Jeffrey Archer’s own life story would make an international bestseller. Stuart Appleby sat down with the famous, former politician turned author to talk about his fascinating career before he took part in a public lecture about his novel Only Time Will Tell in The Clifton Chronicles.
“I was born in the city road of London and when war was declared I was moved down to Weston-super-Mare. I spent the first 18 years of my life in the West Country and I know the area very well,” the 71-year-old said.
“I went to school in Somerset and studied at a school called Wellington from the age of 9-18 so I was there for most of my loosely called academic life.”
Lord Archer then attended Brasenose College, Oxford and was a prolific athlete in his youth. He became President of the University Athletics Club and he went on to run the 100 yards in 9.6 seconds for Great Britain in 1966. This competitive streak in his character was apparent from a young age and Lord Archer admits he still strives to get to the top in anything he does.
“I’ve been driven all my life and I can’t stop myself. I did an interview recently with Talksport and they asked me if I was still driven. I actually think my drive is at its highest point now and I want to be number one always,” he said.
After leaving Oxford he was elected to the Greater London Council and just three years later at the age of 29 became Member of Parliament for Louth following a by-election triumph in 1969.
“Oh, very few make it into the House of Commons before they’re 30,” he says with pride.
Lord Archer admits, looking back, that Westminster was a very different place back then to what it is today.
“It has changed because when I was elected most of the House of Commons was full of members who had served in the war. In fact, I think when I was in the House there were about 48 holders of the Military Cross or some distinguished order of gallantry.
“The House had a very old feel to it, colonial almost. It’s changed so much since. Indeed, when I first went into the House of Lords at the age of 52 it was full of hereditary peers and there were around a thousand of them. Now it’s much less,” said the Life peer.
“I lived in two political eras and I was a child in both. In the sense that I was a child at 29 and a child at 52 because I witnessed some historic movements at the end of both of them. It was fascinating.”
To succeed in politics, Lord Archer remained adamant that a sound financial background or footing is invaluable before entering the House of Commons.
“If you can enter the House financially stable, you have a great advantage over your colleagues. And if it is a subject in which you are respected and acknowledged to know what you are talking about then that helps you,” he said.
“If on the other hand you come in simply as someone who has worked in Central Office, worked for a Member of Parliament or worked in the House of Commons, you will be labelled as a career politician. This is not a bad thing, David Cameron has managed to do very well out of that and so has George Osborne so one can’t criticise it as a route but I think I have more admiration for people who have actually done something.”
With a promising political career in sight, Lord Archer invested heavily in a Canadian company called Aquablast, on the advice of the Bank of Boston. However, the company went into liquidation in 1974 and three directors were later sent to jail for fraud, which left him with crippling debts and put Lord Archer on the brink of bankruptcy. He subsequently resigned from the House of Commons.
However, his determination did not relinquish and he remained eager to repay his creditors in full. This led him to write his first novel Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less which went on to be made into a successful serial for BBC Radio 4, and was later televised. His second novel, Shall We Tell the President? became another bestseller and he followed this with arguably his most widely acknowledged novel, Kane and Abel.
The procedure Lord Archer goes through when writing is certainly unique and individual. His average writing day consists of four two hour writing blocks. For each book he spends a year researching the subject or topic and then goes on to produce draft after draft. Amazingly, each draft is handwritten.
“I’m afraid that I keep to this schedule for every piece of writing I do. I’m now actually frightened not to do it. I now worry if I don’t do it. I have to do that much every single time just to believe it’s the best I can possibly do,” he said.
“I could do four books a year, do the first draft and then hand it in. For each I could then collect a couple of million. No, thank you. I want it to be the best I can possibly do. If that slows me up, so be it.”
Lord Archer’s writing ability and short story collections have and still do earn him plaudits and recognition from esteemed critics worldwide, and as a result this helped him to reignite his political career in 1985. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher appointed him Deputy Chairman of the Conservative party, despite the decision drawing criticism from party chairman Norman Tebbit.
In 1986, a newspaper article published by The News of the World fronting allegations about Lord Archer’s personal life, meant he tended his resignation. The Daily Star compounded the story with more allegations and he sued the newspaper. The libel case went to court and he was successfully awarded £500,000 in damages.
Years later and Lord Archer had then been selected by the Conservatives to run as their candidate in the London Mayoral election of 2000, though this turned out to be short lived. The News of the World published allegations that he had committed perjury in the 1987 libel case and he withdrew his candidacy the following day.
In September 2000 he was charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice during the 1987 libel trial, and in 2001 Lord Archer was found guilty and sentenced to four years imprisonment.
He was released in July 2003 having served half of his sentence and he went on to publish three volumes of his Prison Diary: Volume I, Hell, an account of his first three weeks in the high security prison, HMP Belmarsh; Volume II, Purgatory, set in HMP Wayland, a C category prison; and the third and final volume, Heaven, centering on his final transfer to an open prison.
Having spent two years in prison, Lord Archer admitted that imprisonment did change him.
“I think it made me very conscious of how lucky and privileged I’ve been. It would have changed me in that way. The irony is that five books came out of it just at the point when I might have been looking for new things. One wouldn’t have anticipated this,” he said.
“Inside the prison I think I met a group of human beings that I would have never of met before and have never met since. They all had stories to tell, some of them were incapable of telling them, but quite a few of them were capable of sharing their story.
“I saw another side of the world and I think for an author that’s probably very different.”
Nowadays, Lord Archer has long since ruled out a return to politics and with such a thriving career in fiction and as a playwright, he has a dedicated audience to keep entertained.
Fascinatingly, his international book sales have surpassed 300 million worldwide and his work has been published in nearly one hundred countries.
Lord Archer the author is still motivated and hungry for more success and believes he was born with an inbuilt desire to achieve.
“I think I have an inborn bug and germ that you can’t do anything about. Myself and my wife have it, you may well have it yourself. You can’t do anything about it. You can’t get up one morning and say I’m not going to achieve anything today, I shall stay in bed and go to sleep.
“There are some people who say that but that’s another breed of human beings. I’m in the group that has to do something every day. I can’t stop myself. It would be easy now to do nothing for the rest of my life. No, I can’t do it. It’s nonstop,” Lord Archer declared.
Generous thanks goes to Lord Archer for kindly taking the time to talk to Stuart and to his team for helping to arrange the interview. To read his full biography, please visit his website.