To delve into the world of Jeffrey Archer’s imagination is a melancholy business. The cardboard heroes of his many novels, mostly men, but a few women too, are distinguished by lit-tle else than flaming ambition. Many of them are frauds, con men, secret philanderers, or undercover assassins. But even the more straightforward ones do not aspire to be prime minister or president of the United States for any particular purpose. They don’t want to change the world or govern it better; to get to the top is the thing, the only thing.
At the end of First Among Equals (1984), Simon Kerslake, one of four rivals to be prime minister of Britain, finally gets the call he has always been striving for. A man from a modest background, he has overcome every obstacle put in his way by grander people, who went to better schools and sneered at him for “trying too hard.” After a very close election, he is on his way to Buckingham Palace, in the back of his chauffeur-driven Rover, motorcycle riders on either side. “The chauffeur then swung into the Mall and Buckingham Palace loomed in front of Simon’s eyes. At every junction a policeman held up the traffic and then saluted. Suddenly it was all worthwhile….”
Ah, if only… Jeffrey Archer, too, harbored such ambitions. Like Kerslake, he went to a school no one had heard of, and was condescended to by better-born Tories. Like Kerslake he was an energetic striver who came back from near bankruptcy. Like Kerslake, he thought he was well on his way: a rich and famous novelist, art collector, and grand party host, deputy chair-man of the Conservative Party, peer of the realm, mayoral candidate for London… And now he is in prison, serving a four-year sentence for perjury and perversion of justice. The story of Archer’s fall is as sordid as anything he could have made up in his fiction.
It all began with an encounter in London in the early hours of September 9, 1986. Archer was Tory deputy chairman at the time. A Pakistani businessman named Aziz Kurtha thought he spotted Archer picking up a rather blowzy prostitute whose services Kurtha had just been enjoying himself. He decided to make some extra cash by selling the story to the scandal press. The girl, Monica Coghlan, cooperated in a sting operation with The News of the World. Prompted by her tabloid minders, she induced Archer on the phone to offer her money to leave the country. He later denied ever having met her, but said he had only wanted to help a young woman in distress. One of Archer’s fixers, an unsavory character named Michael Stacpoole, was photographed at Victoria Station handing her an envelope with cash. The News of the World had its “exclusive.” Archer admitted he had been “very foolish,” and knew that his political career had crashed. And that is where things would have ended, if another tabloid, The Daily Star, had not gone on to claim that Archer had had sex with Coghlan. He decided to sue.
Since there had been some confusion in the press about the exact date of the alleged encounter with the prostitute, Archer felt obliged to play it safe and paid two cronies to establish false alibis, one, a movie agent named Terence Baker, for the night of September 8–9, and a TV producer named Ted Francis for the night of September 9–10. Archer promised to pay Francis £20,000 for his help. In the event, his help was not needed, for the relevant date was in fact September 8–9. The judge in the case, disgusted by the methods of the tabloid press, took the view that Archer could not possibly have been in need of “cold, unloving rubber-insulated sex” with a hooker. He was especially taken by Archer’s wife, Mary, a rather icy academic, whom the judge praised for her “fragrance.” The members of the jury agreed, found for Archer, and one asked for his autograph after the verdict. Archer won £500,000 in damages, and regulars on the London socio-political-showbiz scene such as Dr. David Owen, Clive James, and John Major celebrated the occasion by quaffing Archer’s champagne.
Archer, ever the rubber ball, probably would have bounced back to high places if he hadn’t insulted Ted Francis at one of his parties. Pointing at Francis, he remarked to another guest: “Oh, you wanna watch this fellow. I lent him £20,000 and I’m still waiting for it to come back.” Since Francis had been offered the money as a gift in return for his willingness to lie on Archer’s behalf, and in any case never received the full amount, he did not find this very funny. Archer’s campaign for mayor of London in 1999 was the time Francis chose to plunge the knife. In yet another sting operation, involving a louche publicity agent named Max Clifford, Francis, and The News of the World, Archer was trapped, once again, into compromising himself on the phone; he admitted to concocting the false alibi.
