Will you call a friend or risk everything, Jeffrey?

John Walsh On Monday
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The Independent Online
IF EVER a man went out of his way to contribute to the gaiety of nations, it's surely Jeffrey Archer. Saturday night was a blur of happy faces as the news of his resignation spread across the revelling crowds of London.

At a party in Highbury, I stood among a crowd of journalists as we marvelled at our good fortune in having such happy news break in such style, and simultaneously manage to shove what has now been cynically christened "the Blair Titch Project" off the Sunday front pages.

What a trooper. Well done that man. After two years of dressing up as a bus conductor or pearly king and being the life and soul of the metropolitan party, two years of promising everything to mayoral voters - stopping just this side short of fine weather and public hangings - two years of behaving as if he's not just the mayor of London but the most popular and lucky man in the kingdom, after all this yelping vainglory, he goes and blows it in spectacular fashion.

We already had the story about the Prostitute, the Spotty Back and the Fragrant Wife, not to mention the Pay-off on Victoria Station. Now we can add the Blond Hostess, the Lucan Connection and the Maitre D' of the Sambuca. We've got the Machiavellian Archer in plain sight at last, caught in the transcript of his taped conversation with Ted Francis, sounding fantastically shifty ("Yeah, well, we've got to be careful, Ted. We don't want to go to a court of law with this..."). Even his resignation statement was pure theatre, its shamelessness, its disingenuousness about having made "mistakes" and its more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone all typical of the Jeffrey we love.

What remains to be asked is: why did Mr Francis do it? Why bring up the alibi business now, 13 years after the event? Because the mayoral race is now at its hottest and he could make a tidy sum? Because it's taken 13 years for his conscience to prick him? Because he was afraid of being convicted of attempted perjury? None of the above.

It seems he never got over the experience of going to one of Archer's Krug-and-shepherd's-pie parties in 1990 and chatting up a young actress, only to find Archer stealing up to them both and saying: "You want to watch this man. I lent him pounds 20,000 once, and I'm still waiting to get my money back."

That was it. Embarrassment, humiliation, gratuitous abuse, followed by the pressure cooker of hatred and the long, slow cooling down into revenge, nine years later. And it wasn't pounds 20,000 but pounds 12,000. And now Archer's got it all back, with interest.

LIKE THE rest of the country I've become addicted to that strangely annoying television programme, Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. What's annoying is the fact that I can generally answer the pounds 64,000 and pounds 125,000 questions without breaking sweat, but I come unstuck on the early questions, the ones which win you only pounds 300. They tend to be simple geographical inquiries such as: "Which of the following towns is in Wiltshire - Farnham, Maidenhead, Droitwich or Trowbridge?" As I rarely see any reason to leave the embrace of the M25 orbital motorway except to fly to Galway or, say, Rio, my knowledge of the geography of England beyond, say, Gower Street or Chiswick flyover is extremely limited.

Like everyone else, I yearn to go on the programme and astound the nation with my devil-may-care epistemic swordplay, and trouser a million quid in the process. But I suspect I'd screw it up in round two by failing to identify the difference between east and west.

I mention the show, however, because the other evening a friend of mine, a rather grand Oxbridge academic, dropped round for pasta and chianti, and watched the programme in the kitchen while I was busy with the puttanesca sauce.

It was his first encounter with the famous quiz. "I'm surprised you can win so much money for displaying so little knowledge," he said at the end, in his donnish-dismissive way. "But one thing puzzles me. If you're allowed to phone a friend who will know the answer, why do these people content themselves with ringing their brother-in-law or some pal from the local public house? It seems rather to limit their chances of getting it right."

"OK then, David," I said. "Chris Tarrant asks you, for half a million quid, which novel by Tolstoy features a guy called Prince Nekhlyudov. Is it a) War and Peace, b) Resurrection, c) Anna Karenina or d) The Kreutzer Sonata?"

"Well obviously..." David began.

"Yeah but say, just for argument's sake, in the heat of the moment you'd temporarily forgotten. By the rules of the show, you can phone a friend. Who you gonna call?"

"Um... George Steiner."

"I think the rules say you can't ring the leading European expert on Tolstoy."

