SUNDAY MAGAZINE

No hidden depths here

READERS of The Hindu will need little reminding of Jeffrey Archer — the British Conservative Party MP who had to vacate his seat when he was declared bankrupt in the early 1970s and then redeemed his debts with the airport blockbuster, Not a Penny More not a Penny Less.

Such were Archer's powers of sycophancy — oops — persuasion, that he was also able to redeem his political career in the 1980s after Margaret Thatcher took a shine to him and made him deputy chairman of the Conservatives.

Thatcher adored self-made men, even ones who made up their curriculum vitae. The revelation that Archer was not, as he had always claimed, an alumni either of Oxford University or the Ivy League, didn't unduly bother his supporters. He was, after all, an excellent fund-raiser. And his racy (stupefyingly banal) novels struck a chord in a decade that celebrated philistinism.

Readers will also recall Archer's libel case against the News of the World in 1987 when jurors awarded him �500,000 in damages over a story that alleged Archer had paid a prostitute for her silence. But like his CV, Archer's case was littered with holes and was brought to trial again in 2001 where he was convicted of gross perjury and sentenced to four years in jail.

So they got the baddie in the end? Yes, but in Archer's case there is no end. Not only did this reviewer have to labour through two volumes of Archer's prison diaries, but he notes, with profound foreboding, that they only cover the first 89 days of Archer's 730-day sentence (he was released last month having served two years). At this rate there are another 14 volumes in the pipeline.

But the reviewer is also faced with a more existential dilemma: How does one evaluate the non-fictional accounts of the most celebrated liar in modern British history?

Lord Jaffery Archer ... now free, but no introspection in his work.

Lord Jaffery Archer ... now free, but no introspection in his work.  

At times, especially when it concerns Her Majesty's prison food, one can accept the accuracy of Archer's account: "One look at what's on offer and I can't face it — overcooked meat, heaven knows from which animal, mushy peas swimming in water, and potatoes that Oliver Twist would have rejected."

Or, better still: "Supper: Chinese stir-fry vegetables. An original recipe served up in one blob, and certainly not cooked by anyone who originated from the Orient." Archer's verisimilitude can also be crosschecked against the prison menus that he faithfully re-prints in both volumes.

One of the regulars is "Chicken Tikka Pie", an authentic British dish with which Indian readers will not be familiar. Yum yum. Or another favourite, "Corned beef and pickle sandwiches". By deduction therefore, one can also accept Archer's claim to have shed half-a-stone within a month of being incarcerated.

With limited imagination, one can also take at face value Archer's rendition of a typical prison conversation. Early in the first volume, he puts an asterisk against a word that is apparently commonly used in prison: "I will only use foul language when it's reported speech, which for most inmates is every sentence. `F***in' is the only adjective they ever bother with."

This enables the apparently squeamish Archer to report exchanges that he would never permit his ghost-writers: "On the way back to our cells, the D-block captain says: `Not bad, Jeff, even though you played like a f***ing public school c***.' In prison you have to prove yourself every day."

But the truth (big word) is that there is little that leaves the reader incredulous, even if here and there one is left wondering at how popular Archer reports himself to be. For example, in a scene straight out of 1950s Pinewood Studios film, Archer's mettle is tested playing dominoes with a crowd of suspicious West Indian prisoners. But he holds his nerve and wins grudging backslaps all round.

In another episode, Archer referees a rugby match and stands up to a six foot two West Indian (in for double murder) who vents homicidal feelings after Archer has disallowed a throw. So steadfast is Archer, that the West Indian is heard praising our hero's pluck and courage ever after.

But it is hard — in spite of unavoidable prejudice — to emerge from these diaries with real dislike for Archer. The author is simply too much of a buffoon, too transparent a trickster, too irresistible a conman, to be dislikeable.

Archer's repeated — and wholly unconvincing — protestations of innocence elicit pity rather than disdain. The latter must surely be reserved for the more sophisticated conmen in the Conservative party who promoted and endorsed Archer when it suited their interests and then readily abandoned him at his all-too-predictable nemesis.

Doubtless some (including John Major, of whom Archer says: "He is one of those people who doesn't cross over to the other side of the road when you're in trouble") will try to ooze their way back into Archer's intimacy should these volumes become best-sellers.

Or maybe not. Archer's first volume is dedicated to his "Foul-weather friends". And on more than one occasion Archer writes: "I must make a mental note of who my real friends are."

Such is Archer's naivet� — a trait that goes quite naturally with his indefatigable optimism — that one cannot but forgive his trespasses. After all, Archer does have the decency to keep getting caught.

But it is less easy to forgive Archer's mediocrity, which is profound. A spell in prison is the ultimate test of a writer's soul. Whether it is Gramsci, Dostoyevsky, Wilde or Koestler, incarceration draws out a writer's reflective depths.

On this evidence (exhibit Z), Archer is neither thoughtful nor good at writing. He has no hidden depths. On watching the September 11 terrorist attacks he says: "The sight of innocent people jumping out of towers will be for me the enduring memory of this evil day."

Then later: "All the commentators say that the U.S. will seek some sort of revenge, once they have identified the culprit. Who can blame them?" And still more: "President Kennedy proved to be such a man when faced with the Cuban missile crisis. I can only hope that George W. Bush is of the same mettle." (Didn't Kennedy almost blow us all up?)

Archer's diary is also peppered with the latest Ashes scores. "England are 47 for 2. I suspect they'll have trouble avoiding the follow-on."... . "It looks like Australia are heading for an innings victory."... . "I can only hope one of England's batsmen pulls off a match-saving century."

Archer's diaries contain zero self-analysis — not a jot of introspection in any shape or form. One is left with one of two conclusions: Either Archer is concealing any self-doubt he might have, since these diaries were obviously written for publication; Or else, the man who has repeatedly tricked his wife, family, party, judicial system, country and so forth over a period of decades, is pathologically incapable of confronting reality.

But one's choice of conclusion makes little difference. The moral of the story is this: Do not think of buying either of these books. It would only encourage him to re-offend.

A Prison Diary, Volumes One and Two, Jeffrey Archer, Pan Books.

Edward Luce is the South Asia bureau chief of the Financial Times.

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