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?

The jury decided not. Archer was awarded costs and £500,000, then the largest libel damages in British legal history. Today husband and wife appear as burnished media icons of the happy English marriage – vindicated, wiped clean of the smears of the tabloid press. We see Mary on the BBC’s religious hour, choosing her favourite hymns for Cliff Michelmore, indeed conducting some of them. We see Jeffrey pretty well everywhere. He is a ubiquitous sort of person. Chat-shows, quiz-shows, sports-shows, by-elections: Jeffrey bounds through them all, often in apparel that indicates membership of some august sporting institution. What does he tell us of himself? That he attended public school and Oxford, where he still holds the record for the 100 yard dash; that he loves cricket and ardently supports the Somerset county side (here he may affect a Zummerset accent); that he referees schools rugby in the shirt of the Achilles Club; that hard work and getting off his backside have made him what he is (anyone can do it); that he and his family live in Rupert Brooke’s home, the Old Vicarage, Grantchester. He has also, we are vaguely aware, some kind of yeoman, military ancestry (the archers at Crécy?). He purveys a kind of Englishness that protests too much, as though it had been devised by a Germany spy while his parachute was coming down to land. Not even David Puttnam could ask for anything more.

In this ‘unauthorised biography’ – ‘unauthorised’ in the sense that Archer first agreed to see the author and then thought better of it – Jonathan Mantle sets out to scrutinise Archer’s career. Together with Justice Caulfield he asks, ‘What is his history?’ and then proceeds to unearth information which was never aired in the High Court. There are some interesting passages. Mantle does well with the Oxfam affair, in which Archer is usually credited with persuading the Beatles to appear on Oxfam’s behalf, which turns out to be not completely true; and he sheds more light on the business of Archer and his erroneous expenses for the United Nations Association. But on the whole the book is not up to the job. Mantle writes badly (perhaps under pressure of time – this is a ‘quick book’) and, less excusably, fails too often as an inquiring journalist. He has talked to several of Archer’s friends and skimmed the press clippings. The last is a good place to start, given that Archer’s flame has always flickered and leapt in what his former mistress chooses to call ‘the oxygen of publicity’, but as anyone who has ever tried to write a decent piece about Archer will know, the press clippings need more than a skim.

The best summary of the difficulties facing an Archer biographer came from the lips of Mary Archer herself, when she observed some years ago to Russell Miller of the Sunday Times Magazine that her husband had ‘a gift for inaccurate précis’. Laurence Marks elaborated on this aside in one of his excellent unsigned profiles for the Observer in 1984:

All good raconteurs ornament the truth. Archer’s technique is more radical. The facts of the story are usually true (more or less), but they have been dismantled, new roles allocated, details dramatised as dialogue, and then reassembled again. It is, so to speak, the Cubist school of table-talk; the effect is striking but somewhat lacking in verisimilitude.

An Archer investigator, therefore, needs to be a Heinrich Schliemann in the cuttings libraries, as well as a Philip Marlowe of the Army List and old postal directories.

Archer’s father presents the first difficulty. Mantle tells us that he died in Weston-super-Mare in 1955, when Archer was 15: but who was he and what did he do? Newspaper interviews with Archer offer a choice. According to Terry Coleman in the Guardian of 21 July 1973, Archer senior served ‘in the Royal Engineers and then in the diplomatic service, and was once British consul in Singapore’. According to the International Herald Tribune of 4 May 1980, he was ‘an army officer who went through the fall of Singapore – “a very clever but physically depleted worn-out man,” Archer said.’ According to the Observer of 10 July 1984, ‘he won a Distinguished Conduct Medal as a sergeant in the Somerset Light Infantry in 1914.’

It was Laurence Marks who dug up the last of these career alternatives. Marks, a most scrupulous journalist, had interviewed Archer and then thought he should check his father’s precise status in the Army. The answer from the regimental archivist produced that small thrill which journalists experience when they find their quarry’s social origins are humbler than previously assumed. Aha, not an officer but a sergeant! Alas, he’d been given the wrong scent.

One William Archer did indeed serve as a sergeant in the Somerset Light Infantry and he did win a DCM. In 1986, his grandson sent his photographs to the regimental archive. In 1987, the regimental secretary, Lt-Col Ronald Woodhouse, told Geoffrey Levy of the Daily Mail: ‘I am positive now that Sergeant Archer is in no way related to Jeffrey Archer, the author and politician.’ As for Archer the officer and Archer the consul, a trail through the Army and Diplomatic Lists fails to reveal any trace of a W.R. Archer, other than a lieutenant of that name who served in the Ulster Territorials in the Forties and Fifties after a short career as a ‘war substantive’ major between 1945 and 1946. Why, in any case, would a British colony such as Singapore need a British consul?

