INTERVIEW / First among incorrigibles: It'll be a good year for Lord Archer: every year is. Another book is sure to sell, who knows what politics will bring . . . and if it's disappointment, he might just bounce back
It has been his first full year as a Lord, so that's been jolly interesting, and once again he has ended it as Britain's best-selling novelist. Last year, goodness knows what went wrong, but Jilly Cooper pipped him. In 1993, his Honour Among Thieves has thumped the opposition. So well done, Jeffrey.
Not content with my humble congrats, he commanded his secretary, Diana, somewhere up in the heavens, to bring down a book-trade score sheet. He was in his penthouse by the Thames, nasty building on the outside, but once on top, wow, what a panorama. His main room is about the size of the Albert Hall, hung with well-chosen paintings by Picasso, Vuillard, Bonnard, Pissarro, Lowry, and includes a minstrel's gallery, containing his office. Diana, well-bred girl, chic in her red blazer, came down with the sales sheet.
'Look,' boomed Jeffrey, 'I also finished the year as No 1 in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.'
Not, er, the US? 'Not quite, but I was No 1 for a while during the year. I don't live there, you see, so they don't know me as well. On the UK lists, you will note that Mrs Thatcher is only No 2.' Grin, grin. 'But that's a cheat. She's in the non-fiction list, I'm in fiction. My hardback score was 212,OOO, the first hardback novel ever to beat 200,000, while Margaret has sold 325,000. So she's well and truly beaten me.'
To achieve this enviable position, Jeffrey embarked on a nationwide tour of Britain, then five weeks round the United States, Japan and Australia, notching up 17 cities in 21 days, pressing the flesh, pushing his product. In Sydney, he had breakfast one morning with 609 people. 'Two days running, actually.' He loves these sort of figures.
In a way, it's a mark of failure, don't you think? He eyed me carefully over his early morning cup of Bovril. The smell made me think I was on the Kop, not chateau Archer. Jeffrey is used to being got at. His special glare was at the ready, making me explain myself.
Well, if you're so rich, so successful, so popular, why are you still doing mammoth publicity tours? Graham Greene never did them.
'And Graham Greene never got to No 1 in the New York Times - though he's a far better writer than me.'
Yes, but surely you would still sell in millions, without all that faffing around. I did a US publicity tour once, an interesting experience, but once was enough.
'Then perhaps you're a layabout, which I am certainly not. I owe it to my publishers to work hard for each book. If I didn't do it, I might sell 20 per cent less, but I want to be No 1. I'm very competitive. It's not a crime to try and sell more than your rivals.'
His year in the Lords had a slow beginning. Yes, of course he is a world-class speaker, but even he had to suss them out. 'Whether it's Hull or the House of Lords, the vital thing is to understand the audience. I know now that the Lords like good manners and they don't like a Commons speech.'
His biggest triumph of the year was at the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool. 'You don't have to quote me giving you the figures,' he said, beaming, talking at dictation speed, 'you can easily look it up yourself, you lazy blighter, but my speech lasted nine minutes, three minutes and 30 seconds of which was applause and standing ovation. You might want to mention what Norman Fowler said about me, in your words, of course. He said he didn't like speaking on the same day as Jeffrey Archer - or even in the same week] And, of course, Margaret said I am 'the most popular speaker in England' . . .'
Jeffrey, you are incorrigible. No wonder you have charmed those millions of Tory party workers.
And yet he's not quite predictable. He would like, for example, to have the House of Lords reformed. 'I think it is time to reconsider the hereditary principle. I think there should be a second chamber, call them lords or whatever, the titles don't matter, consisting of the Great and the Good, people who don't have to be elected but are appointed. The Labour Party plans to reform the Lords totally, so we should get in first. We are the natural radical party. We had the first Jewish PM, the first bachelor, the first woman, the first to leave school at 16 . . .'
He is still a close friend of John Major and of Baroness Thatcher, perhaps the only person who might have lunch and dinner with each on the same day. He will not hear a bad word against either. 'It's been a great year for John Major, a turning point for him. It began at Blackpool, then there was his Gatt triumph and Northern Ireland. What you must realise is that he does not accept the status quo. He wants to change things.'
Their friendship goes back many years. 'Six years ago, when I was about to sign my three-book contract, I let him see it. He was very helpful.' But he doesn't know about book contracts. He was a banker. It sounds like showing off, letting him see you were getting dollars 30m for three books.
'Of course, he wasn't looking at the publishing clauses. He was Secretary of State at the Treasury, so his advice was about spreading out the money, from a tax and inflation standpoint.'
By now, Jeffrey will be at his Cambridge home, finishing off the last of those three books, a collection of short stories called Twelve Red Herrings. He'll go to the folly at the bottom of his garden, writing away from 6-8, 10-12, 2-4, 6-8, going to bed at 10.
The new book will be out in July, will chalk up mega sales, and no doubt clever clogs will say it's either not literature or it's so good, he must have had help. 'I've had people for years saying my editor writes them. I've had five different editors, so that disproves that theory. If you are successful, people will be envious.'
