Jeffrey Archer on cancer, a Brexit deal, and starting an eight-book series at 79
The controversial peer talks to Luke Rix-Standing about his new novel, and his unusual 'God-given' talent for fiction
"IF THIS interview isn't on every front page in the world by next week," says Jeffrey Archer, "you're fired!"
He's joking, of course, but if there's a man used to the front pages, it's Archer. Bestselling novelist, former Conservative party deputy chairman, peer of the realm, and convicted perjurer, Archer's many incarnations have long attracted equal parts admiration and ridicule. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone with more shelf space in Waterstones, or more column inches in Private Eye.
Our interview is scheduled for Archer's flat – a Westminster penthouse with more art than wall – but a late change of plan sees us meet in the central lobby of the Houses of Parliament instead.
"I just had to see the prime minister's speech this afternoon," he explains, and in the circumstances who can blame him. It's the first session back after Boris Johnson announced his plan to prorogue Parliament, and the atmosphere is febrile both in and outside the House.
Once I pick him out from among the many grey-haired men in the dimly lit lobby, we relocate to a cafe in the House of Lords.
With so much background noise, it's easy to forget that we're here to discuss Archer's newest novel, Nothing Ventured, a spiritual if not direct successor to his bestselling Clifton Chronicles. A rollicking crime caper centring on an art heist, our new hero is William Warwick, a fledgling detective collaring the crooks his barrister father sets free.
After a chance meeting at a carol service, Archer recruited retired Met chief superintendent John Sutherland as a sort of 'crime consultant' while plotting the book, and the young Warwick bears a suspicious resemblance to the ex-cop.
"You've got to think like a criminal," says Archer, "and the good policeman does. I had a scene where a bent policeman sees three bags of money, and only sends two back for evidence. John said, 'No – it would be much wiser to take a bit of money out of each of them!'"
The first instalment of a proposed eight-part series, book two has already entered its sixth draft, though Archer generally aims for 14. "That's how you get the speed," he says. "It's about making it faster and faster, making you want to turn the page. How dare you put this book down!"
Archer doesn't have to write – he hasn't had to write for 40 years – and he's not overly shy about his successes.
"Three-hundred million books sold," he says, reeling off a well-rehearsed sales summary. "Kane And Abel was the breakthrough – sold a million in the first week. It's 40 years old this year, on its 123rd reprint and 32,700,000 copies; 400,000 last year."
His prose has rarely set the world alight (another John Sutherland, this time the Cambridge English Professor, called it "somewhat better than the mocking reviewers allow"), but Archer has never claimed to be a literary genius. His calling is as a storyteller – a weaver of tall tales and fulsome fictions that have struck an evident chord with the reading public.
"It's a God-given gift", he says. "I'm very lucky. I wanted to captain the England cricket team, I failed. I wanted to be prime minister, I failed. So they said, all right, we'll make you a storyteller."
He releases roughly one book a year, which feels pretty prolific, but Archer seems surprised by the suggestion that he's speedy. "I think I'm very slow," he says, "but I'm a totally driven, disciplined human being. I rise at 5.30, work six to eight, take a two-hour break, work 10 'til 12, take a two-hour break, work six 'til eight, and I'm in bed by 9.30."
As we're speaking, a screen shows that Michael Gove has stepped up to the dispatch box ("he's very good from the dispatch box!"), before Rory Stewart appears briefly in the doorway ("the man of the moment!").
It's clear that Archer still loves being in the heart of the action, and harbours a soft spot for the cut and thrust of front-line politics. "People still talk to me all the time," he says, acknowledging a pair of former colleagues taking tea and cakes by the door. "This morning, Philip Hammond stopped and had a long chat with me about what he thought would happen tonight – he's an old friend."
Archer calls himself a "tribal Tory", and I can't help wishing our interview had been a few hours later, after Hammond and 20 of his parliamentary colleagues were unceremoniously banished from the party Archer calls home.
"Parliament is a great big theatre," he says, with barely concealed enthusiasm, "but what happens when the curtain goes down?"
On the current crisis, he expresses himself carefully and deliberately. "I would be very distressed," he says, lingering on every syllable, "if we passed a law at the end of this week, and the prime minister ignored it. The law of the land must be sacrosanct."
He's not then, I prompt, a fan of prorogation? His answer is the quickest of the afternoon: "No. I would like him to get a deal that reflects the view of the British people – no deal is 100 per cent one way, remaining in Europe is 100 per cent the other. If he could get a withdrawal act that reflected 52 to 48 – pretty simple to do – that's what I would be happy to vote for."
Archer has served under two prime ministers, but neither were in this millennium, and the 79-year-old admits he's now "fearful of death". Blessed with boundless energy for most of his adult life ("you're born with it – you have it or you don't!"), he's realistic about the ravages of time.
His wife of 53 years, Mary Archer, underwent surgery for bladder cancer in 2011, and her support was instrumental in helping him through prostate cancer a few years later. He fixes me with a stern finger – "when you're 50, get yourself checked. Remember, Jeffrey told you."
Some might describe starting an eight-book series in your late-70s as a bold gambit, but for Archer the activity keeps him going. "You get to a point where you think, 'I've only got a certain amount of time left, wouldn't I be stupid doing nothing?'
"I'm very grateful to be alive," he continues. "Ageing is awful. I confess that in my speeches I can pretty much say what I like now and people just burst out laughing, but otherwise there's not much joy in being old."
Archer has been down many times in his career – cancer, near-bankruptcy, jail – but he seems physically incapable of staying there. He'll be writing new chapters as long as he draws breath.
:: Nothing Ventured by Jeffrey Archer is published by Pan Macmillan, priced £20 hardback.