The Tory Party dropped him like a burning brick. Archer’s campaign for mayor was dead. Other witnesses came forward, including his former secretary, who produced a forged diary for September 1986, which Archer had made her prepare for the trial. Stacpoole was tracked down in Thailand, where he had been running a brothel. Archer was charged with perjury and perverting the course of public justice. And to add his own peculiar twist to the events, Archer made his debut as the star of his new play, entitled The Accused, on the day of his indictment. He played the role of a doctor accused of murdering his wife. The gimmick of this dire courtroom drama was that the audience was invited to deliver the verdict by pressing an electronic button.
The play was not a success. And neither, from Archer’s point of view, was the trial. This time, the jury saw through him. Old friends and recipients of his largesse turned their backs. The tabloids jeered in screaming headlines, as Archer was taken off in handcuffs. “Welcome to Hell!” (The Sun) was one of the kinder comments. All and all, not a pretty picture of merry old England.
Perhaps the best way to explain Jeffrey Archer, his position in English society, and the way he managed to get away with his odd career in the fast lane for so long is to turn to fiction, his own and that of others. Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull, the Hochstapler, the seducer and social climber, who tries to con the world, comes to mind. Closer to home is the more benign figure of Mr. Toad. Mr. Toad of Toad Hall, the flawed hero of Kenneth Grahame’s Edwardian classic The Wind in the Willows, is one of the most popular characters in English children’s fiction. Toad is a swaggering bundle of energy, a parvenu dressed in ridiculous suits who drives preposterous cars too fast, loudly honking his horn, and invariably crashing. Toad is a charming rogue, a kind of Gatsby of the English animal kingdom, a reckless, pushy, self-made, self-invented, self-centered figure of fun who gets into scrapes, yet always manages to come out on top in the end.
When Alan Bennett was adapting Toad’s adventure tales for the National Theatre in London, he wondered whether Grahame could possibly have meant him to be Jewish. Grahame, writes Bennett, “had endowed him with all the faults that genteel Edwardian anti-Semitism attributed to nouveaux-riches Jews. He is loud and shows off; he has too much money for his own good and no sense of social responsibility to go with it….”1 Later, Bennett was no longer so sure. But there is, perhaps, a slight whiff about Toad that certain old-fashioned English people might describe as “foreign.”
When Jeffrey Archer heard about a new theater production of The Wind in the Willows he begged the astonished director to cast him as Mr. Toad. “I am Toad,” he is supposed to have said. The same thought had occurred to others too. In 1992, the journalist and former Tory MP Gyles Brandreth wrote in his diary: “I like Jeffrey. He’s like Mr. Toad, absurd but still a star.”2
Like Toad, Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare of Mark in the County of Somerset (a Toad-like title if there ever was one) is an inveterate boaster, a man whose every claim, especially about himself, has to be double-checked, a self-made chancer who has popped up, grinning like a vaudeville showman, in photographs with most of the rich and powerful in the Western world. His parties in London were famous for their grand guest lists and the copious amounts of Krug champagne and shepherd’s pie. Brandreth noted: “Behind his back we mock him. But I notice we don’t stay away.” Archer probably knew this perfectly well. The Great Gatsby is one of his favorite books, and I don’t think he identified with Nick Carraway.
Archer’s remarkable energy was always on tap for a variety of causes: splashy charities, Tory elections, and, above all, the rise and rise of Jeffrey Archer. He reveled in his fame and fortune. He boasted about his wealth, his art collection, his contacts, his influence on prime ministers and tycoons. He loved telling guests at his London apartment to “go past the Picasso and left at the Matisse” to get to the lavatory. He bragged that he was a storytelling genius, a Dickens of our time. Very Toad-like too was Archer’s request to his bank manager to see all his cash piled up in the vaults. The manager politely explained that things didn’t quite work like that in the real world. Likewise, when he asked his publisher whether he might win the Nobel Prize for literature if he read more classics, he had to be told that there would be more to it, alas.
