The author also reveals how he inadvertently helped finance an attempted coup. Interview by Nick Rufford.
Strange deaths, business feuding and betrayal, cover-ups, infidelity. It sounds like a Jeffrey Archer novel but it's actually Jeffrey Archer. The bestselling author of Kane and Abel and Not a Penny More is gazing across London from the "L room", the panoramic lounge of his £40 million ($78 million) penthouse. His other homes are a £5 million vicarage in Grantchester, once home to the poet Rupert Brooke, and a spectacular £30 million house on the Mediterranean in Mallorca. "I look out this window in the morning and think, you lucky bastard," he says. "You got a gift to tell a story, and you get all this. I live this unbelievable life."
Even lucky can't quite describe the Houdini-like talents of Jeffrey Archer, variously a policeman, PE teacher, public relations consultant, politician, peer, perjurer, prisoner number FF8282 — and that's just the Ps.
The view from his riverside eyrie must be among the best in London. Beyond Tate Britain on the north bank of the Thames are the sunlit rooftops and glittering domes and spires that mark his rise to fame. In the misty distance is Holloway, where he was born; the British Library, which houses copies of his 46 books and plays; the House of Lords, where he was ennobled in 1992; and the Commons, where he served a term as an MP. There are also the landmarks of the other Archer: Shepherd Market, where, a court heard, he rented a sex worker; the Old Bailey, where he was convicted of perjury; and downriver, near the Thames barrier, the great gates of Belmarsh prison, where he was incarcerated.
He spent two years at Her Majesty's pleasure, the author of his own downfall, locked up for some of the time alongside murderers and drug dealers. He'd lied under oath and fabricated evidence when, in 1987, he sued a newspaper that claimed he'd paid for sex. He won £500,000 ($979,000) in libel damages from the Daily Star — a record sum at the time — and might have got away with it but for the fact that he thrust himself back in the spotlight and stood as the Conservative candidate for London mayor. A former friend who'd provided a false alibi in the libel case changed his story and Archer was back in court — this time the defendant in a criminal case. Sent down in 2001, he served half his four-year sentence, then successfully relaunched his career as a novelist. Monica Coghlan, the prostitute who recounted how Archer paid her £70 ($140) for intercourse, broke down when she was branded a liar in the first trial. "I'm penniless through all this," she told the court. "He can carry on." She continued working the streets for money to raise her young son, but was killed in a car crash before Archer was jailed and never got the chance to hear herself vindicated. Lloyd Turner, editor of the Daily Star, sacked after the newspaper lost its libel action, also died before Archer was convicted and forced to repay the money. Another alibi dropped dead aged 52 not long after confessing to a friend that he had lied at Archer's behest.
Now aged 81, does Archer have regrets?
"I've never met someone who doesn't have regrets. No one sails through life. Nobody. I've never had anyone who couldn't see something they shouldn't have done, so I weigh the whole thing up and say, you can't complain, Jeffrey. You've been very privileged and lucky, no doubt about that. Two years [in prison] out of 80 or so, I'm sure you can work out the percentage, what two years is in 80, so one mustn't get it out of perspective."
It sounds as though he's more concerned about time wasted than lives ruined but he seems also to want to make amends, or at least be recast as a philanthropist. "I've started giving things away," he announces. "Paintings, possessions, because of my age. It's almost better than money in a way."
It sounds generous. "I sometimes feel not generous enough, for all I have and all the privileges I've had."
He estimates he gets 200 or 300 "Dear Jeffrey" letters a year from individuals and causes asking him for money, and has given away more than a million this year. He shouts to his secretary on the mezzanine for the name of a charity he has just donated to.
"That one yesterday, Alison? I was moved by it."
"Well, you did the cricket one?" his secretary shouts back.
"No, that I know, Chance to Shine. Those were young cricketers who are not getting the equipment. I love that, because I love cricket. What was the one I'd never heard of but was moved by?"
It turns out to be the Andrew Reed Foundation, a charity for underprivileged children. "You read it [the letter] and you think, all my grandchildren, all my children, are healthy and well," Archer says, apparently moved.
Is he really giving away everything?
"Almost everything, if I can. Well, once the children and the grandchildren are taken care of. Mary [his wife] feels very strongly about the grandchildren's education, so we set up a trust."
What about the penthouse? "The boys [his sons, William, 49, a theatre producer, and James, 47, a businessman] don't care for it. They love the house in Mallorca."
Some will see Archer as a man trying to make peace with his soul. Others will find it hard to shake the perception of a serial offender who, prior to his conviction, was accused of shoplifting and overclaiming expenses from the United Nations (both denied by Archer).
