Still Quite a Quiverful

Jeffrey Archer has no clue what makes great literature but is never short of stories to tell
Passing Through
He is vocal about his vast Indian readership, and recounts with fondness his encounter with a young girl in Bangalore who met him two years ago and promised she’d have written a book by the time she met him next.(Photo: RAUL IRANI)

Jeffrey Archer does not come across as a 73-year-old man. He looks younger, certainly, but he also appears too eager, too full of restlessness to be that age. He still seems to want to do everything, and be everything. “I have no intention of mellowing,” he told The Independent in a 2011 interview, and 30 minutes spent in his company are more than enough to confirm the sincerity of that statement.

In another 2011 interview, this time to The Telegraph, he described himself as always having been “an ‘action is louder than words’ type of person”, admitting that it was a shock to many that he ended up being a writer. Indeed, it seems to have happened almost by accident. Out of work and out of pocket after suffering huge losses on a bad investment, he wrote his first novel Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less “simply because I hadn’t got much else to do and I thought it was a good idea for a story.” It is the story of four men who extract an exact sum of money they were swindled—of through a revenge investment fraud of their own.

It is not unusual for Archer’s work to draw from his own life. His fiction is full of money, politics and scandal. His passion for art, particularly the Impressionists, is also in ample evidence. Oxford and Cambridge—his sometime alma-mater and current residence—feature prominently and frequently as illustrations of character, pinnacles of achievement, bastions of snobbery, and are often objects of general aspiration and nostalgia. The two institutions are appropriate architecture in a fictional universe that revolves around bright men who are embroiled in and emerge from various kinds of intrigue.

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Archer’s latest, Best Kept Secret, for the promotion of which he was recently in Delhi, is the third in a series called The Clifton Chronicles, which he admits are heavily autobiographical. Set in Bristol, where Archer grew up, the books follow Harry Clifton, a writer who grows up the son of a dockworker and a waitress, wins a chance at a good education and marries into money, despite the revelation that his fiancé is actually his half-sister. Best Kept Secret features a threat to wealth, a political fight, an old rivalry, the re-adoption of a child, some youthful rebellion and some soft-espionage.

Archer says there is a lot of him in Harry, but it’s hard to escape the impression he has been writing about himself all along: all his lived and unlived lives. He has been a physical education instructor, an Olympic athlete, a member of British parliament. Besides being a bestselling author, he is now also a philanthropist, auctioneer, art-collector and theatregoer. If he has written his fiction in keeping with his life, he has styled himself as he might one of his own heroes—a renaissance man, a jack-of-all-trades, someone who does many things because he can’t quite decide, and ends up writing about it all, plus some things he would’ve liked to have done.

When he appears for all of five seconds in the 2002 film Bridget Jones’ Diary, he looks almost sheepish at being acknowledged at a fictional book launch, where he is pacifyingly told that his books “aren’t bad”. He would then have been newly out of a two-year stint in prison, serving a sentence for perjury during a libel case against a British tabloid that he fought and won a decade ago. It turned out he’d lied about sleeping with a sex worker. Nothing about him now, on a triumphant book tour through one of his largest markets, India, comes across as sheepish. Instead, he seems strangely inflated. He has the comportment of a man secure in his income, acutely aware of his own worth.

He is vocal about his vast Indian readership, and recounts with fondness his encounter with a young girl in Bangalore who met him two years ago and promised she’d have written a book by the time she met him next. He met her once again on his latest tour and says he is expecting her book any day. On his cue, one of three publicity people in the room pivots a laptop in my direction so I can see a scan of what appears to be a Kannada newspaper featuring a grainy photograph of Archer surrounded by fans, his arm around a young girl, looking like some sort of folk hero.

It is no wonder he reacts with mock-horror to being told that it’d been a while since I’d read a book of his. Looking aghast, he turns, palms up, towards the good people of Pan McMillan sitting at one end of the conference table: “I thought 15 million Indians had read me! How did I miss this one?” He has a sense of humour, or at least a capacity for self amusement. Or perhaps it is pride at a self-styled keenness of wit. At any rate, it is what puts a twinkle in his eye as he describes India in a series of measured adjectives, parcelled out with the kind of wry squint one might expect to precede a shrewd observation: “Frantic. Undisciplined. Warm. Friendly. Chaotic.”

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Archer is at his best when he settles into the persona of a popular writer who enjoys what he does and is content with his life. The ease, however, seems fragile, disrupted at the slightest allusion to any of the many controversies in his long career—his bankruptcy, his expulsion from the UK’s Conservative Party, his candidacy for Mayor of London aborted by a prison sentence. “I was never bankrupt,” he says sharply. He appears perpetually on guard, ready to duel the next challenger who might emerge from the shadows at a moment’s notice.

He seems to speak from the site of some fresh wound when he talks about those “snooty critics [who] go on and on about literature as if they’re very special because they can understand it, and we normal mortals can’t”. It is somewhat surprising that a writer with such a long career and loyal readership could be bitter about critics. For although he insists he ignores them—at least the snooty ones, as opposed to “serious critics” who aren’t cruel, just accurate—he seems in constant defence of his merits as a writer against some imaginary council of letters that is withholding its approval of him. Calling himself a storyteller seems to help him side-step this conflict, but it is still an embattled self-description, an apparent refuge from a long struggle for legitimacy. The Guardian once described him as a ‘buffoon, philanderer and fraud’, and one suspects the first of those labels would bother him the most.

Archer mentions no contemporary among writers he admires, and when probed on specific names, offers a few polite nods of approval. He likes “storyteller writers”—Vikram Seth and RK Narayan, F Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Dickens—and says a good story is “a God-given gift”. Asked if he has that gift, he allows himself a twinge of smugness: “According to your press, yes.”