Onwards, upwards, sometimes downwards

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WHO IS Jeffrey Archer? Answer: he is Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, novelist and Tory party glad-hander and fundraiser, a friend of the Prime Minister, and until last week the grassroots favourite to succeed Sir Norman Fowler as Tory party chairman. But where does he come from? Why is his career such a close marriage of triumph and disaster?

In 1974, on the verge of bankruptcy, he resigned as Conservative MP for Louth in Lincolnshire. In 1985, Margaret Thatcher appointed him as the party's deputy chairman, despite alleged words of warning from Willie Whitelaw, the party's senior statesman, that he was 'an accident waiting to happen'. In 1986, he arranged for a prostitute who had been set up by the News of the World to be paid pounds 2,000 in unused pounds 50 notes at a rendezvous in Victoria station. When the story was published he resigned as deputy chairman, but a year later he successfully sued Express newspapers over an allegation that he had slept with the same prostitute. The damages, pounds 500,000, were then the largest in British legal history. John Major made him a life peer in 1992. On Thursday, after some weeks of press speculation about his chances of the party chairmanship or even ministerial office, the Department of Trade named him in connection with its investigation into alleged insider trading.

Perhaps he is a man who has enemies; perhaps the worst of them is himself. The piece below is abridged from an article first published in the London Review of Books. I covered the Archer libel trial and, like several other journalists, became intrigued by the gaps and opacities (none of them raised at the trial itself) in Archer's early life. Few of these small mysteries were answered by the biography of Archer by Jonathan Mantle published in 1988. A new, still to be published biography by Michael Crick may be more successful. Until then, the questions deserve to be asked.

THE ARCHER libel case in July 1987 had everything its audience could want. A loyal wife in Mary Archer. A weeping prostitute in Monica Coghlan. An un-English 'sneak' in the shape of the prosperous Pakistani lawyer, Aziz Kurtha, from whom the original story had come. But most of all it had Mr Justice Caulfield, whose summing-up contained sentences that quickly passed through the High Court door and into folklore. He asked the jury to ponder the character of Archer and his wife. First, Mary Archer, scientist, Anglican chorister and mother of two children:

'Remember Mary Archer in the witness box. Your vision of her probably will never disappear. Has she elegance? Has she fragrance? Would she have, without the stain of this trial, radiance? What is she like in physical features, in presentation, in appearance? How would she appeal? Has she been able to enjoy rather than endure her husband, Jeffrey? Is she right when she says to you, you may think with delicacy, 'Jeffrey and I lead a full life'?'

Then Jeffrey Archer, Oxonian, millionaire novelist and father of two children:

'Look at him. What is his history? His history, you might think, is worthy and healthy and sporting - which is ordinary. A great tribute of the British is their almost adoration . . . of good lawful sports like cricket and athletics. Jeffrey Archer himself was president of the Oxford University Athletic Club. He ran for his country. You may think he is fit-looking and you may think he is still interested in an athletic life. Is he in need of cold, unloving, rubber-insulated sex in a seedy hotel round about quarter-to-one on a Tuesday morning, after an evening at the Caprice with his agent or editor?'

The jury decided not. Archer was awarded costs and pounds 500,000, then the largest libel damages in British legal history. Thereafter husband and wife appeared as a loyal and happy couple - vindicated, wiped clean of the smears of the tabloid press. We have seen Mary on the BBC's religious hour, choosing her favourite hymns for Cliff Michelmore, indeed conducting some of them. We have seen Jeffrey pretty well everywhere. Chat shows, quiz shows, sport shows, by-elections, general elections: Jeffrey bounds through them all. What does he tell us of himself? That he attended public school and Oxford, where he still holds the record for the 100-yard dash; that he loves cricket and ardently supports Somerset (here he may affect a Zummerset accent): that he referees school rugby in the shirt of the Achilles Club; that hard work and getting off his backside have made him what he is (anyone can do it); that he lives in Rupert Brooke's home, the Old Vicarage, Grantchester. He has also, we are aware, some kind of yeoman, military ancestry (the archers at Crecy). You might say that he purveys a kind of Englishness that protests too much, as though it had been devised by a German spy while his parachute was coming down to land.

