Michele Hewitson Interview: Jeffrey Archer

By Michele Hewitson

Jeffrey Archer is in New Zealand to promote his latest writing venture, The Clifton Chronicles, a series of books about a boy. Photo / Dean Purcell
Jeffrey Archer is in New Zealand to promote his latest writing venture, The Clifton Chronicles, a series of books about a boy. Photo / Dean Purcell

Jeffrey, Lord Archer, to the photographer: "Isn't she awful?"

Me, to the photographer: "Isn't he awful?"

The photographer: "No comment."

He thought me awful when I was asking questions he didn't want to answer. I thought he was awful when he was glaring at me like a ferret who has just sighted a rat (no doubt the other way around from his perspective) and saying: "No comment."

We were having lunch, at the Hilton in Taupo, and he arrived in a frisky mood. Six minutes in, he had his knife to my throat. I'd suggested he might retire, on his squillions, which produced mock outrage. The retirement bit, not the squillions.

He likes jokes but they can come across badly on the page. He used to say to guests wanting the loo at his London apartment: "Go past the Picasso and left at the Matisse." This was "meant to be funny". Somebody told the press and it has been repeated as, well, what? Evidence he's a snooty twat? "Yeah." He doesn't make that joke these days.

He had arrived at some idea that I'd been a head prefect and was out to boss him around. One of his jokes was to mimic me standing with my hands on my hips, looking bossy. I did try to make him have champagne - his shepherd's pie and fizz Christmas lunches are famous.

But he never touches the stuff, can't stand it. His guests like it and he thinks the idea of shepherd's pie and French champagne is fun. It is somehow typical of him that he puts on these parties but doesn't partake in what most people would regard as the fun bit.

He has one half glass of red wine at night. Why bother? "Because it's nice." If he likes it, why doesn't he have more than half a glass? "Are you a sort of lush?"

He's got a nerve accusing me of bossiness. Would bread be required for the table? He answered for the table: "We're slimming. We don't eat bread. It's one of the rules. We're not allowed bread!" Were we going to have pudding? "No. I'm not allowed three courses. I'm on two courses for lunch; one course for dinner."

We could split a pud three ways. "Certainly not. The rule is the rule." Why does he have these rules? "Because if you don't keep to them ... I've lost a stone and I want to lose another half a stone."

The lift in his London apartment takes 30 seconds to get to the ground floor. In those 30 seconds he exercises. He got up from the table to demonstrate. "You shouldn't waste 30 seconds." "What would happen, Jeffrey, if you wasted 30 seconds?"

"My God, we can't waste 30 seconds! My son [he has two] thinks that is the funniest thing about me."

The funniest thing about him! He has done many things which most people would think far funnier (and not in a ha, ha sort of way.) The most infamous of what he calls his "mistakes" is still inexplicable. In 1986 he sued The Daily Star for suggesting he'd slept with a prostitute.

He won damages of half a million quid. In 1999 he was selected as the Tory candidate for Mayor of London. He withdrew after allegations he'd committed perjury, was subsequently found guilty and served two years in the clink.

Many years before that, he took out a loan of nearly half a million quid - without telling his wife - invested it and lost the lot. He talks about his wife all the time: How she's an intellectual and he isn't, how important her job is, how lucky he is to have married her. The fish of the day was John Dory. "Oh, my wife's favourite!" I'd have two entrees. "Oh, Mary does that!"

So I asked whether his wife had come on his book tour with him. This was the most idiotic question to have been asked of him, ever. "She doesn't have time to go flitting about watching me make silly speeches ... What? To open the door? Or empty the case? Certainly not. She's a serious woman with a serious job." She is chairwoman of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

Later, I read him a quote: "How did she end up with me? How could she be so silly?" That's a good question. A better one is: Why has she stayed with him? This out-did my just attained achievement of the stupidest question ever asked.

"Not for printing and very much off the record, I think that's unfair." Why? "No, I'm not answering. I think that's rude and that's off the record." Oh, piffle. I didn't agree to anything being off the record, and anyway, I don't think it's a rude question at all. How much did he borrow again, without telling his wife? I wasn't rude enough to mention the other little matters.

"She hasn't done badly in the long run. Ha, ha."