What we know for certain is that Jeffrey Howard Archer was born on 15 April 1940, at 102 City Road, London, then the City of London Maternity Hospital. His birth certificate, which Mantle hasn’t bothered to examine, shows that his father, William Robert Archer, lived at 48 Highbury Grove, then a North London boarding-house owed by one Mrs Rhoda Bowness. His occupation is given as ‘journalist’. The mother, Lola Howard Archer, lived separately over the Thames at a now-vanished address in Southwark – 18 Nelson Square – which was bombed later that year. It was she who registered her son’s birth at Finsbury Register Office more than a month later, on 17 May.

Later in 1940 – perhaps to escape the Blitz – the family moved to Weston-super-Mare, the Somerset seaside resort, where Mantle says that neighbours ‘for some reason’ knew the father as Captain Archer, a retiring sort of man, later bent double with back pain. According to Mantle, the family were hard-up. Mrs Archer supplemented the sparse family income with a column – ‘Over the Teacups’ – in the Weston Mercury. Nonetheless, in 1951, Jeffrey went as a boarder to Wellington School, Somerset (not to be confused with the more famous Wellington College, Berkshire, though Archer has rarely corrected any confusion). There he showed skill at games rather than examinations. Mantle says he left school without A levels and thus lacked ‘a key aid to finding a direction in his young adult life’.

The next period in Archer’s story has still to be properly unravelled, but from Mantle’s book and other sources a rough chronology can be arranged. After leaving school, Archer worked in seaside cafés and country hotels: the Il Chianti coffee-bar in Weston, certainly, the Lygon Arms, Broadway perhaps. In the summer of 1958, he joined the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment as a regular soldier at the regimental barracks in Halifax. In 1960, he joined the Metropolitan Police and was posted after five months to ‘L’ division in Brixton, where he resigned after four weeks. Later that year, he turned up as a sports master and odd-job-man at a private crammer in Hampshire called Vicar’s Hill, run by a Mrs Brewer.

Then, in 1961, came what can now be seen as his big break. Not for the first or the last time in his life, an older man was seduced by his combination of energy and deference. T.H. (‘Tim’) Cobb, the headmaster of a respectable public school, Dover College in Kent, decided to appoint him the school’s sports master and extra geography teacher. There were several other more impressively qualified candidates, and Archer’s previous employer had hardly furnished a glowing reference – according to Mantle, Mrs Brewer told Cobb: ‘Don’t touch him.’ But Cobb became, and for several years remained, Archer’s most important mentor. There was something about Archer, he told Mantle, that he ‘couldn’t quite put his finger on’. To Levy of the Daily Mail, Cobb said: ‘What struck me most about him was his certainty that he could command success.’

Archer has never talked publicly – at least not to journalists – about his working life prior to his arrival at Dover College. When Paul Foot first disclosed Archer’s short-lived Police career (Daily Mirror, 30 October, 1986), the confirmation came from Archer’s lawyer rather than Archer himself. ‘His life story,’ wrote Foot, ‘shows that curious mixture of personal ambition and fantasy which is the hallmark of modern Tory Britain,’ There is an important question here. Why should Archer, normally so bumptious about his Struggle from Log Cabin to White House, miss out so much of the log-cabin experience? A clue may lie in the curriculum vitae which Archer submitted to Cobb in 1961, and was later obtained by Levy of the Mail to help him with his ‘background’ piece during Archer’s libel action (Daily Mail, 25 July 1987). Among his attainments Archer listed three A and eight O levels, attendance at the ‘Army Physical Instructor’s Course at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst’, and an ‘Honours Diploma International Federation of Physical Culture, University of Berkeley, California’.

Levy checked with Sandhurst, but the college discovered no trace of Archer (or the course he said he attended) in their records. Christopher Wilson, in unpublished research for the Daily Express, could find only three O levels, taken over two years, attached to Archer’s name in the fine print of the Wellington Weekly News. But these are petty questions compared to Archer’s American experience, and the qualification which helped him towards a postgraduate course at Oxford. Several journalists, myself included, have tried and failed to find any evidence that Archer attended any course which was in any way recognised by American academic institutions. The University of California has no record of his studying at any of its nine campuses, nor of the organisation, the International Federation of Physical Culture, which Archer said had awarded him an honours diploma. Paul Foot pressed this point with Archer’s lawyer in 1986, to be told eventually: ‘Mr Archer attended the summer school at the University of California but at no time claimed any qualifications from that university.’

This interesting statement conflicts with an early (perhaps the earliest) Archer profile, published by the Oxford student magazine Isis as one of its ‘Isis Idols’ series on 7 November 1964. Again, Mantle hasn’t dug far enough in the files to reach it, which is a pity because it’s one of the few documents to be in any way specific about his subject’s American period (we may, or may not, know about Archer’s route to America: according to the Guardian’s ‘Coleman Interview’, he travelled ‘on a tramp steamer from Scotland via the Panama Canal’).

