For almost 10 years, from 1949 to 1958, the citizens of Weston-super-Mare were treated to Lola Archer's weekly column in the Weston Mercury, entitled 'Over the Teacups: News and Jottings for Women'. There, tucked away among the dress patterns, recipes for cheese scones and interviews with local vicars, is a rich seam of 'Archery', a gold mine of references and anecdotes about the young Jeffrey as he was growing up. Such contemporary notes are likely to be far more accurate than relatives' and friends' dim and confused memories 45 years on.
Though the column is still widely remembered in Weston, and occasionally mentioned by Archer himself, until recently no journalist or biographer seems to have bothered to read his mother's weekly jottings.
Not once does Lola refer to her son by his Christian name; he's introduced as Tuppence. From the moment he first appears, in July 1949, she obviously sees him as Weston-super-Mare's answer to 'Just William'. Like the Richmal Crompton character, Tuppence's imagination runs riot, and just as in later years, he's always getting into scrapes:
16 July 1949 - 'As I wended my way home I was hailed by an untidy little urchin, looking exactly like one of the dead-end kids, who shouted: 'Hey, Mummy, I haven't time for any lunch today, so I took some honey and biscuits. I've got to get back and guard my den because I am expecting an invasion this afternoon'.'
In one of her best passages, Lola describes the trials of the successive hobbies Tuppence adopts during each school holiday. On his 10th birthday, it is philately:
15 April 1950 - 'Stamps are to be found in every room adhering to chairs, tables, rugs, even walls, and small pieces of sticky paper, though often proving highly inefficient when merely expected to hold one small stamp in the album, grow powers of leech-like pertinacity when coming into contact with one's shoes or clothes.
'Every holiday my son throws himself wholeheartedly into a hobby. At Christmas it was trains; he demanded one penny every day for a platform ticket and lived on the station. It wasn't until the dirt became ingrained in him that I suggested even marbles might be an improvement.
'The time before that he collected cigarette packets One unheard of brand he particularly wanted and couldn't get either by fair means or foul, caused him to enlist my aid, and I found myself surreptitiously watching the gutters in all my walks in the hope that somebody had dropped one. Somebody did, to my extreme joy (it was by then a point of honour that I didn't let my son down), so I promptly picked it up, a perfectly clean, 20 carton, and then to my embarrassment came face to face with one of Weston's VIPs. She eyed me kindly, with a faintly astonished sort of 'My dear, if I'd known you were that hard up I would have bought you a packet,' look. Any explanation would I felt, be quite useless, so I hurried home with my prize, knowing that its reception would amply make up for everything. 'Oh, that' said Tuppence, 10 minutes later when I handed it to him, 'I've had that one for ages, still it might do to swop.' '
Turning the pages of the Weston Mercury is like a high-speed film of the young Archer growing up. Week by week emerge those particular characteristics for which the subject would become famous.
3 June 1950 - 'For some months now, Tuppence has begged me to let him cook his own breakfast. Last Sunday I gave in and he went to work with bacon, eggs, fried bread etc and finally sat down to a charred mass which, if I had dared to put it in front of him, would have been rejected. However, he ate it manfully and then got ready for church. Shortly after his pal called for him, and I heard Tuppence say, with extreme nonchalance, 'Nothing but work, work, work, in this house. This morning I had to get up and cook my own breakfast'.'
9 March 1951 - 'Much to my surprise he came straight home from school one day last week, stood truculently on the doorstep, said he must go to the barber and could he have a shilling. Taking his cap off to see if it were such an urgent matter, I realised that there wasn't much left for the barber to do.