So let us ask, together with Mr Justice Caulfield: 'What is his history?'

The best summary of the difficulties facing an Archer biographer came from the lips of Mary Archer herself, when she observed some years ago to Russell Miller of the Sunday Times Magazine that her husband had 'a gift for inaccurate precis'. Laurence Marks (who now writes for the Independent on Sunday) elaborated on this aside in one of his excellent unsigned profiles for the Observer in 1984:

'All good raconteurs ornament the truth. Archer's technique is more radical. The facts of the story are usually true (more or less), but they have been dismantled, new roles allocated, details dramatised as dialogue and then reassembled again. It is, so to speak, the Cubist school of table-talk; the effect is striking but somewhat lacking in verisimilitude.'

An Archer investigator, therefore, needs to be a Heinrich Schliemann in the cuttings libraries, as well as a Philip Marlowe of the Army List and old postal directories.

ARCHER'S father presents the first difficulty. Archer's first biographer, Jonathan Mantle, tells us that he died in Weston- super-Mare in 1955, when Archer was 15. But who was he and what did he do? Newspaper interviews with Archer offer a choice. According to Terry Coleman in the Guardian of 21 July 1973, Archer senior served 'in the Royal Engineers and then in the diplomatic service, and was once British consul in Singapore'. According to the International Herald Tribune of 4 May 1980, he was 'an army officer who went through the fall of Singapore - 'a very clever but physically depleted worn- out man', Archer said'. According to the Observer of 10 July 1984, 'he won a Distinguished Conduct Medal as a sergeant in the Somerset Light Infantry in 1914'.

It was Laurence Marks who dug up the last of these career alternatives. Marks had interviewed Archer and then thought he should check his father's precise status in the Army. The answer from the regimental archivist produced that small thrill that journalists experience when they find their quarry's social origins are humbler than previously assumed. Aha, not an officer but a sergeant] Alas, he'd been given the wrong scent.

One William Archer did indeed serve as a sergeant in the Somerset Light Infantry and he did win a DCM. In 1986, his grandson sent his photographs to the regimental archive. In 1987, the regimental secretary, Lt-Col Ronald Woodhouse, told Geoffrey Levy of the Daily Mail, 'I am positive now that Sergeant Archer is in no way related to Jeffrey Archer, the author and politician'. (In September 1992, according to Jonathan Mantle in yesterday's Daily Mail, Lord Archer was expelled from the Distinguished Conduct Medal League of Great Britain 'because he had misled them into believing his father had won the decoration, thus entitling him to associate membership'.) As for Archer the officer and consul, a trail through the Army and Diplomatic Lists fails to reveal any trace of a W R Archer, other than a lieutenant of that name who served in the Ulster Territorials in the 1940s and 1950s after a short career as a 'war substantive' major in 1945-46. Why, in any case, would a British colony such as Singapore need a British consul?

What we know for certain is that Jeffrey Howard Archer was born on 15 April 1940, at 102 City Road, London, then the City of London Maternity Hospital. His birth certificate shows that his father, William Robert Archer, lived at 48 Highbury Grove, then a north London boarding house owned by a Mrs Rhoda Bowness. His occupation is given as 'journalist'. The mother, Lola Howard Archer, lived separately at a now vanished address in Southwark - 18 Nelson Square - which was bombed later that year. It was she who registered her son's birth at Finsbury Register Office more than a month later, on 17 May.

Later in 1940 - perhaps to escape the Blitz - the family moved to Weston-super-Mare, the Somerset seaside resort, where Mantle says that neighbours 'for some reason knew the father as Captain Archer, a retiring sort of man, later bent double with back pain'. According to Mantle, the family was hard-up. Mrs Archer supplemented the sparse family income with a column - 'Over the Teacups' - in the Weston Mercury. None the less, in 1951 Jeffrey went as a boarder to Wellington School, Somerset (not to be confused with the more famous Wellington College, Berkshire, though Archer has rarely corrected any confusion). There he showed skills at games rather than examinations. Mantle says he left school without A-levels and thus lacked 'a key aid to finding a direction in his young adult life'.

