“Call me Jeffrey” – author profile of Jeffrey Archer by Mark Dapin
Two years in prison haven’t dimmed the lordly polish of Tory novelist Jeffrey Archer – as common-as-muck journo Mark Dapin discovers.
The concierge at the Thameside apartment building – a thickset, polished black man – picks up his desk phone and rings through to Jeffrey Archer’s secretary. He says Lord Archer has a visitor. Damn my plebeian memory! I forgot he was a lord. Does everyone call him Lord Archer?
“I always do,” says the concierge. He escorts me to the lift. The doors part at the 13th floor, where I am met by a slim, polished white man in a morning coat. He offers a stiff arm to take my jacket. Curse my ill-mannered upbringing! I do not even know how to address a butler. I settle for “mate”.
The butler leads me to Lord Archer, who stands before tall windows with views across the Thames to the Tate Britain, west to Battersea Power Station, and north to the Houses of Parliament, where Archer once sat as an MP in the Commons and is still entitled to join debates in the House of Lords.
Archer shakes my hand, meets my eye, and says I can call him Jeffrey.
“That’s easy enough, isn’t it?” he says. “What should I call you?”
I give him permission to use the informal “Mark”, which he does frequently. After the initial greeting, I never call him anything at all.
Archer is 67 years old, but he works out with a personal trainer three times a week, and was once one of Britain’s better 100-yard sprinters. He says he can still hoist his body through 20 pull-ups, the first 10 with ease. He had his age measured biometrically and the figure that came up was 47.
Archer does not have the neutered, resentful stare, the sallow, defeated defiance of a man who has spent two years in prison. With his Hilditch & Key shirt, Boateng trousers, Longines watch, Marilyn Monroe cufflinks and carpet slippers, he has the air of a sated playboy, a rewarded businessman, a retired deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. He does not look much like any writer I have met.
The butler brings small glasses of iced water. He is never introduced, but his name is Craig. Jeffrey Archer will talk with guarded expansiveness about a lot of things – prison and probation, politics and humiliation – but he is icily reluctant to discuss the butler.
“They get quite offended when they’re mentioned in articles,” he says. “Be warned. We had one who nearly sued the paper. He really went for them, and they had to apologise. He said, ‘You have no right to interfere in my life.
You’re meant to be interviewing Jeffrey Archer, not me.’ It’s a good point.”
But what is Craig’s role in Archer’s life?
“He’s the butler.”
Never having had a butler, I don’t know what they do (apart from “it”).
“Well, he cooks, and irons my clothes.”
Archer also employs a secretary, who has a desk on the balcony that hangs over the living room like a private box at the theatre. When he cannot recall a detail or a name, he calls out to the circle, and an invisible oracle supplies a reply. He used to keep a driver, too, but did not replace him when he retired.
Archer is one of the most popular and least respected fiction writers in the world. The first of his 14 novels, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, initially published in 1976, has sold a ridiculous 25 million copies.
“One-hundred-and-thirty-five countries,” says Archer. “Thirty-seven languages. In Icelandic, I sold 412 copies.”
The hardback edition of Archer’s latest novel, A Prisoner of Birth, has attracted advance orders of 92,000 in Australia. It is an update of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo; in it, Danny Cartwright, a working-class boy from the East End of London, is framed for the murder of his best friend by an inexplicably evil barrister, who actually committed the crime himself. In prison, Cartwright meets Nick Moncrieff, an unfairly disgraced army officer of noble birth, who is also murdered. Cartwright takes Moncrieff’s identity, inherits his fortune, and seeks – and, of course, finds – his revenge.
Archer’s fictional world is explored but unexamined. If a surface is solid, it is as hard as rock. If an enterprise fails, it falls by the wayside. If a man is well-groomed, he has every hair neatly in place. That is just the way it is, and readers in Reykjavik can understand it as easily as book buyers in Melbourne.
His jail scenes are like snatches of prison procedural drama, attentive and thorough in their description of process, deaf and mute in their evocation of atmosphere. The characters survive their experiences as unchanged archetypes, but the book holds the reader to the end to ensure complicity with the inevitable: that good will triumph, evil be vanquished, and the virtuous rewarded with justice and wealth.