'Tuppence looked like a Trappist monk on one side and a shaggy dog on the other. He and his pals, I learnt, had spent an exhilarating playtime cutting each other's hair, and whoever trimmed my son's head had done so in a spirit of surrealist abandon. Seeing I was taking the whole thing very calmly, Tuppence smiled broadly and said very virtuously, 'If I've saved you a shilling, can I have 6d of it to spend?' '
13 April 1951 - 'Tuppence went out last week as a member of the YMCA Cubs bob-a-jobbing. He tracked down a drapery store manager, who marked his card 'For a cheerful smile, 2s 6d.' It wasn't all quite as easy as that - someone got him to buy four pounds of potatoes and peel them, and somebody else had him on his hands and knees scrubbing. The entry that time, in Tuppence's handwriting read, 'Scrubing flors,' with a little aside to the effect that he was worn out. When he totalled up he had 62s 6d.'
What must have been agonising for the young Jeffrey were the occasions when Lola sought advice on how to treat her son. What was the right bedtime for a 13-year-old? Until he was 11, readers learnt, he'd gone to bed at seven o'clock every night, accepting it 'without argument' she tries to convince us. Worse still was the time Lola asked whether three shillings was enough pocket money.
20 July 1951 - 'What do you give your children and what does their allowance cover? My son has the idea that most children get at least 10 shillings a week, and that I am very mean. It seems to me that three shillings today should adequately take the place of the penny we had. What do you think?' The future millionaire would have been dismayed by the response. Nobody thought 10 shillings was a good idea. 'Your 10-year-old is doing very well indeed,' one reader replied. Another suggested it should be made clear that his three shillings had to pay for the following - 'Sunday collection, sweets, ices, comic paper or magazine, birthday and Christmas presents'.
But Lola seems to have ignored her readers' advice, especially when Jeffrey went off to become a boarder at Wellington School.
16 May 1952 - 'We both survived the ordeal of a gentlemanly parting. As we nonchalantly shook hands, I suddenly saw him as a small angel turned out (far too young) into a cruel world. The fact that 10 minutes earlier he had stung me for a cricket ball, some extra tuck, and a little ready cash over and above his allowance was soon forgotten.'
Sadly, with Jeffrey away at school, entries become rarer and within a year or two he is no longer mentioned at all. One of the last references concerns a family discussion about what they'd do if they suddenly came into some money.
4 September 1953 - 'We asked Tuppence what he would do. 'Well,' he said, 'I should buy a partnership in a ginger pop firm, and I should drink as much as I liked, and I wouldn't add any water'.'
Many children would die of embarrassment if their parents wrote such stories about them in the local paper, detailing their every misdemeanour. But Tuppence didn't seem to mind being being poked fun at; just as today, he loves the limelight, and revels in his local fame.
One of his few childhood friends, Michael Taudevin, first met Archer at a local children's club, then came across him again some time later down by the beach: 'Up from behind the sea wall pops a frantic little figure, with imitation guns blazing, shouting 'bang, bang, you're dead] You remember me - Tuppence, Junior Arts Club. We were caught together under the stage playing chase]'
'He saw himself as a celebrity even then,' says Taudevin, 'he was brimful of confidence and assumed everybody ought to know him because of what his mother wrote in the paper, but ask any local youth and they would say 'Oh, that bighead'. It was a wrong view because he was a very down-to-earth and likeable chap with a burning zeal for life and an equal desire to be best.'
Michael's sister, Jill Taudevin, now Jill Fisher, was Jeffrey's first love, though sadly it was unrequited. 'She was fair and slim and I worshipped her from afar,' Archer revealed recently. 'I would slowly cycle up and down outside her house, hoping for a glimpse of her.' He first fell in love with Jill when a party of schoolchildren from Weston-super-Mare went to stay near Paris in 1954. But she simply wasn't interested, though naturally he persisted. On their return to Weston, Jeffrey stopped going to his own church on Sundays, and attended hers instead.
In the summer of 1955, the 15-year-old Archer sent a postcard to Jill from an outward bound school in Aberdovey where he was being made to do strenuous 35-mile walks. He signed it 'Love from Mr Universe (Bluebottle)'.
Michael Crick's biography of Jeffrey Archer will be published by Hamish Hamilton next year.Reuse content