Before I embark on my attempt at literary criticism I should declare an interest.
The year was 1972. I was 20 years old. I was a trainee Conservative party agent. The Tory MP for Uxbridge, Charles Curran, had died. Entirely coincidentally, Curran was my younger sister’s godfather. But that wasn’t why Conservative Central Office sent me to Uxbridge before the by-election. I went because there was no agent there. I was to look after the constituency until the campaign started. At that point a highly experienced Central Office agent, Angela Carlton, would join me and be the election agent.
Polling day was 7th December. Angela and I had agreed that we would get to the office at 6 o’clock in the morning. No one else would be there. We would do half an hour’s work before Angela’s secretary turned up at 6.30. She would cook us a full English breakfast and then we would get back to work, work which would continue without any break until the count ended in the early hours of 8th December.
It must have been about 6.45 in the morning when breakfast was ready. Angela and I sat at the table and plates of egg and bacon were put in front of us.
As we raised our knives and forks the door opened. A young man (only a few years older than me) strode in. I had no idea who he was, but Angela knew.
“Jeffrey, how nice to see you,” she said, “have you come to help?”
Angela introduced me to the youngest Conservative MP.
“Charles, Jeffrey Archer. Jeffrey, Charles Utley.”
Mr Archer gazed longingly at our breakfast plates. Angela gave in.
“Would you like some breakfast, Jeffrey?”
“That would be wonderful, Angela.”
A third plate was found. Angela and I gave up some of our food. Archer settled down to scoff our grub.
And he talked. Goodness how he talked. Angela and I had work to do. But Mr Archer seemed to have all the time in the world. The most irritating thing about him was his conviction that, because I was young, I would want to hear his interminable reflections on association football (a game which has always left me cold).
Eventually Angela could take it no longer.
“Jeffrey, you kindly said you had come to help. Perhaps you could drive to [I can’t remember where it was] and do some canvassing.”
“I’d love to,” said Archer, “but my Rolls has a slow puncture, so I’m a bit stuck.”
It is really true. He spoke exactly like one of the characters in his later novels. Not “my car”. No, it had to be “my Rolls”.
Fortunately, our torture was brought to an end. The twenty-one year old daughter of a prominent politician turned up. Her father, worried about her rather fast life style, had decided it would do her good to do some voluntary work. She had been sent, in her convertible sports car (a twenty first birthday present), to do her bit in Uxbridge.
Angela told the girl to take Jeffrey Archer with her and drive round the streets of Uxbridge while her passenger extolled voters, with a microphone, to vote Conservative. In the meantime a mechanic would sort out Archer’s Rolls Royce.
At last, we could do some work. What a relief.
But then disaster struck. Telephone calls came in from throughout the constituency. The message was the same each time: “We’ll never win this election if you allow that young man to bellow into his microphone that ‘if you vote Conservative you, too, can sit in a sports car next to a beautiful girl.'”
It was all right. We sent out others in pursuit of them. Jeffrey Archer and the beautiful girl were politely asked to go home and we won the by-election (against all the odds).
The point of that rather long-winded anecdote is that I confess to being rather prejudiced against Jeffrey Archer. He took a large part of my breakfast. He droned on about football teams. He did his best to muck up our election campaign. I did not take to him.
But that was Archer’s first life. Not long after that he gave up his seat in the Commons (honourably) because he feared that, through no fault of his own, he might be bankrupted. He then embarked on a new life as a novelist. It took off. He seemed to know how to tell a story. His writing style was abominable, but readers loved his yarns. He made a new fortune. He became deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. In 1992 he was given a peerage.
It would be wrong to dwell on Archer’s downfall. It is enough simply to record that he was sent to prison for perverting the course of justice.
But he bounced back. Much to the credit of the book buying public, his literary efforts were not spurned just because he had been in prison. Everything he wrote after his release went to the top of the best sellers’ list.
And now he has just finished an epic series of novels. When he began the Clifton Chronicles we were told there would be three novels, a trilogy. But it all got out of hand and only now, after the publication of the seventh, has the series come to an end.
I admit I have read them all. Most of my friends will, of course, despise me for having done so. But I am not ashamed. They were a fun read. Yes, of course, they are packed with faults. The characters are all cardboard. They are either saints or sinners, nothing in between. The writing is pedestrian in the extreme (though strangely compelling). The stories are, on the whole, ludicrously far-fetched. And the howlers abound on a scale which is almost incredible. But Archer knows how to tell a story, how to keep the reader gripped.
One of the pleasures of reading an Archer novel, apart from the main one of needing to know what happens next, is being able to guffaw, in a superior sort of way, at those howlers. The seventh in the Clifton series provides endless opportunities for that.
I will try not to bore you with pedantry. But Archer’s descriptions of the House of Lords from 1979 until long before 2006, when Tony Blair took it on himself to deprive the Lord Chancellor of his role as, in effect, speaker of the House of Lords and replace him with someone called the Lord Speaker, is hilarious. Bear in mind that Archer was (and still is) a member of the upper house for most of that time. How on earth could he bring himself to write endless passages about debates in the Lords in which the “Lord Speaker” presides? And then, to cap it all, how could he decide to tell us about the elevation of an opposition peer (not even a lawyer) to the office of Lord Chancellor many years before Blair decreed that the Lord Chancellor need not be a lawyer and, of course, even more years (because it hasn’t happened yet) before the Lord Chancellor ceased to be a government minister?
What is particularly funny about the seventh Clifton Chronicle is that there is a long passage about the hero (a novelist of extraordinary ability who is plainly based on Archer) having his manuscript corrected by his publisher’s editor. Exceptionally tiny errors are picked up. The hero is very grateful to be corrected. What we are not told is whether the hero got other, major, facts as startlingly wrong as Archer does.
But Archer definitely has a remarkable talent. He is one of the best story tellers of our time. Somehow it doesn’t matter that his writing style is a little like that to be found in a half decent schoolboy’s essay. And my guess is that his editor leaves the major howlers in on purpose, so as to give pleasure to know-it-alls like me.
Please don’t be put off reading the Clifton Chronicles just because others will sneer at you. I can guarantee you will enjoy them, but also have a very warm feeling of superiority.