And like Toad, Archer has been extraordinarily accident-prone. Every time his rise seemed to be unstoppable—as a young parliamentarian and fund-raiser in the early 1970s, as a best-selling novelist and deputy chairman of the Tory Party in the 1980s, and as Tory candidate for London mayor in 1999—Archer’s progress was halted by scandal: financial ruin through a stock market scam, accusations of shoplifting and insider trading, and, finally, this summer’s debacle in court. Toad drove his cars so fast, he never knew where he was going. Archer crashed after cutting too many corners in real life.
“The true fascination of Jeffrey Howard Archer,” writes Michael Crick, Archer’s tenacious biographer, “lies in what his career tells us about the people and institutions around him. The big puzzle, surely, isn’t how Archer gets away with it time and time again, but why he is allowed to?” If anyone is entitled to ask this question, it is Crick, who has spent much of the last decade exposing Archer’s many lies. The first edition of his biography, Jeffrey Archer: Stranger than Fiction, published in 1995, still had to steer a gingerly course around potential libel charges. Archer’s mistress in the early 1980s, Andrina Colquhoun, who featured, unbeknownst to her, in one of the false alibis, was still identified as a “personal assistant.” And the story of Archer’s perjury had to wait until the revised edition came out last year. (A BBC television program about Archer, presented by Crick, disclosing the full story, was aired for the first time just hours after the verdict.)
Carefully, doggedly, and not without a certain sympathy, Crick shines his flashlight through Archer’s many fictions. Fraudulence was a family failing. Archer’s father, William, was neither a colonel nor a war hero, as Archer maintained, but a convicted con man, bigamist, and bankrupt who kept on disappearing to Amer-ica, among other places. Fund-raising frauds were among his favorite scams. In the US, while posing as an Eton- and Oxford-educated gentleman with aristocratic connections, he fathered a daughter, Rosemary, who first married Senator Brien MacMahon, then the Belgian ambassador, and became a well-known Washington hostess under the name of Baroness Silvercruys. Jeffrey Archer may not have known anything about this rather grand family connection until Crick’s book came out. Back in England, William Archer, now known as Captain Archer, met Jeffrey’s mother, and they had a son, Jeffrey, who was quickly adopted by a succession of families, changed names several times, and was erased from family memory. The existence of this illegitimate elder brother, who not only bears the same name but closely resembles the famous Jeffrey, lends a further air of unreality to Archer’s family background. Archer always pretended the brother did not exist.
Like his father, Archer had a gift for making himself up. He turned a poor school record into a more impressive one by inventing academic distinctions for himself, and presenting a mail-order body-building course in London as an American university degree in physical education. Somehow he contrived to get accepted for a one-year course in teacher’s training at Oxford University, where he spent three years posing as a full-fledged Oxford man. He never sat still, made useful friends, raised money for this and that, often through flashy but dubious gimmicks, and he ran, and ran, and ran.
Physical fitness had been an obsession ever since he was bullied at school because of his puny physique. Archer was an ambitious runner for Oxford, and once, for Great Britain. A marvelous clip in the BBC documentary shows Archer jumping the gun three times in a row at an athletics meet in London. Twitching with impatience to make his mark, he was always in too much of a hurry. He was a sucker for get-rich-quick schemes, insider stock market tips, and tax dodges, as are the heroes in many of his novels. Simon Kerslake, the Tory politician in First Among Equals, and the character closest to Archer himself, gets involved with a dodgy businessman named Ronnie Nethercote, who promises quick riches. This almost results in bankruptcy. A short story in his latest collection, To Cut a Long Story Short, is entitled “Crime Pays.” The crime is a clever confidence trick, based on a true case, involving phony businesses and false identities. The first sentence reads: “Kenny Merchant—that wasn’t his real name, but then, little was real about Kenny….”[ ]
At Oxford Archer told his future wife that he would be a millionaire and prime minister (impressed, she swiftly married him). Another ambition was to be a famous TV personality, like David Frost. But first, in the late 1960s, he joined the Greater London Council, where he became known as “Mr. 10 Per Cent” for helping fellow council members fill out their expenses and taking a cut of the proceeds. This was not entirely kosher, but still petty stuff. More serious were the allegations that he fiddled his own expenses while working as a fund-raiser for the United Nations Association, before being elected to Parliament in 1969. It almost ended his career as a young (not the youngest, as Archer had it) MP. Instead he was brought down by his own greed to share in a disastrous stock market scam. Then there was an awkward episode in Toronto, where he was detained for walking out of a store with three suits without paying.
