Did you know that Jeffrey Archer is the 29th best-selling author of all time? Jeffrey Archer didn’t, until Weekend told him. Which is surprising because, if there’s one thing Lord Archer loves, it’s reciting statistics about himself. He can (and does) tell you how many people read his blog every month (4 million). How many follow him on Facebook (250,000), and on Twitter (25,000). How many drafts of each book he writes (’13, 14, 15, 16’ – the numbers rise like the ones in the elevator Weekend rides to his famous penthouse apartment overlooking the Houses of Parliament). How he once had four books in the New York Times bestseller list at the same time (‘numbers 3, 7, 9 and 11’, if you’re interested). But most of all, he’s fond of reminding you he’s sold 270 million books. And if you’d sold 270 million books, you’d probably be fond of reminding people too – especially if sniffy critics still refused to give you an inch of credit.
Mind you, it’s not just the literati who are dismissive of Archer’s novels.
‘It’s strange, I have 270 million fans out there, but there’s only one in my family,’ he says. ‘My second son, James, absolutely loves my writing. But my wife would never read me if we weren’t married, and the elder of my two sons is an intellectual. I don’t think he’d read me.’
Archer likes to describe himself as storyteller. ‘Storytelling is a gift, and pseudo-intellectuals do underrate it,’ he says. ‘They dismissed Dumas as a storyteller, but The Count of Monte Christo is still being read, The Three Musketeers is still being read. Storytellers survive.’
His latest novel is Mightier than the Sword, the fifth of his bestselling Clifton Chronicles, a seven-volume, century-spanning saga following the fortunes of two families from opposite ends of the social spectrum. He started the series when he turned 70 five years ago, to give him ‘something to get up for in the morning’. Did he never just consider retiring? ‘No!’ he shouts, horrified. ‘I think if I slowed down I would just drop dead. I have to work, night and day, all the time.’
It’s at this point Weekend mentions his 29th ranking in the all-time bestselling authors list. ‘I didn’t know that,’ he says, and shouts an instruction to Alison, his PA in the next room, to find it online and print him off a copy.
‘By the way,’ he adds, ‘I’m still going up the list! I’m like a cricketer – I’m at 7,000 runs trying to get to 10,000. That list is to be climbed up. Get that list, Alison!’
A few minutes later, Alison troops in with the list. Archer scrutinises it closely. ‘They say Kane and Abel has sold 34 million,’ he mutters. ‘It’s actually 37 million. It’s ahead of The Diary of Anne Frank.’ Yes, he’s even competitive with Anne Frank. ‘I will keep this,’ he says firmly, ‘and we will work on it. Alison – we’re going up this list!’
It’s not bad for someone who only became a writer because he didn’t succeed at his first love of politics (‘I failed,’ he admits. ‘Very few people succeed in politics’). He became a Conservative MP at 29, but stood down five years later, facing bankruptcy after falling victim to a fraudulent investment scheme. He wrote his first book, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, after losing his fortune, its success cementing his reputation as the comeback king, able to weather any storm or accusation – and there have been many – thrown his way. He even resurrected his political ambitions, after a fashion, becoming Tory party chairman under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, for which he was made a life peer.
In 2001, however, Archer’s luck finally ran out when he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for perjury and perverting the course of justice, after a jury found him guilty of lying during his 1987 libel case against the Daily Star, which had accused him of paying a prostitute £2,000 to leave the country.
How does he think the British people view him today?
‘You see, the problem with journalists is, you have a view,’ he says, testily. ‘If you saw my emails every day, you’d see… Alison,’ he shouts, ‘when did we last have an unpleasant email?’
A pause. ‘Last month, maybe,’ Alison calls back.
‘You don’t begin to understand,’ he snarls. ‘You come in with your set ideas and you don’t begin to understand how many millions out there are waiting for the next book, and don’t give a damn about you.’
But surely, as a storyteller, he of all people must concede that the most interesting thing about Jeffrey Archer is Jeffrey Archer himself. It’s an incredible, rags-to-riches-and-back-again story, filled with scandals and reversals and endless returns from the dead that would, let’s be honest, make a cracking Jeffrey Archer novel.
‘Yes, of course it is, of course it is,’ he says, suddenly conciliatory. ‘I remember once ringing [Mail on Sunday editor] Geordie Greig, saying: “I’ve got four books in the New York Times bestseller list, together.” And Geordie said, “not a story, Jeff – if you kill the editor of The New York Times, ring me back.” And there is a bit of a problem with that.’
Prison, he says, taught him how privileged he was, though he’s quick to add: ‘It was 15 years ago, and still you’re boring on about it.’ Since then, he and his wife Mary, who is now Director of the Science Museum, have both been successfully treated for cancer, and his spirit appears as indomitable as ever. ‘I’m 75,’ he says. ‘I don’t need anything in life. I just need to get up that list from 29th!’
If on paper he can sound fearsome, in the flesh Archer is good company, even his most inflamed outbursts giving way to a chuckle that suggests, to him, it’s all rather good sport. One minute, he’s demanding ‘what are you going to do with your life, you pathetic worm?’, the next, he’s driving you across town to the station, cackling all the way.
One final question, then, and quite a rude one. At times it seems like there isn’t anything on Archer’s CV – from his educational qualifications to his achievements as a young athlete to his charitable fundraising – that hasn’t been called into question at one time or another. The Daily Telegraph has described him as a ‘mythomaniac’ – incapable of telling the truth. What does he say to that?
‘Well, I’m number 29 on this list,’ he says, returning to his favourite new subject. ‘I ran for my country. I was a young Member of Parliament… But, of course, it’s all made up. It’s all invention. I don’t exist.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, August 20, 2015
(c) Waitrose Weekend