Jeffrey Archer was once a flashily successful Conservative politician. He won a seat on the now disbanded Greater London Council at 26, and one in the Commons at 29. He rose to deputy chairman of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party, and was rewarded by John Major with a life peerage in 1992, despite the fact he had resigned from his party position in 1986, after the British tabloid News of the World revealed he had given £2000 to a prostitute called Monica Coghlan to leave the country.
It is not illegal to know a prostitute, or to pay her to go away. Archer was hounded by journalists who might once have spent an evening in the Reeperbahn, commissioned by editors who could have attended stag parties in Amsterdam, in the pay of proprietors who may have carried escort-service cards on business trips to the provinces.
Archer was infatuated with Thatcher, but he never relished the tea-shop morality of the dour, suburban Roundheads who had captured and conquered the party of the Cavaliers. He was a middle-grounder, a softie, a social liberal, and there was no fairness in mocking his private sadness.
Another tabloid, the Daily Star, pushed the story to the tawdry logic of its conclusion, and claimed Archer had also paid Coghlan for sex. Archer sued the Daily Star for libel, and won £500,000 in damages, which he said he would give to charity but perhaps never did. Famously, the judge referred to his wife, Mary, as possessing “fragrance”, and mocked the very suggestion that a man would leave her bed for “cold, unloving, rubber-insulated sex in a seedy hotel” with Coghlan.
In 1995, the investigative journalist Michael Crick published his often-revised book, Jeffrey Archer: Stranger Than Fiction, in which he wrote that Archer had lied to get into Oxford, did not gain a full degree, had falsified many of his biographical details, buried a whole cemetery of closet skeletons, embezzled charities, paid bribes, kept mistresses, stolen certain plots for his stories, and did not actually write some of the novels himself. This time, Archer did not go to court.
In 1999, Archer was selected as the Conservative candidate for London mayor, but was forced to stand down when new evidence about the Coghlan affair came to light. Ted Francis, a former friend and apparent creditor, and Angela Peppiatt, a former personal assistant and possible mistress, swore Archer had given a false alibi for the time he spent with Coghlan. Archer was tried and found guilty of perjury and perverting the course of justice, and sentenced to four years in jail. He was expelled from the Conservative Party for five years, and repaid the Daily Star its £500,000, along with £1 million in legal costs.
He was sent to Belmarsh high-security prison in 2001, and was released from Hollesley Bay open prison two years later, in 2003. He wrote three volumes of A Prison Diary, all bestsellers.
“I’m a storyteller,” he says. “I like telling a story. It’s a God-given gift. I can’t do anything about it.”
Some people – such as Michael Crick – say he invented his own story.
“You can’t do that 14 times,” says Archer.
I mean he invented the story of his own life.
“Oh, I see what you mean, I’m sorry,” he says. “I’ve no time for Crick. If I made money writing books on him, I’m sure he’d have the same view of me.”
Archer grew up in the west coast seaside town of Weston-super-Mare. “We were a poor family,” he says. “It was just after the war. I won a scholarship to my school [Wellington, an independent school about 40 kilometres south of Weston-super-Mare], but even then my mother was finding it very hard to keep me there. But she did. She struggled away.”
His mother wrote a column for the local paper. His father died when Archer was 13. Archer remembers him as a “warm, friendly, humorous” man, who owned a printing business after he retired as a professional soldier.
There is little point in rehearsing the other details of Archer’s background – his short time with the police, his brief period as an unqualified teacher, the numerous charity scandals, the unending revelations of disgruntled employees, burned business associates and abandoned prostitutes. He has his own story of a life to be proud of, a career of achievements, and the truths are tired, elusive and unacknowledged.
One undeniable fact is that Archer was a rich and influential man when he went to prison. He resents the good years that were taken from him, and the bleak days he was given in return. “The sentence was ridiculous,” he says. “The average sentence for what I was accused of is six months, and often nothing. Four years is a world record. The last person who got four years for perjury was a double murderer.”
What sentence was Archer expecting? “I wasn’t expecting anything,” he says. “I don’t answer those questions. I won’t talk about the trials.” He will, however, answer any question about prison.
“I went to prison at 61,” he says, “and I’m not going to say I’d run out of ideas, but I was treading water a bit. Suddenly, I was placed in an environment with 1000 people I would normally never meet, all of them with a story. So first you’ve got three prison diaries, Cat o’ Nine Tales, all prison stories; and now this [the new novel].”
Does he feel prison was a benefit to him?
“No,” he says quickly. “No, thank you, it wasn’t. But it was an amazing experience, and it’s enhanced the writing, certainly.”
