Jeffrey Archer talks about his Best Kept Secret
PUBLISHED: 14:04 15 March 2013 | UPDATED: 14:15 15 March 2013
Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare welcomes me into his sumptuous penthouse overlooking the River Thames, the floor-to-ceiling windows allowing a magnificent view of London, from the Shard to the Houses of Parliament.
Walking past the Monet and other fine art adorning his entrance hall into a grand open-plan main room, there’s a huge arrangement of flowers on a marble table in the centre with plush sofas with plumped-up cushions either side. It reminds me of a five-star hotel rather than a home.
It’s clear that scandals, political downfall and even a stint in prison have done nothing to hinder either the lifestyle or confidence of the Tory peer, who continues to make a mint out of his novels, the latest of which, Best Kept Secret, is the third in his five-book series of Clifton Chronicles.
He’s now 72 and it seems that age hasn’t mellowed the former Tory deputy chairman, novelist, playwright and prisoner, who speaks in clipped tones, rather like a schoolmaster who’s about to tell you off, but with a twinkle in his eye which hints that his bark is worse than his bite.
He may be a spectacularly successful storyteller but in his time he has been the story itself, firstly as a politician and close friend of Margaret Thatcher, one-time mayoral candidate for London, charity auctioneer and, more darkly, a perjurer who served two years at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.
His tone sharpens with irritation when you bring up subjects he doesn’t want to discuss such as perjury and why he wasn’t stripped of his life peerage.
“I don’t want to discuss this. I’m here to discuss a book and you’re heading in the wrong direction. The press are still fascinated about it but the public are bored out of their minds,” he says curtly.
Time to change the subject, then. Moving swiftly along, I ask him about a career and indeed a life surrounded by strong women - his mother, Margaret Thatcher and his “fragrant” wife, Dame Mary.
“My mother was a tremendously strong woman. Became a local councillor. Wrote her own column, did a degree at the age of 50. My wife became a Dame in her own right. And of course I did 11 years with Margaret Thatcher. I like strong women.
“They know what they want, they don’t mess about and they are very good at being led. Then she (Thatcher) would come into the leadership role and you got trodden on, eaten up, killed, thrown out,” he adds, chuckling.
Without strong women in his life, you imagine Archer’s world would have been a much less colourful place.
He dismisses claims that he and his wife have lived separate lives over the years.
“Most people who’ve been married 46 years do spend a lot of time doing their own things,” he points out. “Our respect is the key. I have such respect and admiration for Mary. I’m so proud of what she has done.”
Indeed, one of the most fraught times in his life was when she was diagnosed with bladder cancer two years ago.
“I really thought she would die,” he says gravely, the booming voice softening for a moment. “The doctor had told me there really was no need for an operation and then two weeks later he said, ‘I’m very sorry, she’s going to have to have a seven-hour operation’. I thought she was going to die that night.”
He says that he coped with the situation very badly. “I’m not good on my own,” he states solemnly, before trying to lighten the conversation. “The deal is she has to die after me. Husbands are not good when wives die first. I had a strong word with her about it.”
Archer looked after her while she convalesced in Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge (she was then chairwoman of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust), which gave him time to reflect.
“It makes you realise that some of the things you worry about really aren’t worth the trouble. Get things in perspective.”
Her near-death experience probably brought them closer together, he agrees. “I certainly realised that I depended on her and how I took her for granted at one level. It was a ‘She’s always going to be there’ attitude. I suspect she takes things for granted the other way round. I pay all the bills.
“Mary has always said, very generously, that the reason she’s been able to conduct the life she has, as chairman of a great hospital (she has just retired from the post), is that she never had any financial problems.”
Lord Archer, however, survived near bankruptcy following a bad investment in the 1970s which prompted him to write his first novel, Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less, in 1975, followed four years later by the phenomenally successful Kane And Abel.
But then he has always had a gift for picking himself up and making positives out of every disaster that strikes.
“I’ve always been like that. I’m not sure everybody can do that. People are psychologically different. There are millions of people who go through massive problems every day of their lives.”
The new novel is the third in the Clifton Chronicle series charting the trials and tribulations of the Cliftons and the Barringtons.
Writing has been his salvation, he knows. Critics may pan his books but his novels sell in their millions - between 250 and 400 million to date, depending on which paper you read.
Is he still ambitious? “To be the most successful author on Earth, yes. Captain of the England cricket team? Seems unlikely now.”
He goes to the House of Lords once a week but doesn’t miss the cut and thrust of politics.
“I keep an interest in politics, but my generation’s gone. A younger generation’s in charge. Ten number ones in a row [presumably talking about his books now] - are you asking me to swap that for sitting on the back benches?”
He says he takes his ideas for novels from life - the latest features a best-selling author on tour and an election which incorporates vote-rigging.
“It happened to me in the election I was involved in which I won by 10,000. One of the other parties accidentally put the wrong name on to the top of one of my piles. That’s where I got the idea. Poor fellow went as red as a beetroot.”
He goes to the theatre twice a week, does three art galleries a week and his energy levels show no sign of abating.
Revealingly, he tells me that he never knows how his books are going to turn out: the twists and turns, the downfalls and the triumphs.
“I know three pages ahead if I’m lucky. I haven’t got a clue how it’s going to end.” Sounds rather like his life, doesn’t it?
- Best Kept Secret by Jeffrey Archer is published by Macmillan, priced £20. Available now.
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