"That's my point exactly," said David. "George Steiner isn't `a Tolstoy expert'. He's a friend. I'd just say, ring my good mate Georgie-boy. Churchill College, Cambridge. 01223..."

"And if the question was about, say, the Corn Laws or the greatest sum paid at an auction for a Rembrandt self-portrait?"

"I'd ring JM Roberts, author of The Penguin History of the World. Or JH Plumb. Or for the latter inquiry, obviously I'd get my mate Simon Schama on the line. Only the other evening I was asking him, at his book launch..."

Really, these academics. But perhaps I've identified a small loophole in the TV quiz - that the quality of your friends gives you an edge over those who ring their chum Graham in the Dog and Duck because he's such a pub quiz hustler. As with the rest of life, it's who you know, I'm afraid.

WEDNESDAY SEES an exciting evening at the Naval and Military Club, where Auberon Waugh will announce the winner of the Bad Sex Award for the year's most inept or off-putting fictional depiction of the blanket hornpipe.

The evening is hosted by the Literary Review, Waugh's caustic and magisterial organ, and sponsored by Hamlet cigars, which obligingly keeps the party animals of the literary circuit in drink and smokes until the small hours. It's always interesting to see whether the winner will have the chutzpah to turn up and collect the prize, and conceal his or her embarrassment behind a mask of grinning self-deprecation. Last year the winner was Sebastian Faulks, who declined to appear. This year, the organisers promise that if the Bad Sex laureate does not show, his or her place will be filled by an actor, presumably doing a horrible impersonation of the hapless erotomaniac.

An early sighting of the shortlist has fallen into my hands. It's a startling display of crazily inappropriate images and metaphors from the groinal and four-poster regions, with a rather miserable sub-text of disappointment and failure. There are lots of writers of foreign provenance, taking a little holiday from being any good - most notably Isabel Allende, as she describes her virginal heroine's first encounter with the, ahem, lance of manhood ("the rosy, perky gherkin revealed before her eyes did not frighten her..."). The work of several writers of Indian descent was deemed ineligible for entry on the grounds that while the sex scenes were incontrovertibly awful, they were insufficiently startling (Vikram Seth), or too scientific (Rushdie) or too nasty (Hanif Kureishi).

The former Mrs Rushdie, Marianne Wiggins, is in with a chance this year for her mystifying litany of smut in Almost Heaven ("To have sex like this. Sex that happened because it had to, sex like weather. Sex like a planet in upheaval. Explosive, pyrogenic sex..." ). I've looked up "pyrogenic" for you. It means "heat-producing" or "substance produced by the combustion of another". What an alarming prospect Ms Wiggins must be.

Roddy Doyle has a messy love scene set in Dublin Post Office during the 1916 Easter Rising on a huge pile of stationery and postage stamps. The Joyce Carol Oates entry features a man called Artie who cannot distinguish, by touch alone, a female breast from a folded scarf. Julie Burchill is on the shortlist for a brace of scenes from her novel Married Alive, in one of which we discover her heroine entwined with an unsuitable lover, "with his groin grinding against mine, both big hands trying to physically remove by the famous `twist-off' method my breasts from my upper body". The most off-putting climax in the year's fiction comes from an unknown Indian writer called Khushwant Singh ("`Fill me up with all you have, you miserable Kaffir,' she screamed. And with a spectacular shudder and a loud `ha, ha, ha', she collapsed on me like a lifeless corpse.")

All these examples lead one to suspect that the judges may be awarding points for the awfulness of the sex rather than the actual writing.

So congratulations to DavidHuggins, a previous winner of the award, for producing (in his novel Luxury Amnesia) one of those metaphors that stop you in your tracks: it's another penis, I'm afraid, this one described, when suddenly released from its captive undergarments, as "a springy mustard- pot surprise".

Mustard pot? Mustard pot? That yellow-Colman's-jar-with-the-flat-screw- top mustard pot? Or are we talking mustard cruet, such as you might find on the breakfast table at the Ritz, with a little lid on the top, and a spoon sticking out at an acute angle...

No. Don't think about it. It's an image to haunt us all. Mr Huggins must surely walk it on Wednesday.

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