The lift glides to a halt at the penthouse suite on the 13th floor. A butler leads the way along a panelled corridor and into a spacious, glass-walled living-room. Lord Archer is standing in a rhombus of sunlight, his back to the glinting spires of Westminster. He raises his right hand, palm flat, and barks: ‘Stop!’
My first thought is that he has gone mad. Actually nuts. He doesn’t like to talk about it, but he used to be a policeman, spent five months in the Met before resigning in 1960. Now – clearly – the pressure of keeping this chapter of his life quiet has got to him. He has regressed. Thinks he’s back on point duty.
I remain frozen to the spot. Archer continues to halt the oncoming traffic. He is riding the moment, enjoying the confusion and embarrassment playing across my face. The situation is too weird. Slowly, his Lordship closes all his fingers except for the index. This he tilts 180 degrees until it points to the bathroom scales at his feet.
Now I understand what the pantomime is about. He has remembered a passing conversation we had when we met here, at his London home, three months ago. I asked him how he had lost two stone in six months. He told me he went to his gym at seven every morning and worked out for 80 minutes. During the day he followed ‘Jeffrey’s food-combining chart’. He sent me away with my own laminated ‘Jeffrey’s food-combining chart’. I stuck it to the fridge, tried it for an hour, gave up. I now realise he thinks I’ve asked to see him a second time because I want to show him I’ve lost weight. Oh dear. I want to interview him again because, last time, I learnt a lot about his plans should he be elected London’s first Mayor in May 2000 – enforce bus lanes, a commissioner for dirt, free milk to schoolchildren and so on – and very little about what sort of a person he is, or thinks he is, and why he believes we can trust him.
Still cringing, I decline his offer to stand on the scales and we repair to the squashy cream-coloured sofas that surround a book-laden coffee-table in the corner of the room. Though I’m sure he does the scales routine with everyone he puts on his diet, I feel oddly flattered he has remembered, as I’m sure I’m supposed to. I also feel grateful for the glimpse he has given me of the bully beneath the bluff surface. ‘Wimp!’ he says in a schoolmaster’s voice as he gives me a mock stern look over his half-moon spectacles. ‘Don’t look so smug!’
Jeffrey Archer is obsessed with physical fitness. He’s a sturdy, puff-chested 5ft 9in and though, at 59, there is something of the shocked sparrow about his looks – the bird recovering from moult – he has a strong nose, wide mouth and a firm jawline that is emphasised by a crew cut. But it wasn’t always thus.
At Wellington School, Somerset, he was bullied for being a weed: nicknamed ‘The Pune’, he was the one the other boys held over the lavatory while it was being flushed. Everything changed when Hal Kenny, his PE master, encouraged him to take up body-building and become an athlete. After leaving school, Archer became a PE teacher himself. He was good at it. Turned his pupils into champions. But he was notorious for his bullying tactics. When I ask him if he thinks he is a bully he smirks impishly and answers in a booming but croaky staccato. ‘Yes. Yes. But it’s just enthusiasm, isn’t it? I wake up wanting to do things. And want to encourage others to do the same.’
No one could ever accuse Archer of lacking enthusiasm. Or initiative. Or self-belief. Or nerve… He quivers with the stuff. Not only did he transform himself from a playground weed to a first-class athlete – an Oxford blue who represented his country at the 200 metres – as a student in the early Sixties he helped raise £500,000 for Oxfam by cajoling the Beatles, Harold Macmillan and President Johnson into endorsing his appeal. In the early Seventies a bad investment in a Canadian company, Aquablast, left him nearly bankrupt. He had to resign his seat in Parliament but, instead of sulking, he decided to pay off his £427,727 overdraft by writing novels. He wrote ten. And even though reviews of them have included the phrases ‘a true stinker’, ‘grindingly predictable’, and ‘flatulent banality’, he has sold, he claims, 120 million copies of them worldwide – and earned himself an estimated £60 million.
