been mad about flying since being plonked into a Spitfire cockpit at the age of five. Several raised eyebrows and one amused grin. Several trick questions about modern fighter planes, which I could answer easily, because I had been studying them for years.
Yes, sir, I had been at Farnborough that day when John Derry at the controls of the prototype De Havilland 110 had plunged into the hillside. No more grins; some serious sideways glances, but approving. Then dismissed. Cannot salute; no flat hat. But I will have one some day.
Five days later, another buff envelope. Report to RAF Kenley to be kitted out with flying suit, boots, leather helmet. Then start at Bluebell Hill Flying club, Rochester, in June. One technical problem: school starts in May. I could do it, but I needed transport.
Dad came to the rescue again. He bought me a second-hand Douglas Vespa scooter. It was British-built, licensed from the Italian Vespa company, and it was a load of rubbish. It had a kick-start pedal and would cough for fifty kicks before sparking into life. Still, it was my first motorized transport. With a learner’s license and a red L-plate front and back, it was legal on the road. Dad ran me to Bluebell Hill to get introduced and see what I would be learning on.
It was a silver tiger Moth, a biplane like something out of the First World War, and the standard workhorse of flying schools back then. Open cockpit, a speaking tube to communicate with the instructor, wind-in-the-hair sort of stuff. Marvelous, intoxicating. The only problem was Tonbridge School. The authorities there had already made plain my passion for flying was juvenile madness. I would never get permission. So I got a shed instead.
Of course it was not on school grounds. It was down in Tonbridge town, on one of those small gardens called allotments, leased for a peppercorn rent by the municipality to those with no garden but who wished to raise their own vegetables. The kindly gardener allowed me to keep the Vespa in it, out of sight and out of the rain.
Back at Parkside for what I hoped would be my last term, I had no more exams to pass, so I was put down for GCE ‘S’ levels. The S stood for State scholarship, but it was a forlorn hope. State scholarships were means-tested and my father could now afford university fees without state help, so it would never be awarded. But no one wanted me hanging idly around. Actually I had another exam in mind – my private pilot’s license. But I would not take that until August 26th, the day after my seventeenth birthday. Still, I had thirty hours of pre-paid flying tuition waiting for me up at Rochester and could certainly not wait for school to break up. So I amazed Parkside by becoming a cross-country runner.
Until then I had loathed cross-country running, usually awarded as a punishment for some misdemeanor, or practiced by those stringy youths who resembled stick insects. I was still short and stocky and would not start to shoot up until the next year. I regarded cross-country as pure misery. Yet I suddenly started volunteering for it, and not just the five-mile Junior run but the eight-mile Senior crass. My only condition: that I would run alone.
So, twice a week, I would don white shorts and spotless tee shirt and jog out the gates to the street. It took fifteen minutes to get to the allotment shed, where I would put on the canvas flying suit, boots and leather helmet. Thus disguised, I could putter past the school gates and out on the highway to Bluebell Hill and its flying club.
After six hours’ dual instruction, I went solo and experienced the intoxication of flying free, high over the winding Medway, looking down on Rochester and its towering medieval cathedral. Up there I could roll and twist among the clouds, turning, climbing, diving, ripping off the helmet and keeping only the goggles to protect the eyes.
In my boyish imagination, I was over the fields of Flanders, circa 1916, in formation with Bishop, Ball, Mannock and McCudden, with a cheery wave for the French aces Guynemer and Garros, hunting for the Germans Von Richtofen, Boelke and Immelmann. I had read all about them, researched their stories, their victories and, one by one, their deaths. By the end of school term, I had logged twenty-seven of my permitted thirty hours, saving three for the final tests at the end of August.
Parkside never solved the riddle of the cross-country running schoolboy. The bullying ebbed away, as there were now other new boys to persecute. The caning continued. I think I managed to collect seventy-four strokes from the ratten cane over my three and a half years, always administered in the bending position, head under a table, protected only by thin pajamas.
I never contrived to develop those strange deviances so often attributed to the English, but only two things in their place: the ability to take pain in silence and a contempt for harsh and arbitrary authority.
Summer term ended in July 1955. Blue Bell Hill promised to welcome me back for the flying tests in late August. Meanwhile one of my few mates at Parkside, John Gordon, and I decided to hitch-hike from Newhaven on Sussex coast across France to Ventimiglia on the Italian border, via the length of the Cote d’Azur. John was fifteen to my sixteen. We thought it might be an adventure. It was.
