"Good morning and a special welcome to those new to the field of quantum solar energy conversion," said Mary Archer yesterday, introducing a conference organised by the European Society for Quantum Solar Energy Conversion.
There were indeed many present at Strathclyde University who were newcomers to the subject. But the question on the lips of the media gathered to hear Lady Archer's first public comments since her husband's convictions eight days ago for perjury and perverting the course of justice had nothing to do with science and everything to do with whether she had lied in court.
Lady Archer's previous speaking role in front of the watching media and the public had been at the Old Bailey, when she gave evidence in an attempt to save her husband from jail. That was a prolonged performance, critically and legally unsuccessful. Yesterday's show was shorter and sleeker.
Firstly, there was the timing. No one among the hundred journalists present could ignore the fact that she had chosen to attend a summer school at the university rather than visit Archer at Belmarsh prison. Then came the delivery. With a script far better than the one at Court 8 and without sniggers from disbelieving jurors, she cut a stoic figure. "Solar energy is our major renewable energy resource and the techniques for harnessing the Sun's heat date back to the 19th century ... " Fellow academics smiled, the journalists shifted uneasily.
Then a television reporter cleared his throat and spoke. "There has been discussion about your evidence during the trial. Can I, er, ask you, did you lie in court?" The response was quick. "I am here to lead the summer school and I won't be led into discussing other matters – save to say that I support my husband wholeheartedly."
The next question, about how Archer was coping in prison, was met with the dead bat of: "I have said what I wish to say." The one after, about what she thought about her husband's four-year sentence was ignored with a sigh, before a university official invited those present to ask about the Kyoto agreement and solar energy. It was the turn of the journalists to look discomfited. Kyoto had not addressed the issue of Anglia shares, or cash for Kurds, or Archer's GLC expenses, or his serial philandering.
Someone finally asked whether she found it difficult to concentrate on her work at present. Lady Archer, who at the age of four had said that when she grew up she wanted to be an expert, replied: "I find work a great solace, and getting back to it is terrific."
One person Mary has turned to for solace has, indeed, been someone at work – Jim Bolton a Canadian academic. They have been working together since the late 1970s on a textbook called Photoconversion of Solar Energy. The first of four volumes was published in June.
Lady Archer, in a brown trouser suit with matching cream top and shoes and carrying a shoulder bag, had arrived at the university at 9.14am in the principal's Jaguar, accompanied by her first son, William, 29, who later travelled south to visit his father in a London jail. There was fragrance everywhere on the sunny day. The lampposts were decked with baskets of geraniums, petunias and trailing lobelia. There was also a fragrant whiff from Lady Archer – she wears Hermes Caleche. She is one of 30 scientific specialists in the field attending the conference and one of six delivering lectures.
The last time Lady Archer met her husband was at the funeral of his mother, Lola Hayne. Archer had been let out of jail after two days on compassionate grounds. The couple's younger son, James, 27, is said to have visited his father at Belmarsh yesterday.
There were differing claims by two tabloids yesterday over the peer's incarceration. The Mirror said he was sharing his cell with a burglar and drug addict, while The Sun maintains he has been given the privilege of a single cell and has got other inmates to do his washing and ironing while he is writing 6,000 words of breathless prose a day.Reuse content