The trouble is, there is so much else Archer can be accused of. He lacks judgement, he’s vainglorious, he’s a fantasist – or rather, as his wife Mary put it, he has ‘a gift for inaccurate précis’. Everything about him smacks of invention. His whole manner is phoney. He’s like a Donald Sinden of the political world, an actor so actorish he makes your teeth grind. Chief among his accusers is Michael Crick who, in 1995, wrote a biography of Archer called Stranger than Fiction. The book sheds light on the mysteries surrounding Archer’s academic record, his father (a convicted fraudster and bigamist who died in 1956), and all the Archer imbroglios, from the libellous allegations made against him in 1986 (concerning the prostitute Monica Coghlan) to the accusations in 1994 of insider dealing in Anglia Television shares.
Although Archer is obviously insensitive enough to keep bouncing back when life slaps him down, it must have been painful for him to have his private life researched so meticulously and exposed so publicly. After all, as Mary Archer once noted: ‘He’s not as thick-skinned as people think. Criticism does get to him. He takes it personally and it hurts him.’
Candidates for the job of Mayor of London will have to convince voters they are honest, trustworthy and above reproach. To do this they will have to reconcile themselves to having their private lives scrutinised by the press. Archer says he feels psychologically prepared for the sniggering Private Eye lampoons and the Paxman interrogations that lie ahead. ‘Well, I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t.’ Still. Must be horrible having chaps like Crick pore over every aspect of your past? ‘Horrible feeling? Hadn’t really though of it in those terms. I mean… [pause] that’s the way he makes his money. If you want to represent people on the public stage, you have to face that.’
When I ask Jeffrey Archer why he thinks people should have confidence in him, given his reputation, he gives a politician’s answer. ‘The reason I have worked so hard in the past two years on policy is to show people how seriously I’m taking it. To show I’m not being casual about it. That I’m not taking it lightly. I’m not standing for Mayor because I need a job. I don’t. I want to make a difference, otherwise I wouldn’t be bothering. It would be easier to write another novel.’
He seems to accept, though, that he has an image problem. ‘I am very aware of . . .’ he trails off again. ‘Well, Michael Howard is a good example. I don’t know of a better friend when you are in trouble. I don’t know a nicer man with a more delightful wife. And yet he has a different public image and it’s not fair.’
You have to wonder why Archer wants to subject himself to the torment of press scrutiny when he could so easily retire and enjoy his millions, his fame, his 17th-century vicarage in Grantchester. The obvious answer is that he craves power. Also, as he himself has said in the past, he feels he has been a failure. He wants to be more than just an amusing footnote in the history of the Tory Party. He managed to be a close friend – court jester – to both Margaret Thatcher and John Major. But he never advanced further than deputy chairman of the party, a post he held from September 1985 to November 1986, when the Monica Coghlan story broke.
But is there also a streak of masochism behind his willingness to run the press gauntlet? Those who are bullied often convince themselves they deserve to be. This theory would be consistent with the strong attraction Archer feels toward intimidating women. He worships Margaret Thatcher. And Mary, the chemistry don he married 33 years ago, is famed not only for her fragrance but also for being what the librettist Kit Hesketh-Harvey describes as ‘a fantasy of most Englishmen… It’s that idea of ice in the loins.’
Last summer, as a pre-emptive strike against his critics, Archer wrote an article for the London Evening Standard in which he offered explanations for the extraordinary puzzles surrounding his career. ‘Yes, I was young once, and, yes, I have made a number of mistakes in my life,’ he wrote. ‘I’m neither genius nor saint.’ He acknowledged that his father didn’t win the DCM, as he had previously thought, and that his grandfather was never Lord Mayor of Bristol.
Archer used to boast that he was the youngest GLC councillor in 1967 – and the youngest MP when elected in 1969 – because, he explained in the article, he thought at the time that he was. He did walk out of a shop in Toronto in 1975 without paying for two suits – but only because he had wandered into another shop through an interconnecting passage. On the subject of the Anglia Television shares he bought for his friend Broosk Saib just days before an agreed take-over bid, he claims he did not receive information from his wife, a director of Anglia. There was an investigation. He wasn’t charged.
The answers he gives in the article prompt other questions. Why was Archer dealing in Anglia shares on behalf of a friend who was used to buying his own shares through a stockbroker? I’ve been told by Anthony Gordon-Lennox, Archer’s press adviser, that his Lordship is not prepared to comment on the Anglia shares story or on the recent scandal concerning his offspring. Archer has two sons: William, 27, a theatre producer, and James, 24, who was sacked from an investment bank for allegedly trying to manipulate the price of shares in a Swedish company.