Was prison life frightening?
“To begin with, yes,” he says. “Then I discovered that, though physically I couldn’t’ve taken on even the weakest of them, partly because of my age and partly because it’s not my world, they were frightened of my tongue. They were frightened of a remark that would belittle them in front of their fellows, so they were very polite to me. They knew they had no command of language, and they knew that I could deliver one sentence that would make everyone fall about laughing, and then they would be the butt of that laughter.”
I become aware that he is speculating when he adds, “I never used that.”
In small ways, says Archer, the prisoners recognised him as a different class of inmate.
“I never swear,” he says, “and they stopped swearing in front of me. There were exceptions, where the f-word was every other word and it was just ingrained in their brain. But I actually heard one prisoner say, ‘You don’t swear in front of Jeffrey. He doesn’t swear at all, and he doesn’t listen if you do.’ So people who wanted things and came to see me were incredibly polite, then they’d walk out of the door and see their mate and be f-ing this and f-ing that straight away.”
What did he miss the most?
“I don’t drink,” he says, “so that wasn’t a big deal. I don’t smoke, much as you’re allowed to smoke in prison: it’s all they do. Ninety-three per cent smoke and 70 per cent are on drugs. I’d never seen a drug in my life. It was terrifying, seeing young kids on heroin – good-looking young kids – and you knew they’d be dead in three years.”
What else was new to him?
“I hadn’t seen violence in that way before,” he says. “Not that there’s a lot. I only saw it twice in two years. But I hadn’t seen that sort of violence.”
People think prisoners all get raped or bashed.
“I’m not saying those things don’t happen,” says Archer, “but people on the outside think they’re happening every day, every minute, all the time. Rubbish.”
What prisoners do experience every day, every minute, all the time, is dispiriting boredom.
“Boredom and noise,” says Archer. “I never really got used to the noise. They’re playing their hi-fis, or whatever you call them, at 90 decibels, night and day. You get two people on either side of your cell, trying to outdo the other one, because they want to hear theirs. You’ve got nothing in between, so you have to suffer both.”
What is it like never to see women?
“That’s terrible,” he says, “because I adore them. So many of my friends are very bright, intelligent women, so I missed their company. When I worked in the hospital as a prison orderly, mind you, there was a sister and three nurses…
“I once said to someone who was visiting me, ‘You know, prison would be great if I could choose the 300 people who were in with me.’ He said, ‘Good idea, Jeffrey. I’ll pick the 150 men, you pick the 150 women.’ ”
Archer’s position in the hospital was “the job to get”, he says. It came with a private hospital bed, in which, as night orderly, he was allowed to sleep. Archer replaced a schoolmaster, who had replaced a man who ran a trucking company.
“They had to have someone who would never take drugs, didn’t smoke and could read and write,” says Archer. “So that cut out about 90 per cent of the people who were eligible for the job.”
One of the prison doctors became a friend, he says, and still comes to his parties today. “I worked in close contact with him,” says Archer, “trying to genuinely help. When 12 people would come to see him in the morning, I’d put a little cross by the three I thought were in real trouble. He’d see the cross, and he’d think, ‘Jeffrey thinks this guy’s in real trouble’, and he’d spend a bit more time on him.”
Most prisoners do not, or cannot, read, says Archer, but his books were in the prison library, often borrowed – “but only because I was there.
“They got me to sign them, too. The governor came to see me and said, ‘Stop signing them, because they’re stealing them from the library. You’re signing them, then they’re selling them for drugs.’
“Mark,” says Archer, “it never crossed my mind.”
Were there other ways in which the prisoners tried to make money from him?
“I needed things,” he says. “I needed a softer pillow, I needed paper, I needed pens, the occasional Mars Bar. So I just gave them an autograph.”
Did they beg from him?
“No,” he says, “they were too proud. People didn’t ask me for money. You’re the first person who’s ever asked me that question. They asked me to write letters for them … They would come to me with a lot of personal problems. The big thing with most of them – and it struck home that it wasn’t relevant for me – was they’d say, ‘I’ve got a wife and children, and there’s no money.’ You know, Mary wasn’t ringing up and saying, ‘I’ve got no money. The children can’t eat this week.’ It brought home to me that the wife and children were being punished as well, for the man being in prison.”
Had he realised people lived lives like that?