A LONG HIKE
Hitch-hiking is rare nowadays but back in 1955, for a youngster with no money, it was common. Middle-aged men, mindful of their own impecunious teenage years, would take pity on the figure by the roadside with right fist extended, thumb erect, slow down, pull over, and ask the face appearing in the passenger window where he was heading.
National Servicemen in their uniforms, heading home to mum and dad with a weekend pass or struggling back to camp, could usually expect some help. Most middle-aged men had once done it themselves. John Gordon and I, though we did not know it, had an even bigger advantage than a uniform.
John had an aunt who lived at Cooden, close to the Sussex coast and not far from Newhaven. There was a ferry across to Dieppe. I ran down to Cooden on the Vespa and the aunt took us to Newhaven the following morning for the first ferry. We had two return tickets and a very tiny budget.
We firmly expected to sleep rough in sheds, outbuildings, and even ditches, and eat the cheapest of foods, probably bread and cheese. We were in tough hiking boots, short khaki drill pants, knee-high socks and canvas shirts. That, plus a haversack. I had taken the precaution of tacking a Union Jack on the back of my rucksack. We would march in Indian file with me at the rear so that motorists coming up behind could see it clearly. It turned out to be the game-changer.
By mid-morning, we were out of Dieppe ferry terminal and heading for the highway to Paris, when a car swerved up behind, tooted, and a voice asked, in French of course, where we were heading. I replied in French, and within seconds the haversacks were in the boot. John telescoped into the rear seat and I was beside the driver answering his question as to how I spoke such French. Then we learned the reason for the rapid pick-up.
In 1944, only eleven years before our hiking jaunt, the Allied armies curved out of Normandy and proceeded to liberate France. The British and Canadians turned north for Holland and Belgium, passing through all of northern France. Anyone over twenty-five would clearly have remembered the German occupation and the liberation. It was the British flag that did it.
There were no motorways back then, just the usual Route Nationale, narrow and winding, with one traffic lane each side and occasionally a central and pretty lethal overtaking lane, disputed by cars approaching each other at a hundred miles an hour. It was encouraging if the driver would stop looking sideways and keep his eyes on the road ahead. In three rapid lifts, I believe we made it to Paris ahead of the boat train.
Once in the city we took the Metro and arrived unannounced at the flat of the princesses Dadiani. Completely unfazed, as if teenage hitchhikers were always turning up on their door, the lovely ladies welcomed us in and gave us supper. At ten, I parked John on the sofa and went back into the night.
I had worked out that there was a very long haul from Paris south to Marseilles and there was one way which, if it worked, would be a terrific way of covering the distance in a single day. Every day, thousands of trucks, big snorting rigs with trailers which we would now call juggernauts, brought fruit and vegetables from the subtropical south, the Midi, to replenish the stomach of Paris. And then they went back empty.
The gigantic fresh produce market they made for was in the district called Les Halles, long since moved to the outer suburbs. But then it was right at the heart of Paris, a square kilometer of sheds and warehouses, blazing with light and activity through the night, its bars, restaurants and bistros the haunt of the workers and the social night owls. I began to inquire and had no luck.
I went from café to café, asking perfectly politely if anyone was a truck driver heading south in the morning. The answer was always no, until the proprietors chased me out for not spending anything. Then I got a tap on the shoulder from someone who had followed me out to the pavement.
It was a small and scruffy market worker, an Algerian, who said he had a friend who was exactly what I sought and who was sleeping at his small flat a few hundred yards away. I should follow him and he would lead me there. Like a fool, I fell for it.
The streets became narrower and dirtier, mere alleys between blocks of slum. Finally he led me through a door and up one flight of stairs. He unlocked his own bedsitter and gestured me inside. The filthy little room was empty. I turned. He had closed the door and locked it. He gave me a snaggle-toothed smile and gestured at the grubby bed.
I reckoned there was not much point in calling for help. This was obviously not that kind of community. I shook my head. He gestured again, adding in French “Pants down, over the bed.” I just said “Non.” He ceased smiling, fumbled at his flies and produced his penis. It was semi-tumescent. He repeated his instruction.
I am not homophobic, but just have a personal aversion to sodomy. I repeated “Non” and then added “I’m leaving.” Then he produced a knife. It was a lock-knife that needed two hands to open it. The blade was curved; I assumed it was mainly used for cutting fruit. But it would do just as well on a human body.
