13 August 1999

WRITER AND CHAMPION

OF THE COUNTRYSIDE

His books sell millions and have a fanatical following world wide.

But when The Day of The Jackal author, Frederick Forsyth, is not

writing, there is a fair chance he will be farming. Tim Relf talks to

him in the third of an

occasional series

profiling famous

people who

have close

ties with

the land

IT will mark something of a first for Frederick Forsyth – a book about love.

A complete change, he promises, from the type of novel for which he is best known – thrillers about soldiers, spies, mercenaries and assassins.

"It is about love, obsession and betrayal," says the 60 year old, smoking a Rothmans in a cigarette holder, looking largely unchanged from the pictures at half his age. Still dapper and suave. Still unmistakably Frederick Forsyth.

He is speaking from the place where he wrote The Phantom of Manhattan, due to be published this November. The place, too, where Icon, The Fist of God, The Deceiver and The Negotiator were written: A farm in Herts.

This farm has been home to the author for more than a decade now, its purchase marking the culmination of a long-standing ambition dating back to his childhood in rural Kent. There, a love of the countryside was "imbued" as he cycled widely, explored the outdoors, became a beater and learned to shoot. "Many of my fathers friends were farmers and many of their friends were my contemporaries. That was where it all started."

But the career he chose was journalism, which meant Fleet Street. So, after national service and a spell working as a cub reporter in Norfolk, he headed for London, a move which was to take him around the world as a foreign correspondent.

And it was between commissions in 1970 when, having come back from covering the Nigerian Civil War, he decided to write a novel. "I happened to be skint," he says. The result was The Day of the Jackal, a book which propelled him into the literary spotlight and has since sold more than 3m copies in the UK and Commonwealth.

"I thought it might be a one-off and that it might make me a few quid to tide me over. It made a lot of quids."

He wondered then about buying a farm, but it was not until the 1980s – after time in Spain, Ireland, Surrey and London – that, "at a loose end", he finally did. "Not just a country house with two or three acres, but a farm." The place at Hertingfordbury was just what he wanted: Close to the capital but in a lovely spot. "It was as if London did not exist." It is

89ha (190

acres), with the arable and strawberry cropping originally in place swapped for an all-grass sheep venture. Recently, though, making money has been impossible. "You cant do it on 190 acres. Like most farmers I have no choice but to look around for diversification. Diversification is going to be the answer for any small farmer under 200 acres. You have to do farming plus to make it pay."

Farms under 500 acres face a bleak future, he says. "I take the view that – unlike the manufacture of cars – the ruin of the countryside economically would be a national – not just a rural – disaster because it is a national asset. The two are interlinked: The prosperity of the countryside and its beauty."

As well as the economic battle, there is also a public relations war to be won. City people, he says, have one of two contrasting, "both wrong", impressions of the countryside.

"There is the idea – and you get it with ramblers and you get it in New Labour – that it is a sort of chocolate box cover. That it is a large theme park where everything is benign and nothing dies and honeysuckle permanently grows round the doors of thatched cottages and no one actually does any work and they just live off subsidies. That is what I call the gloriously romantic image.

"The others see it as an appalling place where the inhabitants are pretty sadistic murderers of foxes and pheasants and partridge and basically it ought to be concreted over."

These two trendy views, says Mr Forsyth, result in a government mood that is "pretty hostile" to rurality.

For this reason he puts his weight behind the rural voice and spoke at the Countryside March in 1997. He would love to spend more time on the farm and nowadays has fewer journalistic commitments, recently declining the chance to go to Kosovo. "At 60-plus, I am not fit enough or fast enough to dodge the bullets."

But life as a world famous writer means spells away from Herts. After he finishes this interview, he is off to London for a string of further appointments. The launch of a new book means interviews, promotional events, lunches and, at the end of such hectic days, finally back to the farm. It is a busy time on the land, too, and he has his fingers crossed for a few more days of sunshine. Fans of his writing will hope he does not keep his fingers crossed too long, though.

Other people on

Frederick Forsyth

Noel Murphy,

promotions manager, Waterstones

"He has always had a big following and when a new book comes out, people get quite excited. His books are well written and constructed and ones like The Day of The Jackal were quite of their time. There was a vogue for

Cold War thrillers."

Pamela Morton,

Countryside Alliance

"He spoke at the Countryside Rally in 1997 and, more recently, at an auction we had. It was immensely useful. He put an erudite case. He has offered to give us any help that he can regarding

countryside concerns and issues."

Lee Weatherall,

a fan, Rochester, Kent

"I am counting the days until the new book comes out. You can read his work time and time again. It will be interesting to see what the new one is like, though, as it apparently marks a change in

direction for him."