Gordon-Lennox didn’t say anything about Archer’s academic record being off-limits, though. It might seem a trivial issue but, as Michael Crick has argued, we might all do better in life if we went around boasting of false degrees. Archer claimed to have a degree from an American University when he didn’t. On his marriage certificate he was described as a ‘research graduate’ when he wasn’t. He did go to Oxford (to do a one-year diploma in education at a teacher training college affiliated to Brasenose College) but he did not take any A-levels. The archives at both Dover College, where Archer taught PE from 1961 to 1963, and Oxford University show that he had three. In his Evening Standard article he wrote: ‘I did not obtain any A-levels. Nor did I mislead Oxford University in telling them that I had.’ So how did this false impression arise? Archer blinks. A rictus. A look of pain in his eyes. ‘No, I did answer that and, forgive me, I’m not going over it again. I made a decision to answer all those things in one go. I want to be Mayor. I’m doing 19 hours a day, working flat out. By all means read the Crick book and make your own judgement.’
William Archer, aka ‘William Grimwood’, died aged 80 when Jeffrey was 15. In an interview before the Crick revelations, Archer said he went to pieces when his father died, mucked up his exams, felt life unfair. Now, when I ask what effect his father’s death had on him, he says: ‘That’s 43 years ago so I don’t remember it vividly in that sense.’ Pause. The smile is frozen on his face. ‘My mother was the strong influence on my life. Still alive, God bless her, 86 years old. Saw her last weekend. She’s still in fighting form.’ He doesn’t think his mother, Lola, spoilt him as compensation for losing his father. ‘Hope not. Probably… I adore my mother. Very special lady. I suppose I would have stayed down in Weston-super-Mare if I had been that spoilt.’ Lola wrote a weekly column for her local paper which featured her scampish son ‘Tuppence’. Jeffrey doesn’t think his being put in the spotlight in this way had any impact on his emotional development. ‘I wasn’t aware of it, to be honest. I don’t think at nine I had a clue.’
The phone rings. LBC radio wants to do a two-minute interview, live, about the ‘rolling manifesto’ he is launching today. Archer excuses himself and barrels up a marble staircase to his mezzanine study. As I listen to him on the phone – ‘Yes. It is the most exciting challenge…’ – I cast an eye around the room. A sculpture here, a Monet there, a metallic Gothic chandelier over the dining table, and, on the occasional table beside me, a framed black-and-white photograph of the young Jeffrey in running kit crossing a finishing line first.
Archer seems to have three main tactics for becoming Mayor: behave as if the job is his already; promise that if he’s elected he won’t write any more novels; wear Londoners down with his keenness so that they’ll make him Mayor just to shut him up. Even the Tory grandees behind the ‘Anyone But Archer’ whispering campaign seem to be buckling under the Archer onslaught. They depict him as a ghastly overgrown schoolboy whose graceless, barrow-boy persona offends the propriety of the party. Yet Archer is tipped to win the Tory nomination for Mayor in the autumn. He will, of course, be insufferably bossy and pompous if he goes on to win the election. But even his enemies would have to concede he will probably get things done.
Baron Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, of Mark in the County of Somerset, as he chose to style himself when he was created a Life Peer in 1992, thinks there is a mayor-shaped hole in his life. It is the job he was born to do. But he wants to become the Mayor of London so badly, one worries how he will cope if his main rival, Ken Livingstone, pips him to the post. Archer hasn’t thought about losing, he says, because he’s sure he’s going to win. When I point out he was also sure the Tories were going to win the last election, he laughs and rocks back in his seat. ‘You’ve caught me out there! But I had to say that. We knew we were going to lose. What shocked us was the scale. We honestly thought it would be 70 seats at most.’
An almost palpable air of frustration hangs around Jeffrey Archer. He’s like a spermatozoid, constantly, frantically, selfishly swimming but not getting anywhere. He tells me he is easily bored and feels unfulfilled. When I suggest that it must be dreadful being him – because even if he did become Mayor the goalposts would only move again and the gnawing discontent would return to his soul – he nods gravely. ‘Yes. I’ll want to be captain of the England cricket team. I’m among that group of human beings who feel they have never achieved anything. One of my great heroes is Thomas Jefferson and he has written on his gravestone: “President… of the University of West Virginia.”‘
Rather grandly, Archer says he admires Jefferson for his intellect and Nelson for his physical courage. ‘Would I be courageous if the enemy was coming towards me? Could I handle it? I don’t know.’ It’s strange, but even when he’s being sincere he sounds fake.