By great good fortune, my father, several years before when I used to camp out in the fields of Kent, had given me a hunting knife, horn-handled with seven inches of Toledo steel blade. It was for paunching and skinning rabbits brought down with my air rifle, for cutting twigs for the campfire, or trimming branches for a hide.
I was carrying it horizontally across the small of the back. I fumbled under the shirt. The Algerian thought I was loosening my belt. When the hunting knife came out, his eyes widened and he came forward.
There was a scuffle, quite short, really. A few seconds and it was over. I found myself in the doorway, the door open, my hand on the handle. The market porter’s knife was on the floor. He had sustained a long gash to the right biceps about which he was making rather a fuss. In Arabic. I saw little point in waiting around in case he had friends elsewhere in the flophouse, so legged it down the stairs and out into the alley.
The incident was not entirely without benefit, because on my way back to the streetlights, I came across what I needed, a sort of elephants’ graveyard; row after row of parked juggernauts, waiting for the dawn. The drivers were saving their overnight allowances by bedding down in their cabs. I found one relieving himself against the rear wheel of his truck and when he had finished, approached him with my problem. He thought it over.
“It’s not allowed,” he said. “Company policy, no hitch hikers. It’s more than my job’s worth.”
But again, luck cut in. He was from Marseilles, which had never been occupied by the Germans. But his wife was from the north and her father had been in the Resistance in Amiens. He was in jail, destined for execution, when Group Captain Pickard led his Mosquitos on the Amiens jail raid. They had ripped open the cell block with precision bombing and destroyed the outer wall. His father-in-law had escaped and was still alive.
“I’ll have to lock you in for the whole trip,” he said. “If we are caught, you say you stowed away during the night while I slept. Agreed? OK, be back here at six.”
It was still dark at six, but the graveyard was slowly stirring. Our new friend cleared a space at the rear of the trailer, near the door, piling the empty crates further to the front to create a cubbyhole about eight feet by eight. Once John and I were curled up inside, he locked the doors and went to his cab. By six-thirty, we were rolling.
There was a distinctive odor to the crates that had once contained his cargo. Melons. At seven, in the southern suburbs, the sun rose. By eight, we were out on the Route Nationale One, heading for Marseilles eleven hours away. By nine, it was getting hot: by ten, it was a small furnace. By eleven, the melon smell had become an overpowering stench. John was white as a sheet and complaining of advancing nausea. By midday, he was on his knees by the door trying to deposit what remained of his Russian supper through the crack where the doors joined the floor. The stench of the melons joined that of human puke in a heady cocktail.
There was no way to contact the driver, way up front in his cabin. At one, he pulled into a roadside halt for fuel and lunch, but with other drivers milling around, he did not approach the trailer or let us out. After half an hour, he resumed the run south, but we had not a clue where we were and John was very sick indeed. He had ceased bringing up and was just moaning.
At first he thought he was going to die, and then he feared he wouldn’t. I was lucky in having a fairly strong stomach, whether for open boats on an angry sea or journeys by road. And I had just spent June throwing a Tiger Moth all over the sky above Rochester. Our misery ended around six p.m., when the truck pulled onto a wayside lay-by and we were let out.
John retired to the verge to put his head in his hands. I produced a map of France from my haversack, and the driver pointed out where we were. South of Avignon, but north of Marseilles. I thanked him profusely, we shook hands and he left, presumably to head for his melon farm and a large bucket of disinfectant.
But such is the recovery of the young, that within half an hour we were up and marching along the verge. By eight, as the sun set, we had found a farm with a friendly barn full of straw and hay. Despite being ravenously hungry, we collapsed in the bales and slept for ten hours.
On the following day, we discovered as we marched, rigid thumbs erect for a lift, that the Union Jack did not work any more. The Midi had never been occupied. It was part of Vichy France, notorious for its enthusiastic collaboration with the Germans. Even the Allied invasion of August 1944 was seen locally as an assault rather than a liberation. No cars stopped. We turned along the coast at Marseilles, and for three weeks, thousands of cars, vans and trucks sped by without stopping.
We lived off crusty baguette bread and cheap cheese, slaking our thirst and filling our water bottles at the public drinking fountains in the villages. There was no Corniche Littorale motorway (where hitchhiking would have been forbidden anyway), but just the shoreside road that wended through every village and hamlet as well as the great cities of Toulon, Nice and Cannes.
