Bestselling novelist and ex-ITN reporter Gerald Seymour, whose thrillers about spies, undercover agents and terrorist threats have attracted legions of fans, chuckles as he recounts some of the close shaves he’s had during his career.
“There were a few times when I felt scared,” he admits, laughing. “But it wasn’t about being among ‘whizzbangs’ so much as being on lonely roads, perhaps just myself and a driver, say in Lebanon at night amid burning oil drums and roadblocks, and windows wound down and youngsters jabbering away with Kalashnikovs, and not understanding a word. That was the most unnerving thing.”
As a reporter, he covered events in trouble spots including Vietnam, Israel and Northern Ireland, as well as the Great Train Robbery and the Munich Olympics massacre in 1972. He recalls being asked by an American army lieutenant near the Cambodian border in south Vietnam if he would help man the machine gun in the event of an attack. He politely declined.
Much of the tension he has experienced in front-line reporting has been transferred into his fictional stories, which began in 1975 with his debut bestseller Harry’s Game, later made into a TV mini-series by Yorkshire Television.
He has retained that suspense and tension in his 35th novel, Battle Sight Zero, which follows the path of a Kalashnikov assault rifle from its manufacture in 1957 through six decades as it changes hands, to make its way in 2018 to wreak havoc on the streets of Britain.
At the heart of the story is the relationship between a Muslim girl from Dewsbury answering the terrorist call and the undercover agent tasked with infiltration. While the closest Seymour has ever got to an AK47 is holding one - but not firing it - in the Middle East, he says the weapon has a worldwide reputation and people know how much devastation it can cause.
“I spent most of my adult life being aware of the Kalashnikov, having seen it through all my time in the Middle East, in Vietnam and in Northern Ireland. More recently, we’ve seen the carnage with the Kalashnikovs at the concert in Paris.”
At 77, Seymour shows no sign of slowing down. He has produced around a book a year since he gave up his reporting career to become a novelist in the Seventies. Today, he says a lot of his success is down to his wife, Gillian, who bought him a £5 pine table from a junk shop on which to pen his stories, and looked after their two children while he was in war zones or researching his subjects.
“When I was at ITN, life wouldn’t have been possible for myself and a lot of the travelling male reporters - because it was a very sexist organisation in those days - without the unsung heroines who stayed at home,” he acknowledges. “We were away for a lot of the time, at short notice. I couldn’t have done it without her.”
He reckons that front-line reporting has become more dangerous than it used to be. “In my day, we thought that somehow we could talk our way through, and I don’t think that exists any more. In fact, if you were in Syria in recent years, it’s quite a coup (for the terrorists) if they got their hands on you. It’s much more dangerous and much more frightening.”
He also feels that society has become less shocked by atrocities which don’t happen on their doorstep.
“We don’t have the shock horror factor that we would have done 30 years ago. That means that the reporters’ and cameramen’s lives are in some sense cheapened...I hope that to a small extent, I can hint at situations through fiction more than a guy who’s writing purely factual stuff in a daily broadsheet, or reporting from an armoured car on television.”
Battle Sight Zero is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £18.99.