In Belmarsh, Archer was put on suicide watch but he claims it was routine for all new prisoners and didn't for a moment contemplate taking his own life. "You've got the wrong man. Never. Yeah, you felt low but just got on with it, thanks very much."
By "got on with it" he means he ran the prison library, à la Shawshank Redemption, and worked as a hospital orderly after being transferred to North Sea Camp and Hollesley Bay. He wrote three volumes of prison diaries, Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, titles that reflected the jails' security ratings. The books add up to a powerful narrative, perhaps the best written, of life inside Britain's prisons.
He kept a low profile and learnt to steer clear of the hardmen, especially the ones who'd committed crimes so heinous they had no prospect of early release and therefore no fear. Inmates who were careless or unlucky were stabbed with lavatory brushes sharpened into swords, or slashed with phone cards made into knives. One day a notorious double murderer made a beeline for Archer in the prison yard. With nowhere to hide, Archer bowed his head to avoid eye contact. A pause, then the man announced: "I would like to say how much I enjoy your books. I've been here 11 years and I've read everything you've written."
After that he taught creative writing to small groups of prisoners. His experience moved him to campaign for penal reform and he made some headway. "One of my [proposed] reforms has been a success. I said it was ridiculous that if you worked in the kitchen or you were a floor cleaner or a gardener, you got paid better than someone who wanted to do education. I said it should be the opposite way around. I wrote to the home secretary and said if someone got half a dozen O-levels or, as in one of my cases, a degree, surely that should be rewarded both financially and with your sentence being lowered. The battle I won is they're now paid equally."
He also campaigned for first-time, non-violent offenders to be separated from hardened criminals from the very start of their sentences, and against a rule that returned marijuana users to category A (high-security) prisons if they were caught smoking the drug in low-security jails. "I thought this was stupid. Of course it's a crime to smoke marijuana, though no one gets charged for it nowadays, but even though I've never taken a drug I felt there was a hell of a difference between marijuana and crack cocaine and heroin."
At one point, he claims, Nelson Mandela wrote to him inviting him for breakfast at the South African embassy. "I wrote back to him: 'Mr President, I do apologise but I'm in prison.' " It has the ring of truth but Archer is keen to present himself as a kindred spirit to Mandela, a victim of injustice. He fumes in his diaries that Ted Francis, the friend who turned against him and confessed to having provided a false alibi, was himself acquitted of perjury.
When Archer was released he tried unsuccessfully to help two lifers who had befriended him on the inside. "The two murderers that became friends are both dead. One allowed himself to die. He'd been abused and didn't have any purpose for life. The other one, the bright guy, who we got a degree for — this is worse — left prison, couldn't get a job, became a drunk. He sat there [Archer points to where I'm sitting] with his girlfriend. I thought, 'We're in.' His girlfriend is sensible. He was dead a year later."
So will a newly chastened Archer shed light on the other unresolved affair he was linked to: the infamous 2004 "wonga coup" in central Africa? He has strenuously denied involvement in the botched attempt to oust the dictator of Equatorial Guinea — a farce that lost its comedy when Simon Mann, a former SAS officer who led a group of armed mercenaries, was sent to one of Africa's most brutal jails.
"Yes, I did pay money to my friend but I had no idea what he was doing with it," he says, his frankest-sounding admission to date. The friend was Ely Calil, an oil baron who bankrolled the mercenaries with an eye on Equatorial Guinea's vast reserves of black gold. I suggest it's a stretch for people to believe that Archer gave away £74,000 ($145,000) without knowing what it was to be used for. "He promised to pay it back and he was an old friend," he counters. "No, I knew absolutely nothing about it, and any suggestion I did I would kill." Hold on, though, he had only just been released on licence, which meant he could have been recalled to jail. Was he not concerned about repercussions?
"No," Archer insists. "And that proves that I didn't know, now you say it like that. Thanks very much. You've just proved I didn't know."
Bank records indicated that £74,000 from a JH Archer was sent to a Channel Islands company controlled by Mann. Archer says the money was transferred there by Calil, that he had no prior knowledge and had "never heard of Mann". Calil, the only man able to contradict Archer's claim, died in a freak accident in 2018 — another improbability worthy of an Archer plot. The police declared Calil's death "unexplained". He appeared to have fallen down a flight of stairs, breaking his neck.
After he got out of jail in 2003, Archer's fortune rocketed to not a penny less than nine figures thanks to his book sales and judicious investments in property and art. The Sunday Times Rich List estimates his worth at £210 million ($411 million). Is it correct?
"God knows. I'll tell you one thing — I don't care," he says. "I want to be read. If you said to me, 'Jeffrey, I can give you £10 million or another 10 million readers,' I'd take the 10 million readers, please. I don't want a jet. I don't want a yacht," he glares at me.