The one thing that was not fraudulent was the way Archer recovered from his financial ruin. He set out to write a best seller, entitled Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less—and he did it, in 1976. Archer was known as semi-literate at school, but his prose was cooked by many abler hands, and his talent for telling stories clearly paid off. Several novels later, Archer was a rich man. He has written nine novels so far. Most of them were on the best-seller lists in Britain and the US. Several sold more than two million copies in paperback. A curious thing about Archer’s stories is how much they read like confessions. His first novel is about a ruinous share-buying scheme, much like the one that brought him down. In First Among Equals there is an odd scene in which a politician picks up a prostitute around the corner from where Archer allegedly did the same. In Kane and Abel, about a feud between a self-made millionaire and a privileged banker, a character named Osborne lies about being a Harvard man and an army officer. In a short story, “The Expert Witness,” a professor is questioned in court about the dubious worth of his American degrees.
Judging from his fiction, then, you might assume that the author was a man of extraordinary self-awareness. And yet Archer kept getting into worse trouble. In 1991, the problems of the Kurds grabbed his attention. He claimed to have raised millions on their behalf, yet little of that money ever reached them. As in earlier fund-raising efforts, there were doubts about Archer’s probity. Then, three years later, just as he was hoping to make a comeback in Tory politics, he was investigated for having bought shares in a television company called Anglia TV, whose board included his wife, Mary. As soon as he had made his purchase, the company was taken over, and the share prices shot up. No wonder the Department of Trade and Industry took an interest in the case. Once again, Archer had to admit that he had made a “grave error.”
Enough reason, you might have thought, for the Tory Party to have been a bit more wary about enlisting Jeffrey Archer’s services. And yet John Major offered him a peerage in 1993. And six years later William Hague, as the new party leader, endorsed Archer’s candidacy for London mayor, saying: “This candidate is a candidate of probity and integrity. I’m going to back him to the full.” It is not as if Hague hadn’t been warned. Michael Crick’s book had been out for years. And Crick, who had known Hague at Oxford, sent him a letter spelling out the risks of endorsing Archer.
So why was Archer allowed to get away with it for so long? There are several possible reasons, not all of which reflect badly on British society. Crick mentions Archer’s ability to put people in his debt. He had the mafia don’s policy of spreading around favors. Archer once told an interviewer that he wanted “everybody to be in debt to me. I would like to have done more charity work, more this, more that, so everybody is in debt to me… so that if I need to call on them one day, I can genuinely expect them to come to my rescue or come to my help.” He lent people money, helped them on their campaigns, brokered publishing deals, and so on. The Tory Party was in hock to Archer, as were several Tory politicians.
Another reason might be the sneaking admiration in this buttoned-up society for the amiable rogue, the colorful character, the Toad who adds gaiety to the nation. As Bennett says, there is a Toad in all of us, but most of us (especially in England) learn how “to keep it under,” to be “respectable.” Margaret Thatcher, not at all Toad-like herself, saw possibilities in an energetic chancer like Archer, whom she described in her memoir as “the extrovert’s extrovert.”3 He was the perfect showman to send around the country to rally the Tory troops. The blue-rinsed matrons and local worthies adored his outrageous manner and Toady pizzazz. Thatcher still relied on some grandees of the old school, but she encouraged “doers,” self-made businessmen, rough diamonds, and brisk outsiders. Her penchant for Jewish ministers prompted Harold Macmillan’s remark that her cabinet appeared to contain more old Estonians than old Etonians. Archer, despite her doubts about his political judgment, was her kind of man.
