Notebook

Why I gave up writing fiction

7 August 2021

9:00 AM

7 August 2021

9:00 AM

When, three years ago, I announced my retirement from writing fiction, the only thing that surprised me was the surprise it generated. I had long come to the somewhat un-arty view that writing was a job like any other (well, almost) and that nudging 80 was a good time to step back and consider a senescence involving only serious decisions like which claret to choose. No need to rabbit on and on. Apart from the lengthening shadows, there was a very practical reason. The stuff I used to write involved the unlovely side of life with some unlovely places and people. The search for authenticity required travel to find and observe them. I never felt I could trust online research to get it right. I had to go and see for myself. Thus Bogota (cocaine gang lords), Guinea-Bissau (ditto) and Mogadishu (Al-Shabaab terrorists). After the last excursion (for The Kill List) a certain lady told me: ‘For heaven’s sake, you’re 75. If you go off to any more hellholes and war zones you’ll come back to an empty house.’ In vain I pointed out that she might be a wealthy widow. Ladies are so illogical. So after a final outing — The Fox written entirely inside the UK — I packed it in. But if I expected a retirement of ease and indolence I was sadly mistaken. I have seldom been busier. If anyone asks me ‘How do you fill your time?’, I reach for something blunt.

Even so, the past few weeks have been exceptional. Something of a fuss was made about the 50th anniversary of The Day of the Jackal. There have been lunches, dinners, drinks and a tsunami of interviews. The media have been more than kind about my first foray into thriller fiction. Looking back, the sentiment that consumed me then remains unchanged: complete mystification.


For a thrice-rejected manuscript to explode into global sales north of ten million is pretty weird. If at all, this would usually stem from years of writing and rewriting, literary schools, seminars, patience and dedication. But for heaven’s sake, I was just a broke journalist with some shady contacts and memories of Paris in 1962/63, plus an idea that might work. So I dashed off 350 pages on a battered portable typewriter at a kitchen table in 35 days — journos have to work fast and get their best shot out first-time — and then hawked it from rejection to no-no. It was the amazing Harold Harris at Hutchinson who took a gamble and published a launch print of 5,000. Marketed in July 1971, the book exploded. And the last oddity? Not a word has ever been altered. But Harold did more. He signed me to a three-novel contract. So while the explosion happened, I was deep in Germany investigating neo-Nazis for what became The Odessa File. The contract and ensuing fortune were handled by the lovely Diana Crawfurd, long since Diana Baring, who lunched with us recently, one of the last survivors.

Now I have two sons and four grandchildren. If there is one thing Covid has really thrown up, it is the value of family, particularly for the elderly. Stuart, my 44-year-old, married a lovely and extremely clever Swedish girl, Hannah, who works as a senior official in the Handelsbanken in Stockholm. So that was where they settled. There were vague hopes (from me at least) that she might transfer to London, so I bought them a townhouse in Beaconsfield, near me. Well, Freddie Junior, Sofia and Felix duly arrived and so did promotion for Hannah — but to Bad Godesberg. The children are now at school there, bilingual and happy — but a long way from Grandpa. It has been two years since I could visit. So it’s FaceTime with regular appearances on their screen of this strange, saggy face from England. It’s not the same as a cuddle and playing on the lawn. My 42-year-old, Shane, also found a young woman of looks and talent, a PA working in London for a Spanish prince — but Polish. Their only child, so far, is Nico, now five and starting school. After two years in Hertfordshire, where I last saw Nico as a chortling tot in a bouncy cradle, they have settled in Patricia’s native Poznan.

But the sun has just broken through. Shane, Pati and Nico are coming over for a week to sell up their Rickmansworth house and convert bricks to capital — which will go double the distance in Poland. So finally I get to cuddle again the bundle of giggles I last held over two years ago. We will play on the lawn — English weather permitting — with our three Jack Russells and make a big splash in the pool. Apart from the utter dog’s breakfast this government is still making of what ought to be the fully conquered Covid, life is seriously terrific.

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