Jeffrey Archer: Looking back is a thing that silly people do
Lord Archer shows no sign of slowing up or holding back when it comes to his career, his health, or his literary rivals
Jeffrey Archer picks up his tablet, "his vicious machine" he calls it, and searches the names of one of his biggest rivals who is, he says a "brilliantly successful author". He reads aloud from an online commenter talking about his latest book: "good grief, this book is dull. Oh my God, why did he bother? Half a book, not up to his usual standards," he quotes, quite unable to keep the note of gloat out of his voice. There is a side to Archer that is so gloriously bitchy it almost seems camp, like a panto-villain.
I am shown into his vast London penthouse and find him reclined in an armchair, wearing monogrammed slippers. He conducts all of his interviews here, framed against a panoramic view of the Thames and London skyline, surrounded by his famous art collection, exhibits A and B in his showcase of success.
Now 74, Lord Archer is showing no signs of slowing down, despite a brush with prostate cancer last year. He still maintains the same militaristic work ethic he's had for decades, "Harder! Tougher! More ruthless with myself!" he barks.
He reads the criticisms of his competitors as a way of stoking the fires of his own ambition. He says he likes having rivals. "Certainly, you wimp!" he barks, hammily gruff, half-smiling, his chin quivering. "Stop wimping around there!" He is like a children's party entertainer addressing a room of seven-year-olds.
He switches readily between charming solicitousness and snipey irascibility, rousing irritably when I mention his rough treatment at the hands of literary critics. "You're all out of date. It's very interestingly out of date how the press make statements like that, and journalists make statements like that. Because they've been looking at old articles. You haven't noticed that The Times now describe Kane and Abel (his first best-seller) as a modern classic." Well, perhaps. But the reception to his last book was decidedly cool. "I think it just annoys me that it's a sin to sell a lot of copies," he moans.
"Nadine Gordimer gets the Nobel prize. And her last book, in this country sold around 3,000. Now, the fact that she is a truly outstanding writer is not up for discussion. She is a truly outstanding writer. But no-one buys her books. Yet if she's mentioned in the newspaper like The Observer or The Guardian they're sort of slobbering all over the paper, it's unbelievable. One just gets used to it and lives with it. 270 million people buy my books, I'm not going to make a fuss of it." He's full of these kind of pouty, self-important statements, but you get the sense that it's partly for fun.
Archer's philosophy is "only silly people look back", which is perhaps not surprising given his chequered past.
"Any fool can look back and say I wouldn't have done that and I wouldn't have done that," he says. "Stupid thing to say! We all make mistakes."
It's true of course, though his mistakes tend towards the spectacular. Raised by a single mother, (his father, who was a convicted fraudster, died when he was eleven) he won a scholarship to public school and then got a diploma from Oxford. He became active in the Tory party, and then an MP, but resigned when a bad business deal resulted in financial ruin.
He went back to the drawing board, started writing thrillers and within a few years, had soared to the top of the best-seller lists, after which he returned to politics as deputy chairman of the party. But his troubles weren't over. In 1987 he sued the Daily Star newspaper for libel after they claimed he'd had sex with prostitute Monica Coughlan. He won the case, and was awarded £50,000, but several years later it emerged he'd lied under oath, and he spent two years in jail for perjury.
The prison diaries he wrote there, he tells me, continue to sell brilliantly. Does he, I wonder, watch the television prison drama Orange is the New Black? There's so much in it to which he could relate. He looks confused, then bellows to his PA, who is beavering away unseen but within earshot, and confirms she has it on DVD for him.
He survived prison by falling back on his usual work routine.
"I wrote at the time that I felt people expected me to be resilient and to survive," he says. "And that in itself made it harder, not easier. If I'd gone under, people would have said "Oh God, it's alright, I can go under, Jeffrey went under." I felt that very much," he says, before adding rather waspishly, "I wrote it and it was reported at the time, so it's no use you thinking you've suddenly got some insight that hasn't been heard before."
Anyway, he even managed to turn jail time into profit, like Rumplestiltskin, sitting in his cell and spinning out words.