The next period in Archer's story has still to be properly unravelled, but from Mantle's book and other sources a rough chronology can be arranged. After leaving school, Archer worked in seaside cafes and country hotels: the Il Chianti coffee bar in Weston, certainly, the Lygon Arms, Broadway, perhaps. In the summer of 1958, he joined the Duke of Wellington's Regiment as a regular soldier at the regimental barracks in Halifax. In 1960, he joined the Metropolitan Police and was posted after five months to 'L' division in Brixton, where he resigned after four weeks. Later that year, he turned up as a sports master and odd-job man at a private crammer in Hampshire called Vicar's Hill, run by a Mrs Brewer.

Then, in 1961, came what can now be seen as his big break. Not for the first or the last time in his life, an older man was seduced by his combination of energy and deference. T H (Tim) Cobb, the headmaster of a respectable public school, Dover College in Kent, decided to appoint him the school's sports master and extra geography teacher. There were several other more impressively qualified candidates and Archer's previous employer had hardly furnished a glowing reference - according to Mantle, Mrs Brewer told Cobb: 'Don't touch him'. But Cobb became, and for several years remained, Archer's most important mentor. There was something about Archer, he told Mantle, that he 'couldn't quite put his finger on'. To Geoffrey Levy, Cobb said: 'What struck me most about him was his certainty that he could command success.'

Archer has never talked publicly - at least not to journalists - about his working life before Dover College. When Paul Foot disclosed Archer's short-lived police career (Daily Mirror, 30 October 1986), the confirmation came from Archer's lawyer rather than Archer himself. 'His life story,' wrote Foot, 'shows that curious mixture of personal ambition and fantasy which is the hallmark of modern Tory Britain.' There is an important question here. Why should Archer, normally so bumptious about his struggle from Log Cabin to White House, miss out so much of the log-cabin experience?

A clue may lie in the curriculum vitae which Archer submitted to Cobb in 1961, and was later obtained by Levy to help him with his 'background' piece during Archer's libel action (Daily Mail, 25 July 1987). Among his attainments Archer listed three A- and eight O-levels, attendance at the 'Army Physical Instructor's Course at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst', and an 'Honours Diploma, International Federation of Physical Culture, University of Berkeley, California'.

Levy checked with Sandhurst, but the college discovered no trace of Archer (or the course he said he attended) in their records. Christopher Wilson, in unpublished research for the Daily Express, could find only three O-levels, taken over two years, attached to Archer's name in the fine print of the Wellington Weekly News. But these are petty questions compared to Archer's American experience and the qualification that helped him towards a postgraduate course at Oxford. Several journalists, myself included, have tried and failed to find any evidence that Archer attended any course which was in any way recognised by American academic institutions. The University of California has no record of his studying at any of its nine campuses, nor of the organisation, the International Federation of Physical Culture, which Archer said had awarded him an honorary diploma. Paul Foot pressed this point with Archer's lawyer in 1986, to be told eventually: 'Mr Archer attended the summer school at the University of California but at no time claimed any qualifications from that university'.

This interesting statement conflicts with an early (perhaps the earliest) Archer profile, published by the Oxford student magazine Isis as one of its 'Isis Idols' series on 7 November 1964. The piece reads, in part:

'Archer's university career began with a two-year course at California University after the opportunity to go to America had arisen in his last year at Wellington School, in Somerset. He admits the dangers of a foreigner assessing the colour problem of the South, but hints at his opinion of the situation by regarding Martin Luther King and the late President Kennedy as his two idols. Whilst in his final year, Archer led a small demonstration against the final quashing of the death sentence appeal made by Carl (sic) Chessman. It was a move that brought him his first newspaper interview and with it a passionate dislike for journalists, though he himself is, of course, the sports commentator for Cherwell, the Best Student Newspaper in Britain . . .

