Something extraordinary happened at the launch party for Jeffrey Archer's first novel since his release from prison. It wasn't the sight of him standing in the shadow of his penthouse hailing taxis for his guests afterwards, though the cabbies found that strange enough. What was even more singular was his address to those sipping champagne and eating mini shepherd's pies in his splendid hotel-lobby-style sitting room with its tantalising view of the Houses of Parliament.
It was lovely to see that so many literary editors had shown up, he said, and then added that if anything appeared in the gossip columns the following day he would know where it had come from. Jeffrey Archer making veiled threats about his name appearing in the papers? This from the man who always gave the impression that he feared he didn't exist if he wasn't being talked about. A man famed for his arrogance, whose parties were never complete without the invitation of a whole stable of gossip columnists.
But here he is, in his sitting room the morning after the party from which they were banned, an avuncular fellow in a sweater, putting the amazingly swift success of the new novel down to his publishers, rather than to himself. Last Monday, when False Impression came out, it became the second most popular book on Amazon. By Tuesday it was number one and by Thursday a third print run had been ordered.
Archer's comeback has been a highly orchestrated affair. His first interviews since his release from prison in 2003, after serving two years of a four-year sentence for perjury, were given to the Australian press when his book was launched over there at the end of last year. It's now sold over 80,000 copies in hardback.
It was a gentle easing in by a nation who presumably didn't feel quite so incensed at his past deeds, which included having to resign as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party following allegations that he attempted to pay off the prostitute Monica Coghlan. He subsequently accepted £500,000 in damages from the Daily Star in July 1987 after he sued them for libel. Given a peerage in 1992, two years later he had to apologise for share dealings in Anglia TV. He was chosen as the official Tory candidate for London Mayor in 1999, but was forced to quit after newspaper allegations that he fabricated an alibi for his 1987 libel case. And finally, in July 2001, his downfall was complete when he was found guilty of perjury and imprisoned.
Archer spent last week talking to carefully selected members of the media, who so far have given him a relatively easy ride, much to his surprise. "I was waiting for someone to be snide or unpleasant or to find something. Almost without exception they haven't," he says. And, staggeringly, unlike the old days, he won't be talking again once the publicity tour is over. "Once this book is launched I will go back into my shell and disappear again. I like it that way. I've got used to it and like it."
His new book is a thriller about the disappearance of a Van Gogh set against the backdrop of 9/11. Art collection is a subject close to his heart. Entering the luxurious confines of his penthouse, you walk through a gallery of Impressionist paintings. He sits on a cream armchair opposite two of his five Lowrys.
The novel took him two years and he believes it is his best yet. A previous editor of his claimed that at one stage Archer had dreams of winning the Booker prize. There are no such pretensions today. "It's an entertainment. You're only meant to enjoy it," he says of the book, which took 17 rewrites.
He leaves for a promotional tour of America this week, after which he's going on holiday to South America with his wife, the famously fragrant Mary. The couple are now trying to visit all the countries they have never been to. At 65 he says, "I guess that's an age thing."
Mary is now the one holding office, charging around as chairman of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, while her husband, out of public life, writes his books, an experience he doesn't always find agreeable. "The great pleasure is when you have physically finished and handed it over to the publisher. That is exhilarating. The process - 1,000 hours - I can't describe it as enjoyable, no. It's very hard." He does it, he says, because "I love the end result".
He doesn't go to the House of Lords, and insists that he is not saddened to be out of public life. "No, no, I'm an old age pensioner. Certainly not."
Does he mind that the Tory leader, David Cameron, said recently that Archer has no future in the Conservative Party? "I was never thinking of returning. I'm a writer," he says.
When asked what he is most proud of, he cites the critical response to his three prison diaries, "running for my country" (sprinting, while at Oxford), and his two sons and wife - "a very remarkable woman". He claims that he and Mary see each other five days a week, but she is most known for keeping house in Grantchester, Cambridgeshire.
The couple celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary his year. "It's amazing," he admits. "I'm amazed anybody gets to 40 these days." Was there ever a time he thought it might not last that long? "No! Never!" he says, turning away to take a sip of a fruit juice.
While his fan base is undeniable, he refuses to speculate on how the public sees him. He admits that Mary believes he is "gentler" since his release, but he doesn't agree. He says living on a wing with 21 murderers has made him "more sympathetic to people genuinely in trouble and I don't categorise people quite as easily as I used to".
Archer's biographer, Michael Crick, believes that this hitherto unseen meek version of Archer is here to stay. "Maybe 'broken' is too strong a word, but he's certainly a defeated man in many ways," he says. "He's not the dynamic, publicity-hungry character that he was. He is a deflated character. We won't see the old Archer again in terms of regular media appearances and the bullying and the bravado, partly because the world has moved on, partly because it was such a huge blow to him going to jail.
"He's going to be a shadow of his former self for however long he continues," Crick believes. "The prison sentence knocked a lot of the stuffing out of him and humiliated him. It has changed him. Not necessarily for the better, in that I'm not sure he's ever properly come to terms with his past mistakes and dishonesty simply because he still claims he was innocent of the whole perjury thing."
Archer is indeed appealing against his conviction "but not on a subject that I can discuss for sub judice reasons," he says.
While it is clear that Archer is indeed a changed man, there is no doubt that he is now carefully protecting his image. Now that writing is the only means of getting the public adulation he has craved all his life, he can no longer get away with the behaviour that earned him a far from flattering reputation in the book trade - and beyond.
His biggest regret is something over which he had no control - not having had a daughter. "I have two sons who I adore, but I wish I had had a third child and I wished it had been a daughter. I am so in envy of men who have daughters. I guess all men want a daughter. I can see the relationship between my two boys and their mother and they take care of her. I would have certainly protected a daughter and looked after her."
'False Impression' by Jeffrey Archer is published by Macmillan, priced £18.99
A WRITER C0MES IN FROM THE COLD
Appears on BBC1's Sunday AM with Andrew Marr for his first British TV interview since his release from prison. Inviting the crew into his Thames penthouse, he admits that his political career is over, but that he would return to the Lords if prison reform was on the agenda.
False Impression appears in the shops. Archer reveals on Richard & Judy that he visits, and talks to, two murderers from his prison days. "One I visit once a month... the one who was buggered from the age of eight to 18 and, poor man, is in a dreadful physical state at the moment." Also appears on London Tonight and does an interview with Reader's Digest. Book reaches number two on amazon.com.
Archer appears on Radio 2's Steve Wright Show. In the evening he attends the National Portrait Gallery's 150th anniversary fundraising gala with Mary. Chats with John Major and John Gummer. Book is number one on amazon.com.
Signs 100 copies of his novel at the Piccadilly branch of Hatchards, in London, for the shop to put on display. Signs book for three fans who happened to be there during this unpublicised visit.
Does an interview for Radio 4's Front Row. Official launch day for his book. Holds party in his penthouse for the publishers and literary editors. Newspaper diarists are not invited. Third print run of the book is ordered.
Interview with The Independent on Sunday. Private dinner in the evening.
Archer fans queue in Selfridges, Oxford Street, for a personalised signed copy of the book and to shake his hand. Returns home to Mary in Cambridgeshire.Reuse content