Archer, Jeffrey - His life would make a great n...

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Author Jeffrey Archer's life would make a great novel

May 2, 2008

By Jeffrey Stinson, USA TODAY

LONDON — Boy from humble background hustles his way to Oxford, runs track for Britain, becomes wealthy as a whiz-kid fundraiser, owns an art gallery and wins a Tory seat in Parliament at age 29. Then, he loses it all in a dodgy investment.

He comes back as a fiction writer at 34 and earns a fortune. He pays off his debts, returns to Tory party politics, becomes a British lord and is close to becoming mayor of London. Then, at 61, he goes to prison for having lied about being with a prostitute.

Jeffrey Archer, the popular storyteller, disgraced politician, British peer and perjurer in real life, is rising from the ashes of personal disaster yet again, at age 67.

"Yes," he says, "I'm incredibly resilient and willing to fight back."

He has been out of prison for five years now, back in his Thames River penthouse overlooking Parliament. He goes over to the House of Lords every couple of weeks. He hosts his famed Champagne and shepherd's pie Christmas parties, which he says attract 400 revelers. And he says he raised about $4 million for charity last year.

Archer's latest phoenix-like rise isn't complete, however. He's not atop the best-seller list. He hopes to climb there with his 14th work of fiction, A Prisoner of Birth, in stores Tuesday.

"I've worked harder on this book than any book in my life," he says. "I think it's the best thing I've ever done."

Always a promoter, Archer says the pre-publication buzz for Prisoner reminds him of that for his most acclaimed novel, 1979's Kane & Abel, which became an international best seller.

A modern 'Monte Cristo'

A Prisoner of Birth is an updated take on one of Archer's favorite tales, Alexandre Dumas' 19th-century Count of Monte Cristo, in which a wrongly accused man is sent to prison, escapes, grabs a fortune and exacts revenge.

In Archer's 2008 version, hero Danny Cartwright is an illiterate dropout from the skids of modern-day East London who is arrested on his engagement day on charges of murdering his fiancée's brother. Testifying against him are four upper-crust antagonists — a lawyer, a soap actor, a real estate agent and an aristocrat. Danny is sentenced to London's high-security Belmarsh prison for 22 years. There, a tutor helps him learn to read and write, escape and claim a fortune. Danny then plots his revenge.

As in many of his books, Archer has drawn on autobiographical experience and turned it to literary advantage.

"The author's firsthand knowledge of prison life and legal maneuvers helps make this a thoroughly enjoyable entertainment," Publishers Weekly said.

During his own time housed at Belmarsh, Archer helped inmates work on their appeals while drawing on them for characters for his fiction. He even tutored a student who earned the equivalent of a bachelor's degree. "He's a murderer who hated me because I was a right-wing Tory," Archer says. "But I said, 'What are you going to do for the next 26 years in here?' "

When the inmate earned his degree, Archer says, he returned for his graduation ceremony.

Archer also wrote a trilogy of prison diaries, in which he chronicled demoralizing conditions, the monotony of daily existence and policies that he says fail to prepare inmates for society when they are paroled. One of the messages he hopes Prisoner conveys is that prisons have a large number of "quite normal human beings … who are trying to survive."

A gifted storyteller

Archer says he has always had a gift for telling tales. He's full of charming or personal anecdotes, gossip on the famous and inside political stories. When in storytelling form, his Richard Burton-like clipped manner of speech turns dramatic, with theatrical pauses and an exaggerated voice.

But his storytelling has been a source of woe as well as success.

His career is pockmarked with exaggeration, when the truth of his stratospheric success and meteoric collapses would, as his own website proclaims, "make an international bestseller." He also has let stand uncorrected some apocryphal details on his life in news clippings when they have worked to his advantage.

Archer's ability to make the best of a situation can be traced to his Oxford days. He grew up in seaside Weston on England's west coast. His father was a printer but died when Archer was 14. "The Archers had hardly any money," Jonathan Mantle wrote in an unauthorized 1988 biography.

Archer gained admittance to Oxford for a year's program, but finagled his way into a three-year education on charm, hustle and athletic ability running the sprints in track.

He first rose to national attention there by pledging to raise 1 million pounds, close to $2 million in today's money, for the charity Oxfam and for getting a sensational new music group, The Beatles, to sign onto the campaign. According to Mantle's book, Archer claimed to have enlisted The Beatles when all he really had was a photo taken with them holding up the charity poster. Rather than suffer bad publicity by not backing the charity, Mantle wrote, The Beatles endorsed Archer's effort.

That initial public relations coup led to a profitable post-college fundraising business, ownership of an art gallery and an early entry into politics.

"I was always a raconteur," Archer says. "What I was surprised to learn was that if you put it on paper, you got paid for it."

It was a pleasant surprise after he lost his small fortune in a scam Canadian cleaning company. Faced with bankruptcy, Archer resigned from the House of Commons.

Figuring he would never repay his debts with a 9-to-5 job, he sat down each morning and afternoon five days a week for a year with the intent to write a best seller. The result was the successful Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less in 1974. It is a story of four people who were defrauded by a shady businessman and join to recover their losses by pulling off a series of stings.

The story launched Archer's rise. It also relaunched his political career. He became an intimate adviser to former Tory prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, which led him to a lordship — until his storytelling got the better of him again.

In 1999, just as he became the Tory candidate for mayor of London, Archer faced another tribulation. He was charged with perjury and conspiracy to pervert justice for having lied in a 1987 libel trial, in which he had sued the Star newspaper for saying he was with a prostitute.

Although he won the libel trial, he lost the perjury trial. One of the witnesses who had testified that Archer was with him when he allegedly was with the prostitute recanted. Archer's price to pay: having to withdraw from the mayor's race, a prison sentence and another fall to the bottom. He was blacklisted by the party but got to keep his title of lord.

Archer left prison after two years and has been on the comeback trail since.

He refuses to talk about the trials. But he vows he has learned his lesson and is more accurate in what he says for the public record. And although he still loves politics, he knows his political career is over.

"I assumed when I came out of prison no one would talk to me," he says. "The shock was 99% of my friends remained with me."

Thatcher and Major stood by him. Major just sent Archer a note after having read Prisoner, telling his old friend that he "should be very proud of it."

Critics aren't all charitable

Archer says he has mellowed and cares less about what the critics say of his work. And not all critics are as generous toward his new book as Publishers Weekly. In London's Evening Standard, critic Sebastian Shakespeare knocked his prose. "It's not that the story is bad," he wrote. "How could it be, given that it's largely a rip-off of Dumas? It is a rollicking adventure narrated in Janet and John-style prose and draws on Archer's own experiences in the nick."

Archer insists everyone is a prisoner of their birth. He has broken the shackles of his humble start, he says, with hard work. "If you have energy and talent, you're a king," Archer says. "If you have energy and no talent, you're a prince. If you have talent and no energy, you're a pauper. You're stuck with what you've got, so get on with it."

So, is Lord Archer also a king? "I've had a very privileged life to end up here," he says, looking out over the Thames toward Parliament. "It's quite fun to go back to the bottom. It's agony on one level. But at least it makes you get up in the morning."

He says he regrets nothing. But when he went back to Belmarsh prison recently to visit, an inmate made him a theoretical offer: swap places. The prisoner could live Archer's privileged life and Archer could have the thrill of starting over again.

"That's when I really thought, 'You're a lucky individual,' " Archer says.

But no, he says, he's not going back to prison — or the bottom — again. "I've done it for my last time," he says. "I'm too old."