Does he subscribe to the old maxim on renting, adopted by Jimmy Goldsmith: if it flies, floats or …
"Yes!" he interrupts. "God bless Jimmy Goldsmith."
As a boy at Wellington School in Somerset, Archer dreamt of captaining the local county cricket club. He left with three O-levels and for a while drifted between jobs, training with the army and joining the Metropolitan Police. He worked as a PE teacher before enrolling at Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education to study for a diploma. Plunging into politics, he was elected to represent the constituency of Louth aged 29, but was forced to leave the Commons after a disastrous investment in a Canadian cleaning company left him £428,000 ($838,000) in debt. He wrote Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less based on his experience, to stave off bankruptcy. Published in 1976 after 17 rejections, it was an instant hit and helped revive his political career. He was made deputy chairman of the Conservative Party in 1985 and a life peer in 1992.
During his golden years of political networking, his "Shepherd's pie and Krug" parties at his riverside apartment famously attracted the rich and talented. Young politicians were keen to ride on his coat-tails, including, he has said, the current crop of Westminster stars: Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Tobias Ellwood and Kwasi Kwarteng.
His books have sold at least 275 million copies, a publishing feat that puts him in the top 25 bestselling fiction authors of all time. His biggest success was his third novel, Kane and Abel, sales of which rival To Kill a Mockingbird and Gone with the Wind and which was serialised for television.
"I've got a hundred million readers for Kane and Abel, which changed my whole life," he says. "I haven't had to work since. It still makes a very respectable sum every year. It's on its 134th reprint."
It's said he was at one stage making so much money that when a bank clerk was filling out a form and asked whether his income was higher or lower than £20,000, he quipped, "Some days it is, others it isn't." When I check this quote he laughs and claims it was a joke he told at a dinner, but with Archer it's hard to tell.
He still writes in blocks of two hours, four times a day, a system he has used for more than 40 years. In January he signed another three-book deal with HarperCollins, which in 1990 lured him away from a rival publisher with a record US$30 million handshake. He dabbled in children's fiction when his sons were young, writing Willy and the Killer Kipper. Is he tempted to return to the series now he has five grandchildren? "The trouble is the HarperCollins contract doesn't exactly allow me a lot of time off," he says.
He sank his royalties into pictures and rare books. He wants me to see his famous Picasso painting of two doves (partygoers at his shepherd's pie and Krug shindigs who inquired about the guest lavatory would be directed "past the Picasso and left at the Matisse"). "Isn't it beautiful?" he coos. He continues a tour of some of his favourites, revealing who he's giving them to. Two Van Rysselberghes are going to the Ashmolean in Oxford and the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge. A Sisley is earmarked for the Tate. Other paintings and sculptures are lined up for his alma maters, Wellington School and Brasenose College, Oxford, as well as the National Maritime Museum, St Anne's College, Oxford, and the National Gallery of Australia.
Some have yet to find homes. He's got a Lowry, an Underwood, a Braque and two more Picassos he's forgotten the names of. "Genius," he says, gazing at them. (I check later and they're from the artist's Portraits Imaginaires suite.) He keeps other pictures in Grantchester and Mallorca (though less valuable ones "because of the Mediterranean sun"). I ask what they're all worth. "Well, your paper, in the Rich List, said £100 million. I don't know is the honest truth."
His enviable collection of first-edition books includes F Scott Fitzgerald ("Fitzgerald taught me that if you're going to kill someone, do it in a sentence"), Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, plus "all of the Graham Greenes, all the Dickens, all of the Somerset Maughams, all the Trollopes." They'll find homes in libraries and, in the case of the Dickens, the Charles Dickens Museum.
Not all his investments have paid off. Several theatre productions tanked including Exclusive, a play about the press. "I've had a lot of failures in theatre productions and one big success in Grease that covered it all, because I owned 30 per cent. The best investment I made, only because I knew the people involved and liked them, was YouGov, because Stephan Shakespeare was a friend and Nadhim Zahawi, so I backed them, and it has gone through the roof." Zahawi, now education secretary, was at one time Archer's spokesman and defended him when in 1999 he was forced to resign from the London mayoral race. Zahawi went on to co-found the polling company YouGov with Shakespeare.
Archer credits his good fortune to hard work and the loyal support of his wife, Mary, 76, a scientist specialising in solar power, who is chancellor of Buckingham University and who was made Dame Commander of the British Empire for her work during a decade chairing Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. He phoned her as often as he was allowed from jail and panicked if more than a few days elapsed when he couldn't reach her — "Pathetic," he recalls. Would he have survived prison without her? "It would have been very much worse," he admits. Did he fear she would divorce him when evidence surfaced, during and after his trial, of extramarital affairs? "Divorce, never. Murder, several times."