“If one did,” he says, suddenly distancing himself with the formal pronoun, “one put it to the back of one’s mind, and pretended one lived in a different world and one would never see that world and it was nothing to do with me. I’ve now seen that world.”
And what does he plan to do about it?
“I’ve sat in bed for hours,” he says, “thinking, ‘Is there a solution?’ ‘Is there a way around this?’ ‘Can we do something better?’ The only thing I came up with, which I felt very strongly about, was the pay for education should be the same as for working in the kitchen.
“I got £12 a week as the hospital orderly, but if you went to education you only got £8. I wrote to the home secretary and said, ‘This is ridiculous. The one thing you should be paying properly for is education.’ I won that battle. It’s now equal pay.”
For a year after he was released, Archer was obliged to regularly check in with the probation service in Lambeth. He says he received no special treatment from the probation officer. “She stuck to the routine!” he exclaims. “She had this list of questions that she had to ask normal prisoners, and she asked them: ‘Have you got somewhere to live?’ ‘Have you got enough money?’ ‘Do you need any help?’
“I thought, ‘Lady, I don’t want to say I’m one of the richest men in this country, but my butler’s waiting for me to come home.’ I had to play along, because if you don’t play along, they’re offended. The interview was meant to last an hour, and always ended in 11 minutes.
“It became a farce. My chauffeur would take me and wait outside. I’d have my hour, get into the BMW and drive away. It was ludicrous.”
One of the biggest surprises to come out of the prison experience for Archer was that his diaries were comparatively well-reviewed in the literary pages of serious newspapers. He suddenly received “wide critical acclaim, having never had any before”, he says. “In this country,” he quickly adds. “I’ve always had acclaim abroad.”
The diaries have qualities that are lacking from his fiction. They possess a despairing, well-mannered verity, a surprised, bored curiosity. In prison, where every man is a liar, Jeffrey Archer learned to tell the truth.
Archer’s penthouse is decorated, with typically unfettered ambition, in the style of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, an ornate eyrie for proud, czarist eagles. “It used to be all white,” he says, “and Mary and I went to the Hermitage about three years ago and I said to my man who does that sort of thing, ‘I want the same as the Hermitage, the same gold and the same green.’ Mary said, ‘It won’t work’, but I think it works beautifully.”
Mary, his wife of 40 years, is repeatedly acknowledged. Archer wears a signet ring bearing their entwined initials, embedded with ruby for their ruby wedding anniversary. She is usually cited as the brains of the couple, and its spine, and occasionally as the writer of Archer’s books. An academic chemist, she avoids the press like a butler. She has never publicly left Archer, and the most prominent of his political friends have not abandoned him, either. The new guard Tories, the clean Cameronians, keep their distance, but he still sees both of the prime ministers under whom he served – John Major and Margaret Thatcher, whom he calls “that remarkable woman”.
Archer and Mary recently took Thatcher to lunch. “She’s an old lady,” says Archer. “She’s 82. As she left this time, Mary put her arm around her and helped her into the car. She wouldn’t have touched her 15 years ago. You’d have stood three paces away.”
Archer’s Hermitage holds a private gallery of his art collection, including many Australian paintings, mainly by Arthur Boyd and Rupert Bunny. He has other Boyds and Sidney Nolans in Cambridge and, he says, “I’ve got four Bunnys in the bedroom.”
That sounds like something Hugh Hefner might claim… “Yeah,” says Archer.
He shows me to a small chamber where four little Edouard Vuillards, a Walter Sickert, a Charles Camoin, a Corot and a Renoir hang in formation. It turns out to be the guest lavatory.
At the last minute, I remember I have not asked Archer about Lording. Does he do much of it these days?
“Lording?” he says. “Lordy lordy! Not now. We’re in opposition. It takes an awful lot of time, you know. You sit there for hours in debates and voting, and don’t do anything.”
Ever courteous, Archer shows me to the lift door, where Craig-the-publicity-shy-butler is waiting with my jacket. What do I do now? A pox on my dreary background! Should I take the coat from him, or allow him to hold it while I wriggle into the sleeves? What if a grey paper storm of scrunched ticket stubs, receipts and business cards scrawled with phone numbers falls from my gaping pockets? Luckily, Craig does everything for me, wrapping me in leather like a nervy, twisting parcel.
I leave Lord Archer feeling charmed, slightly bamboozled, and ever so common.
MARK DAPIN | GOOD WEEKEND, 2008