Thursday, April 15, 2010

Happy birthday, Jeffrey

Happy birthday Jeffrey Archer, 70 today! It’s been an eventful, colourful 70 years for the best-selling author and occasional politician, with many ups and downs. Being sent to prison was certainly one of the downs, but he made the best of it, one might gather, by producing three volumes of diaries from the experience. The first volume shows that within a week he was already worrying about his future as a free man and not being able to explain to everyone who recognises him as a perjuror that he hadn’t had a fair trial.

Archer was born in London, on 15 April 1940, but he spent most of his childhood in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset. After short spells with the army and police, he worked as a PE teacher, before entering Brasenose College, Oxford, to study education. While there he was successful in athletics, sprinting 100 yards in 9.6 seconds for Great Britain in 1966, and becoming president of the university’s athletics club. During this period, he also earned a reputation for raising money for charity, and met his future wife, Mary, who was studying chemistry.

On leaving Oxford, Archer’s own website explains, he was elected to the Greater London Council, and three years later at the age of 29, he became Member of Parliament for Louth. After five years in the Commons and ‘a promising political career ahead of him’, he invested heavily in a Canadian company called Aquablast, on the advice of the Bank of Boston. The company went into liquidation, and three directors were later sent to jail for fraud. Left with debts of nearly half a million pounds, and on the brink of bankruptcy, he resigned from the House of Commons - and started his writing career.

In 1976, his first book, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, was published, first in the US, but then very quickly in more than a dozen countries. His third novel, Kane and Abel, was a number one best-seller in hardcover and paperback all over the world and, according to Archer’s website, sold over 3.5 million in the UK paperback edition alone. With his fame as a writer and his financial situation much improved he fell into favour with the Conservative Party again, and was appointed deputy chairman by Margaret Thatcher in 1985. Gaffes and a scandal involving a call girl led to his resignation a year later. In 1992, though, he was made a life peer as Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare thanks to prime minister John Major.

The call girl scandal led to a libel case which Archer won, donating the settlement to charity. More than a decade later, though, he was prosecuted for having committed perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice in that libel case. He was sentenced to four years imprisonment, and was released in July 2003, having served two years.

Before being charged with libel, Archer had been selected by the Conservative Party as candidate for the London mayoral election of 2000; expulsion from the party followed his stepping down from the mayoral race. Wikipedia notes that during the 1990s and early 2000s, Archer was investigated (but not charged) in connection with allegations of insider trading at Anglia Television, where his wife was a director, and the disappearance of money from Simple Truth, a fundraising campaign run by Archer.

For three months while in prison, Archer kept a diary and this was published by Macmillan in three volumes between 2002 and 2004. Wikipedia has an entry dedicated to these diaries, and Archer’s own website offers a few pages of extracts from each volume. The first volume - A Prison Diary by FF8282 - covers the three weeks he spent at HMP Belmarsh, a double A category high-security prison in south London, said to hold some of Britain’s most violent criminals. Signed copies sell on Abebooks for as much as £200. Here are two short extracts:

25 July 2001
‘2.02pm. What is almost impossible to describe in its full horror is the time you spend banged up. So please do not consider this diary to be a running commentary, because I would only ask you to think about the endless hours in between. Heaven knows what that does to lifers who can see no end to their incarceration, and do not have the privilege of being able to occupy their time writing. In my particular case, there is Hope, a word you hear prisoners using all the time. They hope that they’ll win their case, have their sentence cut, be let out on parole, or just be moved to a single cell. For me, as a Category D prisoner, I simply hope to be transferred to Ford Open Prison as soon as possible. But God knows what a lifer hopes for, and I resolve to try and find out during the next few days.’

26 July
‘5.03am. I’ve slept for seven hours. When I wake, I begin to think about my first week in prison. The longest week of my life. For the first time, I consider the future and what it holds for me. . . Will I be able to visit old haunts - the National Theatre, Lord’s, Le Caprice, the Tate Gallery, the UGC Cinema in Fulham Road - or even walk down the street without people’s only thought being ‘There’s the man who went to jail for perjury’? I can’t explain to every one of them that I didn’t get a fair trial. It’s so unlike me to be introspective or pessimistic, but when you’re locked up in a cell seven paces by four for hour upon hour every day, you begin to wonder if anyone out there even knows you’re alive.’

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