It's a well-used line and he's got a stock of them, a legacy of having presided — pre-convict days — over hundreds of charity auctions that raised more than £60 million, he says, and where he was famous for putting down hecklers or berating well-heeled guests who failed to stump up. Good causes adore him still, and there's the enigma. Some say the two sides to his personality result from the death of his father when he was 15. William Archer, a one-time chewing-gum salesman, was also a bigamist and convicted fraudster who impersonated a war hero whose identity he stole.
"Jeffrey Archer wants to be an adorable rogue," said one longstanding friend. He loves books by authors who, like him, served time. The American short-story writer O Henry is one. Henri Charrière, the author of Papillon, is another. Charrière outlived the cruel prison system in French Guiana that incarcerated him. Has Archer outlived the era of chequebook journalism that destroyed his reputation and his political career? (He was sacked by the Conservatives but kept his title, Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare, peerages being permanent.) The News of the World, the newspaper that trapped him in a sting operation with Coghlan and paid Francis £19,000 to admit he'd faked his alibi, closed its doors a decade ago. He's not bitter. Off the record, he reveals some gossip about a serving cabinet minister. "The old News of the World would have printed it by now," he says wistfully.
He survived prostate cancer eight years ago and is doing his best to stay fit. "I'm training three times a week, though now, I'm afraid, that consists of not very much more than a little running, a lot of stretching, a little cardiovascular. I read in one paper yesterday that a very fit man had a heart attack and dropped dead. So, yes, I'm very aware that I'm limited. My chances of captaining the England cricket team are diminishing by the day."
He feels blessed to have enjoyed recognition — and reward — within his own lifetime. Other authors weren't so lucky, he reflects. "Fitzgerald died a terrible drunk. He's a legend now but The Great Gatsby sold 82 copies the year he died."
He wants to mention his new page-turner, Over My Dead Body, the latest in a series about Detective Inspector William Warwick, the fictional son of a high-powered lawyer who decides to join the Met, preferring to put villains away, not defend them in court.
When I ask whether the world needs another detective novel he's got another well-rehearsed line: "It's not a detective novel. It's a novel about a detective."
Set in 1992, parts of the narrative have a familiar ring. At a meeting in the Savoy, the arch-villain finds out The Sunday Times Insight team is on to him, investigating a fake painting. I remind him that he and I had lunch in the Savoy at the end of 1991, when I was editor of The Sunday Times Insight team. I was investigating, among other things, art fraud. Archer had the lowdown on the bootleg market, though wasn't involved. "It's all come around in a circle," he says, laughing.
Uncannily, the villain in his crime caper is a suave art collector who bamboozles his way to the top, somehow staying one step ahead of the law. Warwick eventually snaps the cuffs on him and drives him to a London prison where he's previously served time. As they enter through the gates, Archer writes, "the governor stepped forward. 'Welcome back, 0249,' he said. 'I'm afraid your old cell is currently occupied, but we've found you a larger one, which you'll be sharing with a couple of lifers. Just be thankful you're not in solitary. But do let me know if that would be your preference.' " It's only fiction, Archer says, uneasily.
The Wonga coup
An Old Etonian SAS officer, 69 battle-hardened mercenaries and a daring plot to depose an African dictator, reviled for trousering petrodollars while letting his people starve. The prize was millions in cash to be paid by Equatorial Guinea's exiled opposition leader once he was installed, plus the prospect of valuable oil concessions. What could possibly go wrong? For a start, security agencies on four continents had been tipped off in advance to drum up support for the putsch. Hardly surprising, then, when in March 2004 Simon Mann, a former SAS captain, arrived in Harare en route to central Africa to load up his chartered plane with AK47s, mortars and grenade launchers, police were waiting. Jailed in Zimbabwe, Mann sent a plea to his lawyer for a big "splodge of wonga" to get him out, hence the coup's nickname. Instead he was extradited to Equatorial Guinea in 2008 and sent down in shackles and leg irons to spend 35 years in the country's notorious Black Beach prison. The coup backers, it emerged, included Ely Calil, a British-Lebanese businessman and close friend of Jeffrey Archer, and Sir Mark Thatcher, son of the former prime minister. Archer admits loaning £74,000 to Calil, sent to Mann's Channel Islands company four days before the coup, but insists he had no prior knowledge of the plot. Furthermore, Thatcher made a statement exonerating him, he says. Mann was freed in 2009 on a full pardon by Equatorial Guinea's president, Teodoro Obiang, who is still in power. Mann traded freedom for details of who was behind the plot, which he maintained had the tacit approval of high-ranking British political figures, including ministers.
Over My Dead Body by Jeffrey Archer is published on October 12 by HarperCollins.
Written by: Nick Rufford
© The Times of London