Novelist Frederick Forsyth on '60s Prague and making love to the StB

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The Czech daily Lidove Noviny recently published details of a little-known footnote in Cold War history; browsing through the archives of Czechoslovakia's communist-era secret police or StB, the paper discovered that among the foreign journalists regularly followed on his trips to Prague was one Frederick Forsyth. Today known as the best-selling author of such classics as the Day of the Jackal and the Odessa File, back in the early 1960s Frederick Forsyth was a young journalist based in Berlin. Rob Cameron called the novelist at his home in Hertfordshire, England, and asked him to reflect on his trips to communist Prague at the height of the Cold War.

"I got the job as Reuters correspondent for East Germany in September 1963, and the territory also included both Czechoslovakia and Hungary. So though I was resident in East Berlin, I made several visits per year to Czechoslovakia and Hungary."

I suppose that was just around the time when things were starting to loosen up in Czechoslovakia. What was the atmosphere like when you arrived in the country for the first time?

"Well, it was more relaxed than East Germany, no question about that. But then that, so to speak, was par for the course because East Germany was notorious as an extremely harsh communist regime, probably one of the harshest of all the satellite countries. The Czechs had a naturally lighter-hearted attitude to life, and a better sense of humour I found. On the other hand the officialdom was obviously classic diehard communist. So you didn't in those days just pick your own hotel, you were allocated a hotel, and in my case it was the Jalta Hotel on Wenceslas Square. And I had to obviously pay my respects to the domestic news agency. But for the rest it was quite clear that I was going to be followed by the StB, the secret police."

You knew that then. You were under no illusions at all.

"No. They weren't going to hide that you see, there was no point. As time went by, and my visits became two or three a year, it was quite plain that the guys across the other side of the restaurant were doing their job and I was doing mine. On occasion during dinner I would raise my glass and they would raise theirs back! So it was a reasonably civilised way of doing things."

Quite literally like something out of a spy novel or a spy film.

"Yes, I suppose so. It was obviously the height of the Cold War. In fact Kennedy, remember, was shot in Dallas on November 22nd 1963, so there was a nervousness about things in those days. Chruschev of course was getting more and more erratic on the other side of the USSR border. So what with him getting slightly mad, and America getting very angry at an assassinated president, and the story was that it was a communist who had carried out the assassination - this was before the Warren Commission reported. So it was all down to Lee Harvey Oswald, who was a communist, so you know it was tense, very tense. Berlin in those days was regarded as the spark in what would become World War Three. So there was a tension in the air, a nervousness, and certainly as far as a diehard communist regime was concerned, a Westerner, particularly a western foreign correspondent, was a very suspicious character who might be up to all sorts of things. In fact I wasn't, but that was their view, I might have been. So, yes, I got what was called 'the treatment'. I'm pretty certain my hotel room was bugged. Phone calls obviously. But one accepted this. One knew. This was par for the course."

As you probably know, recently a Czech newspaper - Lidove Noviny - devoted quite a lot of space to the fact that the StB did have a file on you and had what seems to have been three agents on your tail when you visited Prague. This seems to have come as a surprise to the newspaper and perhaps to the Czech public, that a famous author was once followed by the communist secret police, but less of a surprise to you yourself.

"Well exactly. I wasn't of course a famous novelist. I was just a very humble and rather young Reuters foreign correspondent given the very impressive territory of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary to cover alone, at the age of 25, nudging 26. So it was quite a responsibility, but it was also very challenging, and for that reason fascinating, to be exposed to the communist way of doing things after being raised in Britain. I realised, because I'd been told in London anyway, that there would be secret police attention. So when it came, it didn't surprise me. Only on one occasion was there a breakthrough in relationships when I found myself in eye contact with a very pretty girl in one of the bars. So I approached, and said can I sit down, and she said yes. Bought her a drink, and that was fine. Then we had dinner together. It was very hot. I had a car, and I suggested we go out to some lakes north of the city and have a swim. So we did. We parked the car, walked down the meadow to the lake, stripped off and had a swim. Then I spread a blanket out and we made love. Afterwards, I was lying down staring up at the stars, and I just murmured - I wondered what happened to my StB escort tonight? And she said - You've just made love to it! So I thought if I've got to be followed by the StB I'd prefer a pretty girl than some middle-aged man."

Bohumil Laušman, foto: ČTK
The newspaper actually mentions this woman I think - possibly by name, I won't name her - but have you made any attempt to contact her or any of the other people who followed you back then?

"No, no. Obviously on that particular occasion I drove back to Berlin and they followed me to the border and then over the border and then of course the Stasis would take up their duties on the other side. Or I'd just take a taxi from the Jalta to the airport and again the spooks would chase me, well not chase me, follow me to the airport. They'd be very polite, nodding and smiling, they'd see me through to the departure lounge and I'd land at Schoenefeld, at the other side, and there would be the Stasis. It was simply to be expected. There was no eyebrow raising - oh my heavens, you know, I'm being followed. Of course you're being followed. You are a foreign correspondent in a communist dictatorship. Of course you're being followed."

Did you ever come back to what is now the Czech Republic after the fall of the iron curtain in 1989?

"Yes indeed I came back, on a very touristic visit with my wife, about seven or eight years ago, just to see the old places again. You know, the Charles Bridge, beautiful Prague, the Vltava river flowing by."

What did it feel like, coming back and walking the same streets and sitting in the same cafes and hotels that you were in all those years ago?

Wenceslas Square
"I have to say I can't remember the cafes and hotels. The Jalta was still there of course. That was a modern hotel then, in the sixties. There were others that were a little older, the Adlon was one I think that I didn't go and visit. I did see a couple of restaurants I'd be in, but obviously they were serving far better food simply because the raw materials were there under capitalism. The restauranteurs could afford to buy much better ingredients and therefore make much better meals. But basically it was just wandering over the Charles Bridge, through the university. I went up the hill to the Hradcany Palace and thought - I used to come here for press conferences!"

Presumably this time you weren't followed by a man in a grey trenchcoat.

"No, nor did I find a rather attractive girl eyeing me up in any of the bars or restaurants either, which was just as well as my wife was with me. I suppose by this time I was no longer eyeable-up...I was much more middle-aged and I was with my wife!"