Tuesday 15 October 2019

'It's pointless getting annoyed by critics' - Jeffrey Archer on ageing, success, and Brexit-era politics

Just months away from his 80th birthday, and with the rollicking first novel of a new eight-part series published, Ian O'Doherty finds Jeffrey Archer to be as busy and opinionated as ever - especially about the poisonous nature of Brexit-era politics

Passion: English novelist Jeffrey Archer. Pictures by Fergal Phillips
Passion: English novelist Jeffrey Archer. Pictures by Fergal Phillips
Flashback: Archer in 1969 after becoming an MP
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

If you were to ask many Irish people of a certain age for their opinion of Jeffrey Archer, you'd certainly receive plenty of feedback, but little of it good.

There are plenty of reasons for that, of course.

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Seen as one of Thatcher's favourite pets and the almost quintessential Little Englander, his reputation wasn't helped by the relentless and hilarious pillorying he received from Spitting Image or the Private Eye caricatures of him as, frankly, a borderline lunatic. Oh, and, lest we forget, there was all the unpleasantness of his perjury trial, which saw him enjoy the Queen's hospitality for several years in the early 2000s.

Yet behind that public persona, he has also managed to sell more than 300 million copies of his books; an astonishing statistic made even more notable by the fact that his breakthrough novel, Kane and Abel, is still in print 40 years after its publication. Remarkably, it sold 400,000 copies last year.

Archer has always been despised by the literary critics who refused to read his books as well as reviewers who only read them for an excuse to give him a kicking. While that undoubtedly provided extremely humorous reviews, it ignored the jaw-dropping success of his work.

Lounging in the Merrion Hotel last Saturday, following his appearance on the previous night's Late Late, Archer is a relaxed man at ease with himself and, perhaps surprisingly, the critics who so enjoy baiting him.

With the publication of Nothing Ventured, his latest novel and the first in a planned eight-part series involving a young detective who goes into policing so he can prosecute the kind of criminals his QC father likes to defend, Archer has embarked on a fairly mammoth task. It's made even more impressive by the fact that he is about to turn 80 and not in the best of health.

He shrugs off his age "as just a number" but admits that he's more concerned about his health now than ever before and, as he says, "setting myself a task like this is what I do to keep me interested".

To anyone who has never read Archer's work, Nothing Ventured will come as a pleasant surprise. Easily finished in two sittings it is, as he might say himself, a rollicking good yarn that zips along. If you're looking for internal dialogue and characters thinking deep thoughts, Archer is not the man for you.

On the other hand, he spins a cracking yarn and insists that that's the most important thing: "Some people are great writers, some are great storytellers. A very few can combine both but that's rare. I tell great stories, I put a lot of work into them and people enjoy reading them. There's no point in getting annoyed at the critics, most of them are just jealous anyway."

For a man who justifiably earned a reputation as a rather prickly, slippery character, the Archer of 2019 is a different beast and his affection for Ireland - he had his honeymoon here in 1966 - is certainly reciprocated, if the steady stream of well-wishers and autograph hunters who approach him is anything to go by.

It's perhaps a testimony to his often chaotic personal life that the fact that he's managed to shift more than 300 million books is the least interesting thing about him. Certainly, any preconceived notions are quickly dispelled.

Contrary to his latest public persona, which sees him rail against the Remainers in Westminster, his views are far more nuanced.

As he points out: "I was an MP in 1972 and voted to go into Europe. I'm a passionate believer in Europe, and always have been. But the will of the people has been ignored and that's what concerns me."

He blames the 'Westminster bubble' for both the politicians and the media being so badly blindsided by the Brexit result, saying his moment of realisation came: "During an event I was doing in Yorkshire for cricketer Mike Brearley" - the poor chap is also extremely clumsy, if the number of names he drops are any indication - "I asked the crowd how they were voting. The vast majority, several hundred, said they were voting Leave. That's when I knew there was something happening outside London that we simply weren't paying attention to."

Still a fixture in the lobby bars and cafés around Westminster, he despairs at the viciousness of the current situation and doesn't hold out much hope for the future: "When I was in Parliament," he says, "it was quite the norm to be friendly, or even close friends, with the 'other side'. I had Labour friends who I thought should be Tories and I had some views which made my Labour friends think I should be with them. But it has all become truly poisonous now, it's terribly depressing."

His mood isn't lifted by the two main party leaders, either. Not as much a fan of Boris Johnson as one might think - "he's a good campaigner but not a great communicator at times" - his real ire is kept for Jeremy Corbyn, although he warns that any internal move by Labour against the current leader, "would probably see John McDonnell in charge. He hates people who risk everything to build up their own companies and are big employers. He just wants to make everything harder for anyone who wants to go out on their own."

But he also warns the anti-Corbyn faction to be careful what they wish for: "It's similar to the situation with Trump in America. People are desperate for him to go, but to be replaced by who? Mike Pence? That would be much worse."

Admitting that, just like everyone else, he simply hasn't a clue about how Brexit is going to pan out, he muses that it could leave us with a "United Ireland, an independent Scotland and a Great Britain consisting of just Wales and England. Singapore by the sea, and what is wrong with that?"

He may be a Remainer, but his heart is English. Perhaps surprisingly, he is no climate denier and says that his Damascene moment came when he and wife, the scientist Mary Archer, went to Iceland a few years ago.

"I didn't really want to go, but we went out on a boat to see a famous iceberg and the captain was shocked to see that it had simply melted since he was last there. It was a remarkable moment. Mary was way ahead of me on this issue." He's also an admirer of Greta Thunberg: "I was in Sweden two years ago. Even then, people were talking about her as someone to keep an eye out for. She's a real force. We need to start taking action on these issues, it really is that simple."

He's also supportive of the #MeToo movement, although he worries that, "it could be the end of flirting and nobody wants that. I stop for photos when people ask, but I've been warned for the last few years to always keep my hand above the person's shoulder which is a bit sad.

"It's not like I want to feel anybody's bottom, anyway, that is unforgivably vulgar. But I was at an event the other day and I told one young lady, in her 40s or so, that she was a beautiful looking woman and she seemed delighted."

For him, it's largely an academic issue, laughing that: "I'm nearly 80, I've had prostate cancer and my doctor tells me I have arthritis."

Following some delightfully scurrilous gossip that, sadly, can't be printed, and after meeting more fans, he's off to pose for some pictures, deliver an impromptu lecture on the art hanging in the hotel and then back to the UK, to continue his next draft.

They don't make men like Archer anymore, which will come as a relief to some people. But nobody could ever accuse him of being boring, and that, surely, is the most important thing.

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