Four years ago Archer did, he says, stare death in the face. ‘I nearly killed the whole family. I was driving down the centre lane at 70mph in a brand new BMW. It turned two circles and went into a ditch. The police found a nail that big [he holds his hands six inches apart] in the tyre. All I remember is that for 30 seconds both boys went silent wondering what was going to happen.’
If the crash had been fatal, would Archer have died a happy man? ‘Am I happy? Not really. But who is?’ He says his money doesn’t really bring him happiness – he’s not even sure how much he’s worth, not that interested. Even being the best-selling novelist in Britain doesn’t seem to give him that much satisfaction.
‘I know I’m no Graham Greene,’ he says, rolling his ‘r’s. ‘I know my limitations. Do I feel being a novelist is a proper job for a grown man? That’s what Mary is always saying to me. Well, it’s not a crime to entertain people.’ He derives more pleasure, he says, from the auctioneering work he does for charity. He raised £3.2 million last year – he writes the figure down on a Post-it pad for me – and when he reflects whether he has been a good person in this life he concludes: ‘I think I’ve put in more than I’ve taken out.’
He says he has no regrets, that it is pointless looking back. ‘When I make mistakes I never feel sorry for myself. I might feel cross. I might think, silly fool. But even when I lost all my money – which was the worst time of my life – I tried to be positive. I hated being in debt. Hated it. Other than illness, it’s the worst thing in the world. When you see a bill come through the letterbox and you know you can’t pay it. I never want that again. I couldn’t see a way out… Did I feel suicidal? No, I was too young. At 34 I knew I was young enough to dust myself down and start again.’
Mary Archer once said, ‘Life with Jeffrey is never dull,’ and this, perhaps, is his saving grace. He is a colourful character in a monochrome political landscape. He has other virtues. According to his friends, he has a generous nature. And he has good entrepreneurial instincts. Margaret Thatcher once described him as the ‘extrovert’s extrovert’. Today, though, there is none of the bluster and bumptiousness you would normally associate with him. He seems reserved.
The intelligentsia can never forgive him his Mr Toad-like resilience and popularity. He’s a rabble rouser, a middle brow, a vulgarian. He has said that he will make an excellent Mayor of London precisely because he is vulgar. But when I ask him about this statement, he recants. Says he meant it as a tease. Perhaps it will take another 20 years before everyone gets the joke and finds him loveable enough to be declared a living national treasure. For the moment, for many, there is still something a little too weird about Jeffrey Archer.
He has a vulnerable side, though, and I see it when, the interview over, an old friend of his drops in for tea. He has known Michael Hogan, a farmer, since they were at Oxford together. He greets him warmly and then, as he walks with me to the lift, Archer whispers, ‘You know, Nigel, that man is one of only three people in the world I trust – my wife, and my friend Adrian Metcalfe being the other two. He’s such a fine man. Such a fine man. When I nearly went bankrupt he gave me £10,000, half his savings, to bail me out. A dear, dear man.’ His eyes go rheumy at the memory and he stares at the lift doors, lost momentarily in his thoughts. They open. I step in. Just as they are closing, he snaps back into character and shouts: ‘And lose some weight!’
This interview appeared in April 1999. Lord Archer became the Tory candidate for mayor that autumn, only to withdraw, and cause huge, some would say irreparable, damage to the credibility of William Hague, the Tory leader who had backed his nomination. Unable to wrestle with his conscience any longer, Archer’s former friend Ted Francis came forward to accuse the novelist of asking him to provide a false alibi for his 1987 libel action against the Star. In 2000 Archer wrote and starred in a play called The Accused, loosely based on the case. In 2001, just before his trial for perjury opened, Monica Coghlan, the prostitute at the centre of the libel case was killed in a car crash. At the trial he declined to take the stand. His wife Mary did. ‘I think,’ she said when asked about her marriage, ‘we explored the further reaches of “for better or worse”.’ Archer’s mother died the day before the verdict was given. He was found guilty and sentenced to four years in prison.