One of the traditional strengths of the British establishment—for want of a better word—is its ability to bring in brash new blood to avoid a caste-like stagnation. Popular writers, rich upstarts, even actors, have always been soaked up by the ruling elites, much more so than was common in continental Europe. Only in Britain could an exotic fabulist (and popular novelist) like Benjamin Disraeli be made prime minister to energize a party of aristocrats and country squires. Disraeli, the consummate outsider, whose looks and manners were distinctly foreign, reinvented the Tory Party, which, in the eyes of its supporters, stood for the idea of England itself. There is something theatrical about this type of politics, which depends on imagery and invention, and it needs imaginative showmen to keep the system from falling into a rut. Disraeli’s flair saved the Tories in Queen Victoria’s age; Winston Churchill, another odd romantic, did the same for England a hundred years on.
Jeffrey Archer was no Disraeli by any stretch of the imagination, much less a Winston Churchill. He just tried to play the part. Like so many useful English parvenus in the past (including Mr. Toad himself), he adopted an exaggerated version of upper-class mannerisms: playing the country squire in Rupert Brooke’s old house near Cambridge, or barking at the lower orders like some retired general. He might come across to some Americans as a typically English toff, but in fact Archer is very touchy about his lower-middle-class origins, and has ambivalent feelings about his country.
Real toffs in the Tory ranks, on the whole, did not care for Archer and his puffed-up airs. Ferdinand Mount, a former adviser to Mrs. Thatcher and current editor of the Times Literary Supplement, once called Archer “the most wince-provoking, hot-making mistake….” Archer resented old Etonian hauteur. He once said: “I didn’t like in my youth that there were these peo-ple with double-barrelled names who seemed to be living in a different world to the one I did, and when you went to London there were even more of them with their noses in the air.” Simon Kerslake, the Tory MP from modest beginnings in First Among Equals, has three rivals, a gruff working-class socialist, a clever Scot, and a smooth old Etonian, who puts Kerslake down as “one of the new breed of Tories who tried a little too hard.” To the extent that these figures have characters, the old Etonian is by far the most loathsome. Like his father, the elusive con man, Jeffrey Archer appears to feel more at home in America, where energetic “achievers” (a favorite word of his) are rewarded, not sneered at. “If I was born today,” he once said, “and wanted to go into politics, I would want to be born in the United States.”
The trouble with Archer is that he tried to apply his fiction to real life. If reality didn’t conform to his fantasies, he would fix it by lying or making others lie for him. Since one can set one’s own rules in fiction, the assumption is that the same must apply to life. That was perhaps the point of his extraordinary bravura in putting on a play about a trial, with himself as the accused, on the eve of his own indictment. It was like an act of magic, in which fantasy was used to defy the facts. In Archer’s imaginary world, his errors (or “foolishness”) were not moral, or based on any ethical principles. His cardinal sin was to be exposed, like an actor whose mask has slipped. The one rule of fiction is that a story must be plausible.
The title of Archer’s last novel, published in 1998, months before the beginning of his downfall, was The Eleventh Commandment. The main character is yet another man with a secret life, a CIA assassin posing as a businessman, who is left in the lurch by his government when he is caught by the Russians. The moral of the story, and the meaning of the eleventh commandment, is simply this: Don’t get caught.
Perhaps Archer always knew he would get caught. Many of his fictional heroes do; or they are cut down at the last hurdle. There is a peculiar twist at the end of First Among Equals. After Simon Kerslake passes through the gates of Buckingham Palace, saluted by guards, met by courtiers, to have his audience with the King, he is informed that the other candidate has won. The socialist son of a butcher will be the next prime minister of Britain. And that is the end of the story. In the British edition. In the US, Archer’s editor decided that it would be better if the achiever won. A socialist victory would put American readers off. Kerslake was the more winning character. The doer must be rewarded. The difference between Britain and the United States? Or just another Jeffrey Archer fantasy?
September 20, 2001