What about that other oft-heard accusation, Jeffrey, that you can be economical with the truth, improving your educational background, for example? 'All rubbish. I have put Wellington School in Who's Who for 27 years.' He says these petty attacks don't really worry him, that he is above feeling bitter or twisted, but, of course, if anything serious is said about him, such as that he was once a bankrupt - which he never was - then he is quick to sue.
'If you choose to walk upon the public stage, you have to expect oranges to be thrown at you. But let me tell you, everywhere I go, the man in the street shouts, 'Good on you, Jeff, you got up and fought back.' ' He leans forward, the better for
me to appreciate his cockney accent, which is appalling.
One of the personal pleasures of his year was son James, 20, winning a Blue at Oxford. He is reading chemistry - his mother's subject - at Brasenose, and runs the 800 metres. 'Max Beloff held James in his arms at his christening and said 'We must pray he has his mother's looks - and his mother's brains'. If he trains hard, he might even become an international; that would be my ambition for him. I think his mother would rather see him run less and get a First.'
James went to Eton while his older brother, William, 22, went to Rugby. William is now at Georgetown University in the US, reading art history and Spanish. Did he not try Oxbridge? 'No, he wanted to get away. It was his choice.'
They are very different in character. James, according to his father, is streetwise, with a commercial instinct, while William is more arty, more committed and has worked with Mother Teresa. 'James is a bit of a barrow boy. He printed some T-shirts for a charity, which cost him pounds 2,000. He's almost got his money back, but not quite, I'm pleased to say. If he had, he might have thought making money was easy. James, what's the wording on your T-shirts?'
James had arisen and was passing through the Albert Hall at that moment. A short, stocky, amused-looking boy, like his father in physique, his mother in looks. 'No added additives,' he said, proceeding on his way.
I asked if the sons would inherit the Archer millions. 'I'd like the paintings to go to Brasenose, but they will need to find a place to display them. My political cartoons I think I'll leave to the House of Commons.'
Yes, but the dosh. You're not going to leave that to your sons, are you? You said one is commercial and the other prefers a simple life. Leaving them millions could spoil their lives. 'I do expect that if I live till I am 80, James will be wealthier than I am now, by his own exertions. He won't need a penny. But, of course, I will leave them something. I'm not against inherited wealth, though Mary and I come from humble families. We never had it easy. As Mary often says, there is no disadvantage in starting with a disadvantage.'
Jeffrey and Mary have been married 28 years. The switchbacks in his own life have been dramatic, but she herself has metamorphosed, emerging from her academic shell into a public figure, a director of Anglia TV, serving on commissions, working for Lloyd's. 'It was always clear she had a first-class mind, and it's been my privilege to live with that woman for 28 years, but I didn't realise how she would develop at the age of 40, branching out into so many things.'
In Who's Who, under education, Jeffrey has written 'by my wife'. In the penthouse hall, as you come in, there is a printed notice which says 'Our paintings would prefer it if you did not smoke]' Very arch, very Archer. His humour is rather quaint and childlike. And he doesn't swear. Never?
'The other day after a meeting a man came up and said he'd heard me once, putting a heckler in order, by telling him to fuck off. I said in that case you are mistaken, it wasn't me. I never swear.'
What if you are really annoyed, and in the privacy of your own home? 'The worst I would say is 'damn'. Diana, have you ever heard me swear?'
'No,' came Diana's disembodied reply.
'Diana, how long have you been with me?'
'Since April 1991.'
James reappeared, doing another lap around the house. 'James, have you ever heard me swear?'
'Only when you quoted the Prime Minister saying 'Bastards'.'
Jeffrey will not watch anything on television with bad language, which means he mainly watches old black and white movies. 'I love them, but sometimes, late at night, trying to find one, I come across killings and terrible things, so I keep flicking.
'I don't mind you calling me nave. I'd hate to be called a cynic. I'd prefer to be a nave, enthusiastic person who achieved something than a cynic who did nothing.'
Yes, but apart from your books - and no more sales figures, please - you haven't really achieved much. An MP at 29, that was very good, deputy chairman of the party, very impressive. Yet you haven't held high office. At 53, you still have a chance, with your chum in command, but if you never make it, won't you be pretty cheesed off?
'I did always have great hopes when I was younger. I am more relaxed about such things today. But yes, you're right, if it never happens, I will be disappointed. It would feel like a political failure. I have, of course, had the privilege of serving in the House, and serving the party, and if you asked most cabinet ministers, they would say they would rather have a book at No 1 in the New York Times. That's been said to me several times.'
As a tease? 'All right then, to tease me.'
Would you like to be chairman of the party? 'We have a perfectly good chairman at the moment . . .'
Of course. What's the attraction of political office anyway? Why not be content with what you have?
'I'd give up everything for politics. It's the only thing in life where you have to give all your energy. And if you succeed, there is nothing like the satisfaction of feeling you have done some good.
'But if it doesn't happen, I won't complain. I am not a grumbler, never have been. And if it doesn't happen, I won't blame the Prime Minister. Have you got that, Hunter? I WILL STILL SAY HE IS A BRILLIANT PRIME MINISTER - BECAUSE HE IS]'
Roger and out, Jeffrey.
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