P is for Penthouse. That’s where I found Jeffrey Archer, in his famous penthouse apartment on the Thames flanked by his Monet, Lowry and Picassos.
He welcomed me into his home to record an interview for my In Conversation podcast. It’s like Desert Island Discs only I get to ask the questions.
After a brief tour of his multi-million pound art collection (“Shoes off in the bedroom please, Mary’s concerned about the Chinese carpet”) we settled down to business.
The views are stunning. The Palace of Westminster is within spitting distance but the influence it once afforded Mr Archer has long gone. His years as an MP for Louth (and my home town of Immingham) saw him ahead of his time on many issues and a surprisingly liberal Tory. He campaigned to scrap museum charges, for free TV licences for pensioners and to lower the age on consent for gay men. He was just getting going when accusations, and his later imprisonment for perjury and perverting the course of justice, spelled the end of his political career. “I would have loved to have been Mayor of London,” he told me, “this is a great, great city,” but for now he’ll have to make do with the view.
His fall from grace, he points out, wasn’t just down to his errors of judgement, it was a sign of the times. The tabloids’ enthusiasm for gossip, he tells me, is discouraging our brightest citizens from public office. The fear of long forgotten affairs and ill-judged comments being exposed means we, the people, ultimately loose out.
“If you’re an admirer of Thomas Jefferson, he would not have survived today. You couldn’t go round living with different women at different times,” he explains, “If The Sun newspaper had got hold of Nelson having an affair with an Ambassador’s wife he’d never have got to Trafalgar. Are we missing a lot of people who have made mistakes? Haven’t we all made mistakes?”
I’ve interviewed over 130 people and my goal is always to find something new, get them off-script, willing to share a secret or two. Jeffrey Archer’s a tough nut to crack. He’s had too many people like me wheedling him for a juicy bit of gossip.
His friend, Barrie Humphries said, “We all, to some extent, reinvent ourselves. Jeffrey’s just gone to a bit more trouble.” I ask Jeffrey what he meant by that and he flatly tells me, “I have no idea”.
“What did your wife mean when she said fidelity isn’t important in a marriage?” “I have no idea”.
But the songs he chooses are revealing in themselves. Top of his list is Harry Chapin’s ‘Better Place to Be’, about a man’s lost love. “Everybody thinks the man is in control in a love affair,” Jeffrey explains, “and what this shows is here is a man who falls deeply in love in a very short period of time and she disappears. I think it’s very romantic.”
Jeffrey doesn’t care to be labeled a writer, he prefers storyteller. With over 300 million books sold there’s no doubt about that. This problem is that he doesn’t seem to know when to stop telling stories. He’s been investigated for insider dealing, he’s lied in court, and admitted to a bit of shoplifting. You couldn’t make it up. Well, Jeffrey probably could.
He did acknowledge the comment from Ringo Starr describing him as, “the kind of bloke who would bottle your piss and sell it,” though he claimed the rest of the sentence was, “…as long as it was for charity”. To his credit, last year alone, Archer’s charity auctions did help prize over £4 million out of wealthy partygoers and he’s still busy bequeathing his remarkable art collection to grateful galleries across the globe.
Having just celebrated his golden wedding anniversary, one thing he is happy to talk about is how much he loves his wife, Mary. They look good together. He describes being her husband as “a privilege” and says, “She’s tolerated me for 50 years, I’m much wiser and better educated because of that it, and I’m very grateful”. She is his rock and he doesn’t mind admitting it, “I’m terrified of dying before Mary. Luckily I’m five years older than her so the odds are pretty good.”
Not a man to dwell on past mistakes (or even acknowledge them) Jeffrey Archer has plenty to feel happy about. He’s healthy, wealthy and has the satisfaction of being one of the country’s most successful writers. Not bad for a working class boy from the West Country. Say what you like about him but to many he’s a modern day hero, a survivor, living proof of the power of hard work and unshakable self-belief.
Mary Archer once said “villains are more interesting than the good guys,” she was certainly right about that.
Jeffrey Archer’s latest book, ‘This Was A Man’ the final part of The Clifton Chronicles, is out now.