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Gerald Seymour never tires of talking about Harry's Game - 'I thought I'd end up as a pencil pusher, the book ensured that wouldn't be the case'

By Ivan Little

Former ITN reporter Gerald Seymour on the acclaimed Troubles novel and TV hit that set him on a new career path as an author, his memories of covering NI conflict, and why detailed research is absolutely key to writing.

A best-selling English author who made his name - and a fortune - with a book about the Troubles called Harry's Game more than 40 years ago has no plans to write something like Arlene's Game about the peace.

Ex-ITN reporter Gerald Seymour, who still keeps a weather eye on the news from Northern Ireland as well as the exploits of rugby teams here, says the £400m scandal over the green energy scheme has left him "flabbergasted".

"I shuddered when I heard about the sums of money that were involved," said the prolific 75-year-old writer, who followed up Harry's Game with a number of Ulster-themed novels.

But he insists he won't be revisiting the twists and turns in the province's most recent chequered history.

"I thought that with the last book I wrote about the province that I knew what I was trying to do," he added.

"I was anxious to say that not all was settled. But I think everything has moved on and that it is bedded down, although perhaps awkwardly and with a bad grace.

"Peace walls are still there but I think more and more of the younger generation would not tolerate a return to violence."

He admits that in his reporting days here in the 1970s he was not optimistic about the future. "I despaired that the men who were leaders on both sides of the divide were unable to step across barricades and sit down with each other," he explained.

"When that did happen many years later, it was less and less the politicians from a previous generation who were responsible and it was more about the men who could bring the battalions with them, so to speak."

Seymour remembers discussions in the "good old Europa Hotel" when he and other journalists would speculate that one day peace would only come "if the street leaders would meet each other and realise the absolute lunacy, brutality and cruelty of what was happening".

He says the last time he was in Northern Ireland "those quantum leaps had been made".

But he concedes that it's not a perfect peace, adding: "I follow what's going on in the province at several levels, studying the aftermath of the difficulties and problems that have presented themselves."

He says Northern Ireland was one of the most challenging stories he ever covered as a journalist.

And relationships that he forged all those years ago are still intact.

"I still get quite a decent number of Christmas cards every year from Northern Ireland, from people that I am sincerely fond of and with whom I had wonderful, happy times," he revealed.

Many of his friends here are associated with rugby, not the Troubles or politics. He lived for several years in the Eighties just south of Dublin, and he was honorary secretary of the Palmerston club's youth section.

"I used to travel quite a bit to the north with the first team," he said.

"All the memories came flooding back recently when I was in our local pub in England and found myself in the company of the Ulster Academy team led by Willie Anderson.

"There was much hugging and recollections of great nights out."

He's also hugely fond of Ulster Rugby and he's been mightily impressed by their achievements and by the transformation in the old Ravenhill stadium in Belfast where he has memories of watching the All Blacks on a murky, misty Saturday in 1974.

His latest book, Jericho's War, is the 33rd novel he's written over a 42-year period.

He explained: "There are two narcotics in my bloodstream.

"One is a desire to learn about things and places outside the usual parameters of understanding, and that's an inquisitiveness that I have had all my life.

"The other thing is a love of writing and building pictures, sometimes more successfully than others. It's addictive." Last year Seymour suggested, half-heartedly, to his wife that it might be time for him to retire.

"I told her I could push the trolley up and down the supermarket aisles, helping to spot the offers that she might have missed," he joked.

"She went out and bought me a packet of 500 sheets of printing paper. So I took that as a hint."

He says Jericho's War is a story about insiders and informers that the British State uses in the prosecution of its wars and conflicts.

In this case it's the story about a white convert boy who is with an al-Qaida unit in Yemen, and how he is utilised in an attempt to take down a prominent target.

It's the story about all those well-trodden Gerald Seymour themes of the man beyond reach, betrayal, the isolation of living the lie, and the always ghastly risk of what will happen if the man is discovered. Exactly what motivates anyone to work as a spy clearly fascinates Seymour, something that is underlined by his regular explorations of their clandestine world.

He said: "There is an old set of initials, MICE - money, ideology, compromise and ego - and those are the four reasons why you might pull in an agent and get him to work for you, and I think compromise is the most usual one."

Harry's Game - which was turned into a hit ITV series with a haunting theme tune by Clannad - centred on an Ulster-born soldier who goes undercover in Belfast in a bid to track down the IRA murderers of a British Cabinet minister.

