The Archers entertain a few close friends . . .: . . . and a crowd of peers, writers and ministers. The champagne flowed freely, the conversation perhaps less so. James Cusick reports

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The Independent Online
THERE was only one real topic of conversation in Lord Archer's Cambridgeshire garden yesterday. Samuel Johnson once said that when the English meet, their first talk is of the weather. The great and the good at play in the Old Vicarage, Grantchester, chatting under the summer sun and the splendid white marquees, would not have disappointed Dr Johnson.

It was Jeffrey and Mary's annual wedding anniversary garden party. On Friday, as Flambe's of London, the caterers, made their final buffet selections, and the Riverside jazz band sorted out their Dixieland numbers, Lord Archer told the Independent 'It'll mostly be our friends.'

The friends, just ordinary folk and a prime minister, began arriving at midday. Would they be discussing 'Cheap at Half the Price' - one of the short stories in Lord Archer's new book, Twelve Red Herrings? Maybe. Would they discuss the impending Cabinet reshuffle? Perhaps. Would they discuss the DTI investigation of Lord Archer over alleged insider dealing in Anglia TV shares? One could only guess.

Looking under the brims of the Panama hats at the Garrick and MCC ties, the curious spectators were treated to a Who's Who march-past. Fleet Street editors, noble lords, Cabinet ministers on a day off and a sensible sprinkling of literary personalities, mingled in the garden of 'probably the greatest storyteller of our age' as the dust-jacket of Lord Archer's latest novel reminds us.

As the champagne corks popped, John Major emerged chatting to the noble host with a half-pint mug of beer. The PM, like most guests, ignored summer shirt-sleeve order. In his usual blue suit, white shirt and tie, Mr Major looked dressed for an unexpected summit. If one cropped up, he could take instant advice from fellow guests such as Sir Norman Fowler, Virginia Bottomley, John Gummer, John MacGregor, Lord Parkinson, Lord Tebbit and Lord Howe. Only the former Foreign Office minister Tristan Garel-Jones had left his blazer on the back benches in favour of a daring pinkish polo shirt. But then he has always been seen as a little more Continental than many of his colleagues.

The Archers have owned the Old Vicarage since 1979. The old house is the setting for Rupert Brooke's most famous poem, written in 1912, three years before the poet died while serving in the Great War.

Three weeks ago the Old Vicarage had less distinguished guests. As part of Grantchester's open gardens day Lord Archer was on hand to retail his own home- made wine and honey. His village neighbour, Alison Woollatt, thought the place was wonderful. As she arrived in front of Lord Archer, he shouted out: 'Come on, last jar of honey.' Mrs Woollatt thought she'd better get in quick. With a laugh, she said: 'As I left I saw Lord Archer bring out another three jars. Ever so cheeky.'

Next door to the distinguished party, the Orchard tea rooms and garden were busy. Mary Archer's book on Rupert Brooke was for sale next to the scones and sandwiches. The book ponders the meaning of the famous last lines of the vicarage poem:

The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh] yet

Stands the Church clock at ten to three?

And is there honey still for tea?

Photograph: Page 2

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