Jeffrey Archer: ‘It’s like being a pop star’
The bestselling novelist, politician and convicted perjurer has been bowled over by his reception in India. What’s his appeal down to? Being a lifelong feminist
Jeffrey Archer: “I thought putting me in prison was a silly waste of time.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
‘How many years since you stopped smoking?” Jeffrey Archer, blockbuster author, former politician, multimillionaire and ex-con, asks the young hotel receptionist who has just brought him his phone and glasses from his room.
“Three,” she says.
“You’ve four to go,” he says cheerfully. “It takes seven years to clear the system.”
“My wife makes me tell beautiful women to stop smoking,” he explains to me as the young woman stands there. “A third of the people in her hospital” – Mary Archer has just retired as chairwoman of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust – “ have smoking-related diseases.”
Archer, a whirlwind of septuagenarian energy, likes to take things and people in hand. He takes the young woman from reception in hand. He takes the interview location in hand. “This is a bit busy,” he says of the bar I’m sitting in when he arrives, before repositioning us in the bigger room next door. The chair by the table is too hot, he says, and moves seats once more.
He takes me in hand. When he hears I have aspirations to write a novel, he scolds me – “Well, Patrick, are you going to do it or just talk about it?” – and repeatedly comes back to it. “Don’t spend the rest of your life saying, ‘I could have written the best novel if I hadn’t been working night and day.’ ”
As he tells it, he even took the prison system in hand during the two years he spent incarcerated, from 2001 to 2003, for perjuring himself when he sued the Daily Star in 1987. (It had claimed he’d paid for sex.) He ran the prison’s hospital, gave prisoners advice, lobbied for changes to the system and even operated a weekly salon of sorts. “I had teas on Sunday afternoon at the hospital,” he says. “I used to invite people I thought were interesting, and matron would make crumpets.”
Archer’s new book, Best Kept Secret , the latest in the Clifton Chronicles series, is selling very well.
“It’s already sold 31,000 copies,” he says. “They rang me at the airport. They’re very happy bunnies. Number one in the Sunday Times this Sunday. It’s number one in Smith’s. It’s number one in Tesco.”
He taps out each beat on his fingers. “Thirty-one thousand puts you at the top two or three in the world . . . Last week James Patterson sold 8,000. I wiped him out.”
Figures just lodge in his brain, he says. He can tell you the sales figures for each of his books, how much everything in his art collection is worth and what he’s made from theatre investments (a return of about 0.5 per cent a year). He can even tell you how much he made as an infant luggage handler in Weston-super-Mare.
“I’d take people’s luggage from the station to their houses in a pram. I was seven or eight. I made 30 shillings in three weeks,” he says proudly. “I was always a fan of free enterprise.”
This entrepreneurial spirit was why he joined the Tory party rather than Labour. It’s also why he wrote his debut, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less , during a period of near bankruptcy in the mid 1970s. “I couldn’t get a job and stupidly thought writing would get me out of my problems. Fourteen publishers turned it down, and the 15th gave me £3,000.”
His books are psychologically light, plot-heavy narratives filled with melodramatic revelations, lavish lifestyles and dastardly villains. They are ripping yarns that sell very well. If they didn’t, he’s not sure he would write at all. He is only slightly concerned about the lack of critical acclaim, concluding that storytelling is an underestimated craft among the literati.
Any Irish blood?
“I always remember in this city, years ago, I was walking down O’Connell Street and there was a tramp sitting in the corner, and he said” – Archer does a passable Irish accent – ‘It’s lovely to see you, Jeffrey. Is there any Irish blood in you?’
“I said, ‘Not that I’m aware of. I would love there to be, but I cannot pretend there is. Why do you ask?’
“ ‘Because you’re a seanachaí! There has to be Irish blood in you.’
“So I rushed off to ask what a seanachaí was, and since then, when asked, I say I’m a storyteller.”
The Indians appreciate storytelling, apparently. He’s a bestseller worldwide but a superstar in India. “Three thousand people come to see me speak in India,” he says. “The average age is 18 or 19, and they’re all girls. It’s like being a pop star. You walk in and they start screaming. Tell me what that’s about?