"I wrote a million words in two years ... I had experiences normal writers haven't had." And those experiences still pop up regularly in his stories.
"It's got into every book since," he says.
Through all of this his wife Mary stood by him, falling into the role of long-suffering but saintly spouse. He's obviously grateful, and is always keen to demonstrate his admiration of her cleverness and beauty. But what's even more interesting is his consistently close relationship with his two sons, who were in their twenties when he went to prison and who must no doubt have suffered a lot during their father's fall from grace. Children, I suggest to him, are inclined to be less forgiving of parental mistakes than a spouse.
"No they are not judgemental," he insists. "But you see, you say that's forgiving in that sort of superior way, but their mother is not the easiest person to be the child of." In what way?
"She's very demanding," he says. "Her standards are very, very high. She's meticulous to a degree that can drive one absolutely bonkers. We'll go through a document together which will take me 30 minutes but will take her three hours."
In any case, despite his dishonesty and his wife's relentless attention to detail, the family unit has emerged from all their troubles apparently intact. "What was interesting is we got very lucky here. They didn't become drug addicts or give in completely," he says of his sons. "And of course we've all seen it in friends and relations, and it is a terrible thing." As for his marriage, he says: "People go through far worse than what we've been through, but they're not public figures. Though that may add to the pressures in the sense of harming a relationship, in ours it only strengthened it. I can't speak for Mary, but if I could have my life over again I'd choose exactly the same person and think myself very lucky indeed."
A few years ago, he thought he'd almost lost Mary when she was diagnosed with bladder cancer and had to undergo risky and complex surgery. Not long after, his own diagnosis with prostate cancer followed. "Both of us feel - and it's a little glib and a little cliche in some ways but, that it's tougher for the partner than for the person in some ways. Because you are carrying it the whole time and you're thinking the worst the whole time."
Mary was in much more danger than he, "so that particular six months was pretty bloody - because I thought she was going to die." But she survived the seven and a half hour operation at Addenbrooke Hospital where she was serving as chairman.
"She was up chairing the board six weeks later," he says. "Cancer is a terrible, terrible thing. I was back working two weeks afterwards." It's a big part of their shared mythology, this Thatcherite obsession with getting on at all costs - yielding to nothing, not even cancer. "Two weeks was quite enough, thank you," he says.
He compares himself not to other writers but to dancers at the Royal Ballet. "They're my inspiration," he says.
He admits the loss of his father as a child "knocked me backwards. I can't pretend it helped, dying that young," but it's the women in his life who have formed him. "I think I would have liked a strong father but you are dealt the hand you are dealt with and there is no use complaining about it. I was brought up by three strong women - my mother, Margaret Thatcher and my wife. They are the three women who I'm to be blamed for."
The women at the heart of Lord Archer's life
His mother - Lola Hayne, (born Lola Cook) who died aged 87, just days before he was jailed for perjury in 2001, was said to be the driving force behind the millionaire's ambition.
She was also the first female journalist on her local newspaper in Weston-Super-Mare. Born in 1913, she married Lord Archer's father in 1939, when he was 63 and she was 26. She gave two children up for adoption, a daughter and son, before Archer was born. In 1999 it came to light that she had another daughter, Elizabeth Tremaine.
His wife - Mary Archer is often portrayed as long-suffering and loyal, but those closest to them say theirs is a co-dependent relationship. Born in 1944, she was very bright and won a chemistry scholarship to Oxford.
She married Archer in 1966 and in an omen of the tough times ahead, his van ran out of petrol between the wedding reception and the honeymoon hotel. She has described their marriage as an "attraction of opposites" and chose to stand by her man when various scandals rocked their marriage.
His mistress - Archer had an affair with Tory party fund-raiser Sally Farmiloe for three years until they were exposed in 1999. He was among the first to pay tribute to her when she lost a long battle with cancer, aged 66, in July this year.
The author and model was famous for her role in the Eighties TV drama Howards' Way but was perhaps best known for her affair with Archer.
His mentor - Former politician and Tory peer Lord Archer was a close confidante of Baroness Thatcher and said of her "she was interested in results, getting things done, that's what interested her, but another of her great qualities was loyalty."