Cheering us up

Ian Jack

  • In for a Penny: The Unauthorised Biography of Jeffrey Archer by Jonathan Mantle
    Hamish Hamilton, 264 pp, £11.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 241 12478 6

In the opening pages of Thomas Mann’s novel, Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, the hero debates a question which has always worried him: which is better for the careerist, to see the world small or to see it big? The small view has its attractions. Great statesmen and empire-builders must see the world this way, Krull thinks: like a chessboard, with human pieces that can be manoeuvred coldly and boldly as the player rises above the mass of mankind. On the other hand, such detachment might just as easily lead to indolence and indifference – ‘to one’s doing nothing at all’. Moreover, a coolness of attitude might put other people off and prevent ‘any possible success you might have achieved involuntarily’.

As for the larger view, which sees the world and its inhabitants as ‘something great, glorious and significant’, the great danger here is awe, which could so easily lead to insecurity and career-denying humility. Still – and this for Krull is the clinching argument – there is a great deal to be said for genuine credulity and artlessness, ‘since men cannot but be flattered by the way you look up to them; and if you devote yourself to making this impression, it will give weight and seriousness to your life, lending it meaning in your own eyes and leading to your advancement.’

There is no written evidence to suggest that Jeffrey Archer has ever read Thomas Mann. One of the many striking aspects of his career, however, is the way in which Felix Krull’s larger view of the world has advanced it. Many older men (and at least one older woman) have been beguiled by his apparently artless energy and enthusiasm. They have, as it were, fallen for him, adopted him, and with their handholds he has climbed on and up. Unkind people are blunter about it. Of Archer’s time in the Commons as the Conservative member for Louth, a fellow MP said to the author of this book: ‘He had one of the longest tongues for sycophancy I’d ever seen. He congratulated everyone on whatever they were doing. He was quite clearly destined for higher things.’

Since that lime Archer has enjoyed what newspapers like to call a ‘roller-coaster’ career, though it has more noticeably gone up than down. The broad outline of his story is well-known. The young Archer shines in athletics at Oxford, gets into the papers as an ebullient fund-raiser for charities (though questions are raised about his percentage of the take), and then enters Tory politics as the late Greater London Council’s youngest-ever councillor. The Louth by-election beckons. Archer wins with a vastly increased Tory majority, and wins again in two succeeding general elections. The charity business booms. Archer says he need never work again. Then the first disaster: Archer sinks £272,000 – all of it borrowed money – in dud Canadian shares and is threatened with bankruptcy. He quits Parliament and vows, to some incredulity, that he will fashion a best-selling novel from his experience. This and later books sell amazingly well. Pluckily, he writes his way out of debt.

He becomes ‘the world’s greatest story-teller’, an entertaining interviewee, a value-for-money guest on talk-shows. Self-help, patriotism and the game for the game’s sake are his constant themes. Mrs Thatcher overcomes doubts about his ‘judgment’ and appoints him the Party’s deputy chairman. Then the second disaster: he offers £2000 to a prostitute so that she may go abroad. The deal takes place at Victoria Station, where Archer’s proxy meets the prostitute, who is in league with the News of the World. The story breaks. Archer resigns as deputy chairman, but sues another tabloid, the Daily Star, for libel.

The subsequent High Court action, in July, 1987, had everything. A loyal wife. A weeping prostitute. An un-English ‘sneak’ in the shape of a rich Pakistani lawyer. But most of all it had Mr Justice Caulfield, whose summing-up contained sentiments and phrases which quickly passed through the courtroom door and into folklore. He asked the jury to ponder the character of Archer and his wife. First, Mary Archer, scientist, Anglican chorister and mother of two children:

Remember Mary Archer in the witness box. Your vision of her probably will never disappear. Has she elegance? Has she fragrance? Would she have, without the stain of this trial, radiance? What is she like in physical features, in presentation, in appearance? How would she appeal? Has she been able to enjoy rather than endure her husband Jeffrey? Is she right when she says to you, you may think with delicacy: ‘Jeffrey and I lead a full life?’

Then Jeffrey Archer, Oxonian, millionaire novelist and father of two children:

Look at him. What is his history? His history, you might think, is worthy and healthy and sporting – which is ordinary. A great tribute of the British is their almost adoration ... of good lawful sports like cricket and athletics. Jeffrey Archer himself was president of the Oxford University Athletic Club. He ran for his country. You may think he is fit-looking, and you may think he is still interested in an athletic life. Is he in need of cold, unloving, rubber-insulated sex in a seedy hotel round about quarter to one on a Tuesday morning, after an evening at the Caprice with his agent or editor?

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