'Above all, though, Archer detests snide allusions to his interest in education. He is not an athlete who came to Oxford for athletics under the pretext of reading for a Dip Ed. Before coming to Oxford he taught at Dover College and though he doesn't foresee a career as a schoolmaster, he believes that his present studies at the Dept of Education into the use of social studies for sixth-formers will lead him into some form of social work. He would like to do something positive about world population but sadly confesses that he is ill-equipped for field work.'

The reference to Caryl Chessman is intriguing. The US Supreme Court finally rejected Chessman's appeal on 29 April 1960, which would indicate that Archer led his demonstration some time between then and 2 May, when Chessman went to the gas chamber. Of course, according to his lawyer, speaking 22 years after the Isis piece, Archer only attended a summer school: let's be kind and imagine the Isis reporter misheard the reference to a two-year course. But what kind of summer school opens its doors in April? And how can it be that, in the same month that Chessman's appeal was rejected, Archer himself enrolled as a cadet in the Metropolitan Police?

According to Mantle, both Tim Cobb and Alexander Peterson, the director of Oxford's education department, decided that it would be 'churlish' to ask Archer for his paper credentials. The two older men knew each other - Peterson preceded Cobb as the headmaster of Dover College - and both belonged to the gloaming of British Imperialism. Cobb, a Harrow and Cambridge man, had served as a secretary to the Uganda Headmasters Association. Peterson had been Director-General of Information Services - that is, chief British propagandist - during the Malayan emergency. Together they got Archer into Oxford as a 'postgraduate' student, aged 23. At a later stage, questions were asked by the university registry, but by then Archer had become an invaluable member of the athletics team and attracted the patronage of Sir Noel Hall, the Master of Brasenose, which college allowed Archer token university membership. Mantle writes: 'He spoke to the principal (Hall) as he had done to Cobb, in a way that was both respectful and confiding, almost as if he were addressing a father. Hall liked that. It was not until he met Cobb that Hall realised that Jeffrey made everyone feel that way.'

DOES ANY of this matter? The question has occurred to every journalist who has ever laboured in the cuttings library, trying to sort out the contradictions and ambiguities of Archer's life. Sometimes it has all seemed rather trivial and, well, churlish, and the answer has been no. In this mood, thinking of Archer's vivid public life since Oxford, it is a novel by Arnold Bennett that comes to mind. Archer, surely, is Bennett's Denry Machin, the washerwoman's son who rises to be the youngest mayor of Bursley in The Card. In Archer's early ventures - Babysitters Unlimited, Arrow Enterprises - we see shades of the Five Town Universal Thrift Club. In the many mentors who've been charmed we detect the Countess of Chell, the Mrs Thatcher of North Staffordshire society. The parallels are uncanny and agreeable, and it is tempting to go along with the novel's famous last line: that whatever Denry Machin may or may not have done, he will be for ever identified with 'the great cause of cheering us all up'.

Then we hear Archer on the radio. Perhaps he is urging British youths to cure the unemployment problem by 'getting off their backsides', just as he did. Perhaps he is recalling his days on the running track. Whatever the case, he will be so immensely pleased with himself that we return to the research the next day with renewed vigour, remembering the opening rather than the closing pages of The Card and the sentence: 'He gradually came to believe that he had won the scholarship by genuine merit, and that he was a remarkable boy and destined to great ends.'

Awaiting us, always, will be some new puzzle from one of the world's 'greatest storytellers' (as his publishers advertise him). How, for example, does one reconcile the following: Archer to Mr Justice Caulfield, on 15 July 1987: 'I have never met a prostitute on my own, ever, my lord.' Archer to Richard Compton-Miller ('William Hickey') of the Daily Express, 28 October 1986: 'I just wanted to tell you the lady I was having dinner with last night was helping me with some research for my new book. She is a lady of the night.' No contradiction, my lord. We beg to submit that it is the second rather than the first of these two statements which demonstrates our client's outstanding gift for inaccurate precis.

(Photograph omitted)