Seymour says he never tires of talking about the book. "I'm very grateful to Harry's Game. It altered my life completely," he said.

"I used to think that by the time I got to the age of 50 I would become a pencil pusher in the Press office of the Coal Board or something like that.

"But Harry's Game ensured that wasn't the case, and I was able to devote all my energies to writing. However, I don't know why that book was so successful - I think it's very dangerous to speculate about what makes anything a success."

Seymour's books have been set amidst conflicts all over the world. And he spends four or five months researching his storylines before he commits his words to paper.

"I go on a wing and a prayer when I set out," he explained.

"I try to find people who will talk to me off the record and non-attributably; people on the fringes of the dirty raincoat brigade, and for Jericho's War I spoke to people who have lived or worked in the quarter of the Yemeni desert which is very much off limits at the moment.

"I also know people who work in the explosives ordnance business who will tell me about the sophistication of bombs and who has manufactured them."

His research, involving him filling a huge number of notebooks, is part of his lifelong quest to find the truth. And he is often told of incidents which are never reported in the media.

"Years ago I was at a party in the north western frontier of Pakistan and a spook told me how a Russian helicopter had been downed in a valley and the crew who had survived the crash were attacked by a second Russian chopper so that they would be killed and therefore not captured.

"Those are the sort of tales you are never going to find on Wikipedia, but they are incredible for opening your mind up and letting your emotions flow."

Seymour - who has visited many of the countries in which he sets his books - also talks to people who know the locations better than he does, to ensure he can portray an accurate picture of the places.

"I talk to aid workers or military contracts or spooks or diplomats who have been to the countries and scribble what they tell me in my notebooks," he said.

"People tend to be very honest and very helpful, and I find them more willing to talk to me now than they were in my days as a reporter, when I would have had a camera lens jutting out over my shoulder and a microphone shoved up their nostrils."

I can speak from experience about Seymour's detailed research.

He and I met some years ago when he sought me out to discuss the situation in Northern Ireland as he prepared to write his work, Vagabond, which saw him returning to the familiar turf of the Troubles.

Seymour remembered in particular our discussion about the threats which Ulster-based journalists routinely received during the conflict.

He commented: "That thought stayed with me and made me think about the difference between those of us journalists who came over from England on the plane to Northern Ireland and did a shift and went home, and those of you who lived there day in, day out."

Once the preparations for a book are over, he has to get down to the business of writing.

"There comes a time when the notebooks are all full and the evil hour cannot be put off any longer. I take a great big deep breath and say: 'Let's go'."

His face hasn't appeared on the telly for decades now but people still remember him from his time with ITN, and he said: "I'm very blessed that people have remembered me, even just a little bit.

"I find there's an enormous sense of goodwill to someone they knew on television.

"They invited us into their homes, which are very intimate places. They feel that similar sense of affection for writers because they communicate in such an intense and personal way."

One of his closest friends from the ITN era, Michael Nicholson, died recently, and he admitted: "I thought he was indestructible. We still saw each other long after we left ITN."

He laughs as he looks back at how the two seasoned journalists took refuge on the floor of a hotel bathroom during one incident in a particularly nasty civil war in Oman.

The conversation didn't dwell on the dangers outside, but rather on dogs.

"Michael told me about his dog and after that trip I went home and bought my first Irish setter, who was the love of my life through most of the Seventies," said Seymour.

The author admits to being a critic of modern day newsgathering.

He commented: "I think that may be down to being a boring old thing and a bit of a codger.

"But I regret the lack of information that is in the papers now at the expense of opinion that is chucked at me through blogs and the like. I can make up my own mind.

"And I strive to do that with my books as well. It's not to put my own opinion all over a story but to, hopefully, give people information, ideas and emotions that will help them to make up their own minds too."

He smiles as he recalls how his 75th birthday last month was listed in The Times, and he remembers how the Belfast Telegraph played an important part in his family history many years earlier.

His father William Kean Seymour was a celebrated poet, and Seymour recalled: "The last time a poem of his was ever published was in the Belfast Telegraph, and that's very special to me."

He has just signed a new deal for two more books with his publishers and said: "Hopefully I can still write some interesting lines and paint some interesting pictures.

"So the future is bright."

  • Jericho's War by Gerald Seymour is published by Hodder and Stoughton. Price £16.99

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