Marching along it, we found tiny non-tourist bays and creeks where we could strip off and dunk over-heated bodies in crystal-clear cool water. We slept in the workers’ sheds in the olive groves and once on the cool marble of a mausoleum in a cemetery. We saw the grandeur of Monaco and Monte Carlo, where all the cars seemed to be Rolls Royces and where I would many years later be the guest of Prince Albert. Finally, we came to the Italian border at Ventimiglia.
Just to say we had been to Italy, we went across and trudged to San Remo. Then time and money ran out. We had just enough for two third class tickets back to Marseilles, and there we bought just one single ticket for Paris. We spent the whole journey in the lavatory. Three times, a ticket inspector came to the door and rapped. Each time, I opened a fraction, explained in French that I was not very well and had the ticket clipped. Each time, John stood on the lavatory seat behind the door and out of sight.
We hitched back to Dieppe and used our return halves to return to Newhaven. No mobile phones back then, so we used a public phone booth and four one-penny coins to alert John’s aunt to our presence, and then waited to be collected.
We were very brown and rock-hard. We had each grown an inch and still, in old age, laugh at some of the tricks we got up to. The Fifties were a good, carefree and uncomplicated time to be a teenager, before drugs and worries and political correctness. Materially, we had infinitely less than youngsters today, but I think we were happier.
A few years back, a friend from the same generation, the teenagers of National Service, very few rules and regulations, minimal bureaucracy, basic but healthy food, good manners and masses of walking, remarked to me: “You know, we had the best of the last and the last of the best.” And that got it all in a single sentence.
But it was mid-August and I wanted something badly. I wanted that private pilot’s license. So the day after my seventeenth birthday, I Vespa-ed back to Rochester Flying Club.
And from that holiday, John Gordon has never been able to contemplate a melon, and I have never carried a blade.
Excerpted from "The Outsider"
Copyright © 2016 Frederick Forsyth.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Whispered Words 1
A Large Jar of Talc 6
A Little Boy's Dream 9
Learning French 13
Learning German 19
Back to Germany 23
A Step Nearer to the Stars 31
A Long Hike 36
A Silly Revenge 44
A Gentleman of Clare 47
Learning Spanish 51
Tangier and Commandos 62
Leopard-Skin Solution 66
I'm Jesus Christ 70
King's Lynn 86
Fleet Street 94
Paris Aflame 99
Big Brother 110
The Death of Kennedy 114
Helping Out the Cousins 119
Outbreak of War 127
Beer with a Camp Guard 135
A Very Unwise Choice 140
A Mistake with Auntie 143
A Day with the Arrows 147
A Taste of Africa 151
End of Career 159
Farewell, Auntie 170
Living History 178
Of Mice and Moles 196
A Media Explosion 204
A Useful Certificate 211
Mr. Sissons, I Presume 213
Worth a Large One 215
Bits of Metal 217
Of More Mice-and Mercs 221
Flight Out 228
An Unwanted Manuscript 234
The ODESSA 241
Dogs of War 248
An Unusual Dinner 254
Perfect Joy 259
Friends and Opponents 270
Five Years in Ireland 276
A Neat Trick 283
The Amazing Mr. Moon 289
Back to Zero-Start Again 295
The Passing of Humpy 298
A Very Burning Question 302
From Maiko to Monks 309
A Very Untidy Coup 315
Peace Hotel and Tracers 321
Dream Come True 327
Photo Credits 331
Reading Group Guide
Reading Guide Questions for THE OUTSIDER
1. How closely does Frederick Forsyth’s life story in The Outsider follow the collective narrative of his time? Do his ambitions and career goals match those of other men from the era, as portrayed in books and movies and on television shows?
2. Would Forsyth be able to accomplish similar things if he had been born today?
3. Frederick Forsyth attributes many of his great accomplishments to luck or to the help of friends and family. Do you agree with this assessment? How much did the author’s own decisions dictate the trajectory of his life?
4. In what ways has the media changed since Forsyth worked as foreign correspondent?
5. International relations play a key role throughout The Outsider. Did the representatives of each country described behave as you would expect them to or follow an agenda you would have anticipated? Did any scenes change your views on how foreign affairs are (or should be) conducted?
6. What does it mean to be an outsider? Is being an outsider a strength or a weakness for Frederick Forsyth?
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