“Fifty million people have read Kane and Abel in India. They’ve made two Bollywood films of my books, unofficially. Half the books are pirated. But if you asked, ‘Would you rather one million people had read you and you got all the money or 50 million had read you?’ I’d go with the 50 million.”
The only reason he can think of for his Indian success is that, at a time when gender issues are to the fore in India, they might appreciate his “long-time commitment to women’s rights”.
Yes, you read that correctly. Archer believes this latent feminism is clear throughout his work. To be fair, he made a statement to the Indian press at the end of a recent book tour that “ ‘there will always be stupid men who don’t realise women are equal’. And they printed it in every paper. A 12-year-old girl came up and said, ‘I’ve written a novel, and I’m going to replace you.’ And I brought her up on stage, and I said, ‘Don’t tell me, tell the audience,’ and they cheered her and cheered her.”
He doesn’t think this commitment to equality should come as a surprise. “You live with my wife, had my mother and work for Margaret Thatcher, how could you think anything else? . . . Mary once said she looked forward to the day when mediocre women took over the jobs currently held by mediocre men.”
His active political career came to an end with the perjury scandal and his stint in prison. “I slept three weeks on a wing with 21 murderers, and when I asked why, they said, ‘This is the safest place. You don’t want to be with the young hooligans. They scream all night and might even attack you, but the murderers won’t touch you.’ ”
He talks about this period a little as though it were a spell working with a charity. He’s still in touch with two of his former prisonmates. He has just received a letter from one who has just finished a master’s degree. He’s a huge advocate of prison education.
Boredom led him to write his bestselling prison diaries and to volunteer in the prison hospital. “I took over the hospital,” he says. “The doctors came to me and said, ‘We don’t have a manager. You be the manager!’ They’d never had a manager. So I ran it for them, and they loved it.”
He got on reasonably well with his fellow prisoners, his role in the hospital earning him a certain amount of respect. “I couldn’t hit anyone, but they were terrified of my tongue.”
They opened up to him and told him stories, some of which ended up in his postprison writings. He found most of them to be untrustworthy narrators, though, and he met only one man he felt really shouldn’t have been there – apart from himself, of course. “I thought putting me in prison was a silly waste of time.”
Champagne and shepherd’s pie
It’s all behind him now. “We held our champagne-and-shepherd’s-pie party the year after I came out, and the press said no one would turn up. But everyone did.”
He has since had, he says, a great decade. He believes his charity work and book sales have done a lot to rehabilitate him.
He still has a vigorous writing routine. He writes for eight hours a day in two-hour bursts and produces a book a year. Three years ago he committed to writing the Clifton Chronicles, an entertaining century-long epic centred on a familiarly suave novelist called Harry Clifton who at one point is jailed for a crime he did not commit.
“I committed to the series because I was terrified of drifting,” says Archer. “I have enough money, obviously. My wife and family are stable. I have everything I want. There’s nothing you can give me.” He pauses for a moment and chuckles. “Though there are paintings I would happily steal.”
In person he is extremely confident, mildly bossy and unfailingly polite. He roots around his Kindle for the name of an author he thinks I’d like, asks the receptionist to fetch his phone to show me a painting he’s bought and brings me to the lobby to look at a Paul Henry painting he’s impressed by.
He’s charming and likeable. He’s also a convicted perjurer for whom everything has turned out quite well. “I have had a wonderful life,” he beams.
What does he think when people say his life has mirrored the melodrama of his books?
“I think that’s true,” he says.
Does he feel responsible for the ups and downs in his life?
“Sometimes, but everyone has ups and downs . . . Mine are just public.”
What does he feel about his reputation as someone untrustworthy? “My closest friends are some of the most admired people in the world,” he says. “Why is that? Those are the perceptions of people who’ve never met me or dealt with me.”
What does he think his flaws are?
He laughs. “Mind your own business.”
“That could be my last line,” I say.
“Said with humour!” he says and grins.