The Isis piece reads, in part:

Archer’s university career began with a two-year course at California University after the opportunity to go to America had arisen in his last year at Wellington School, in Somerset. He admits the dangers of a foreigner assessing the colour problem of the South, but hints at his opinion of the situation by regarding Martin Luther King and the late President Kennedy as his two idols. Whilst in his final year, Archer led a small demonstration against the final quashing of the death sentence appeal made by Carl [sic] Chessman. It was a move that brought him his first newspaper interview and with it a passionate dislike for journalists, though he himself is, of course, the sports commentator for Cherwell, the Best Student Newspaper in Britain ....

  Above all, though, Archer detests snide allusions to his interest in education. He is not an athlete who came to Oxford for athletics under the pretext of reading for a Dip. Ed. Before coming to Oxford he taught at Dover College and though he doesn’t foresee a career as a school-master, he believes that his present studies at the Dept of Education into the use of social studies for sixth-formers will lead him into some form of social work. He would ‘like to do something positive about world population’ but sadly confesses that he is ill-equipped for field work.

The reference to Caryl Chessman is intriguing. The US Supreme Court finally rejected Chessman’s appeal on 29 April 1960, which would indicate that Archer led his demonstration some time between then and 2 May, when Chessman went to the gas-chamber at San Quentin. Of course, according to his lawyer, speaking 22 years after the Isis piece, Archer only attended a summer school: let’s be kind and imagine the Isis reporter misheard him. But what kind of summer school opens its doors in April? And how can it be that, in the same month that Chessman’s appeal was rejected, Archer himself enrolled as a cadet in the Metropolitan Police?

According to Mantle, both Tim Cobb and Alexander Peterson, the director of Oxford’s education department, decided that it would be ‘churlish’ to ask Archer for his paper credentials. The two older men knew each other – Peterson preceded Cobb as the headmaster of Dover College – and though Mantle does not describe their political attitudes, both belonged to the gloaming of British imperialism. Cobb, a Harrow and Cambridge man, had served as a secretary to the Uganda Headmasters Association. Peterson had been Director-General of Information Services – that is, chief British propagandist – during the Malayan emergency. Together they got Archer into Oxford as a ‘postgraduate’ student, aged 23. At a later stage, questions were asked by the University Registry, but by then Archer had become an invaluable member of the athletics team and attracted the patronage of Sir Noel Hall, the Master of Brasenose, which college allowed Archer token university membership. Mantle writes: ‘He spoke to the principal [Hall] as he had done to Cobb, in a way that was both respectful and confiding, almost as if he were addressing a father. Hall liked that. It was not until he met Cobb that Hall realised that Jeffrey made everyone feel that way.’

Does any of this matter? The question has occurred to every journalist who has ever laboured in the cuttings library, trying to sort out the contradictions and ambiguities of Archer’s life. Sometimes it has all seemed rather trivial and, well, churlish, and the answer has been no. In this mood, thinking of Archer’s vivid public life since Oxford, it is a novel by Arnold Bennett rather than Thomas Mann that comes to mind. Archer, surely, is Bennett’s Denry Machin, the washerwoman’s son who rises to be the youngest mayor of Bursley in The Card. In Archer’s early ventures – Babysitters Unlimited, Arrow Enterprises – we see shades of the Five Towns Universal Thrift Club. In the many mentors who’ve been charmed by his cheek we detect the Countess of Chell, the Mrs Thatcher of North Staffordshire society. The parallels are not only uncanny, they are also agreeable. And it is tempting to go along with the novel’s last line: that whatever Denry Machin may or may not have done, he will be for ever identified with ‘the great cause of cheering us all up’.

Then, home from the cuttings library, we hear Archer on the radio. Perhaps he is urging British youths to cure the unemployment problem by ‘getting off their backsides’, just as he did. Perhaps he is recalling his days on the running track. Whatever the case, he will be so immensely pleased with himself that we go back to the cuttings library the next day with renewed vigour, remembering the opening rather than the closing pages of The Card and particularly the sentence: ‘He gradually came to believe that he had won the scholarship by genuine merit, and that he was a remarkable boy and destined to great ends.’

Awaiting us, always, will be some new puzzle from one of the world’s great storytellers. How, for example, does one reconcile the following. Archer to Mr Justice Caulfield, on 15 July 1987: ‘I have never met a prostitute on my own, ever, my Lord.’ Archer to Richard Compton-Miller (‘William Hickey’) of the Daily Express, 28 October 1986: ‘I just wanted to tell you the lady I was having dinner with last night was helping me with some research for my new book. She is a lady of the night.’ No contradiction, My Lord. We beg to submit that it is the second rather than the first of these two statements which demonstrates our client’s outstanding gift for inaccurate précis.