His latest writing venture is The Clifton Chronicles, a series of five books (the first, Only Time Will Tell, is out now) about a clever but poor boy called Harry Clifton, from Weston-Super-Mare, where Archer is from, so some clues there. His mother, Maisie, is raising him on her own; working her fingers to the bone to get Harry through school.

Maisie is based on his late mother and I do like the sound of her. When we looked at the forbidden pudding menu, he said his mother would have had three puddings. She liked to take what she called "a small suite" at the Savoy, where she'd take up residence with a girlfriend, an out-of-work actress, and they'd go out on the town in limos, drinking champagne, all on his money. I said, a tad sourly, that I wished I was having lunch with her.

Harry is about "50 per cent" Archer. Harry is very good, I said (meaning preternaturally good). Is he interested in the idea of goodness? "You want Harry to become a bad boy, do you?" I might. "Then you can write your own bloody novel. Wait and see."

What I'm getting at, as he well knows, is whether he's interested in any contemplation of himself, and of his past. The (very) short answer is no. I asked a number of ways about what he felt about prison. Humiliated? "No comment." Disgraced? "No comment." Has he contemplated how he feels about having gone to prison? "No comment."

He's done rather well out of it. He wrote his Prison Diaries for which, according to me, he got 10 million quid. He said, "which paper did you read that in? I didn't come to New Zealand to discuss that".

It's part of his life story; it may be the part that makes him interesting. "I agree with all of that. It doesn't mean I have to talk about it just because ..." and here he leaned towards the recorder and started shouting, "... you bullied me. Did you hear that?"

He was, by the time he got to shouting at a machine, joking again. To say he's mercurial doesn't begin to explain him. I did try one last time not to be rude or get him to fly into a rage, to get him to explain why he had done such a stupid, not to mention criminal, thing which ended his great political ambitions. Perhaps he doesn't know, or doesn't want to know.

The only really rude thing I asked was whether he'd ever seen a shrink. "No." Shouldn't he have? That got me nearly a minute of no speaks. He'll only say he had no regrets. Honestly? "You can't regret. We all make mistakes in life. You haven't made a mistake in life? You've made hundreds of mistakes." Not on that scale. "Oh, I'm sure you've made bigger ones."

Was he suggesting I'd been in the clink? Who knows? A friend of his once said the best way to attempt to explain him is to treat him as though he comes from another planet. "Ha, ha, ha."

But what does he think about that? "Yeah, I agree with that." What does it mean? "I have no idea." He can't agree with it and then claim to have no idea what it means! "Ha, ha, ha." The rest of the quote is: "He thinks he's Peter Pan ... Everything he does he thinks is going to be all right in the end." What does he think about that? "No idea."

He had got cross again, which made me cross, so I said: "Do you really have no idea? Or do you not want to answer? Or are you not interested?"

He thought for a bit then said: "Don't think I'm interested. I want to do things. I want to get on with life. You want to sit back and spend hours discussing something somebody said about me 20 years ago."

He later told me a sweet story about how, when his first book, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less came out, he was on the bill at a literary festival with James Herriott and David Niven. "And I would think 500 bought David Niven's book and 400 bought James Herriott's book and three bought mine.

And one of them was David Niven." Niven read his book on the way back to LA - "he clearly had a long plane journey" - and wrote a kind letter which "I'll keep for the rest of my life".

Now that is a nice story, I said, and he said, "Yes, well, that's from a very long time ago; 35 years ago." I said, "Well, there you are: 35 years ago ..." but he chose not to hear.

He said his wife wouldn't read him, if she wasn't married to him. "She reads Proust." He's never asked his great friend, Barry Humphries, if he reads his books; he's sure he doesn't. "He's a genuine bibliophile. I don't think I'd make it." I did like him, rather a lot, just then. He's not always awful, although you'd have to say he does work at it.

You have to grab the moments when he's not being blow-hardy or defensive. I risked asking about an even older anecdote, from the '60s. Ringo Starr said of him: "He strikes me as a nice enough fella, but he's the kind of bloke who would bottle your piss and sell it." Does he think that's funny? "Yeah, it's fun. And there is a little bit of truth in it."

So there we are. A little bit of truth right at the end. And that is as close to plumbing the depths of the infuriating, funny, clever, silly Jeffrey Archer as anyone - including Jeffrey Archer - is likely to ever get.

- NZ Herald

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