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The Fall of Mr. Toad

Carefully, doggedly, and not without a certain sympathy, Crick shines his flashlight through Archer’s many fictions. Fraudulence was a family failing. Archer’s father, William, was neither a colonel nor a war hero, as Archer maintained, but a convicted con man, bigamist, and bankrupt who kept on disappearing to Amer-ica, among other places. Fund-raising frauds were among his favorite scams. In the US, while posing as an Eton- and Oxford-educated gentleman with aristocratic connections, he fathered a daughter, Rosemary, who first married Senator Brien MacMahon, then the Belgian ambassador, and became a well-known Washington hostess under the name of Baroness Silvercruys. Jeffrey Archer may not have known anything about this rather grand family connection until Crick’s book came out. Back in England, William Archer, now known as Captain Archer, met Jeffrey’s mother, and they had a son, Jeffrey, who was quickly adopted by a succession of families, changed names several times, and was erased from family memory. The existence of this illegitimate elder brother, who not only bears the same name but closely resembles the famous Jeffrey, lends a further air of unreality to Archer’s family background. Archer always pretended the brother did not exist.

Like his father, Archer had a gift for making himself up. He turned a poor school record into a more impressive one by inventing academic distinctions for himself, and presenting a mail-order body-building course in London as an American university degree in physical education. Somehow he contrived to get accepted for a one-year course in teacher’s training at Oxford University, where he spent three years posing as a full-fledged Oxford man. He never sat still, made useful friends, raised money for this and that, often through flashy but dubious gimmicks, and he ran, and ran, and ran.

Physical fitness had been an obsession ever since he was bullied at school because of his puny physique. Archer was an ambitious runner for Oxford, and once, for Great Britain. A marvelous clip in the BBC documentary shows Archer jumping the gun three times in a row at an athletics meet in London. Twitching with impatience to make his mark, he was always in too much of a hurry. He was a sucker for get-rich-quick schemes, insider stock market tips, and tax dodges, as are the heroes in many of his novels. Simon Kerslake, the Tory politician in First Among Equals, and the character closest to Archer himself, gets involved with a dodgy businessman named Ronnie Nethercote, who promises quick riches. This almost results in bankruptcy. A short story in his latest collection, To Cut a Long Story Short, is entitled “Crime Pays.” The crime is a clever confidence trick, based on a true case, involving phony businesses and false identities. The first sentence reads: “Kenny Merchant—that wasn’t his real name, but then, little was real about Kenny….”[ ]

At Oxford Archer told his future wife that he would be a millionaire and prime minister (impressed, she swiftly married him). Another ambition was to be a famous TV personality, like David Frost. But first, in the late 1960s, he joined the Greater London Council, where he became known as “Mr. 10 Per Cent” for helping fellow council members fill out their expenses and taking a cut of the proceeds. This was not entirely kosher, but still petty stuff. More serious were the allegations that he fiddled his own expenses while working as a fund-raiser for the United Nations Association, before being elected to Parliament in 1969. It almost ended his career as a young (not the youngest, as Archer had it) MP. Instead he was brought down by his own greed to share in a disastrous stock market scam. Then there was an awkward episode in Toronto, where he was detained for walking out of a store with three suits without paying.

The one thing that was not fraudulent was the way Archer recovered from his financial ruin. He set out to write a best seller, entitled Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less—and he did it, in 1976. Archer was known as semi-literate at school, but his prose was cooked by many abler hands, and his talent for telling stories clearly paid off. Several novels later, Archer was a rich man. He has written nine novels so far. Most of them were on the best-seller lists in Britain and the US. Several sold more than two million copies in paperback. A curious thing about Archer’s stories is how much they read like confessions. His first novel is about a ruinous share-buying scheme, much like the one that brought him down. In First Among Equals there is an odd scene in which a politician picks up a prostitute around the corner from where Archer allegedly did the same. In Kane and Abel, about a feud between a self-made millionaire and a privileged banker, a character named Osborne lies about being a Harvard man and an army officer. In a short story, “The Expert Witness,” a professor is questioned in court about the dubious worth of his American degrees.

Judging from his fiction, then, you might assume that the author was a man of extraordinary self-awareness. And yet Archer kept getting into worse trouble. In 1991, the problems of the Kurds grabbed his attention. He claimed to have raised millions on their behalf, yet little of that money ever reached them. As in earlier fund-raising efforts, there were doubts about Archer’s probity. Then, three years later, just as he was hoping to make a comeback in Tory politics, he was investigated for having bought shares in a television company called Anglia TV, whose board included his wife, Mary. As soon as he had made his purchase, the company was taken over, and the share prices shot up. No wonder the Department of Trade and Industry took an interest in the case. Once again, Archer had to admit that he had made a “grave error.”

Enough reason, you might have thought, for the Tory Party to have been a bit more wary about enlisting Jeffrey Archer’s services. And yet John Major offered him a peerage in 1993. And six years later William Hague, as the new party leader, endorsed Archer’s candidacy for London mayor, saying: “This candidate is a candidate of probity and integrity. I’m going to back him to the full.” It is not as if Hague hadn’t been warned. Michael Crick’s book had been out for years. And Crick, who had known Hague at Oxford, sent him a letter spelling out the risks of endorsing Archer.

So why was Archer allowed to get away with it for so long? There are several possible reasons, not all of which reflect badly on British society. Crick mentions Archer’s ability to put people in his debt. He had the mafia don’s policy of spreading around favors. Archer once told an interviewer that he wanted “everybody to be in debt to me. I would like to have done more charity work, more this, more that, so everybody is in debt to me… so that if I need to call on them one day, I can genuinely expect them to come to my rescue or come to my help.” He lent people money, helped them on their campaigns, brokered publishing deals, and so on. The Tory Party was in hock to Archer, as were several Tory politicians.

Another reason might be the sneaking admiration in this buttoned-up society for the amiable rogue, the colorful character, the Toad who adds gaiety to the nation. As Bennett says, there is a Toad in all of us, but most of us (especially in England) learn how “to keep it under,” to be “respectable.” Margaret Thatcher, not at all Toad-like herself, saw possibilities in an energetic chancer like Archer, whom she described in her memoir as “the extrovert’s extrovert.”3 He was the perfect showman to send around the country to rally the Tory troops. The blue-rinsed matrons and local worthies adored his outrageous manner and Toady pizzazz. Thatcher still relied on some grandees of the old school, but she encouraged “doers,” self-made businessmen, rough diamonds, and brisk outsiders. Her penchant for Jewish ministers prompted Harold Macmillan’s remark that her cabinet appeared to contain more old Estonians than old Etonians. Archer, despite her doubts about his political judgment, was her kind of man.

One of the traditional strengths of the British establishment—for want of a better word—is its ability to bring in brash new blood to avoid a caste-like stagnation. Popular writers, rich upstarts, even actors, have always been soaked up by the ruling elites, much more so than was common in continental Europe. Only in Britain could an exotic fabulist (and popular novelist) like Benjamin Disraeli be made prime minister to energize a party of aristocrats and country squires. Disraeli, the consummate outsider, whose looks and manners were distinctly foreign, reinvented the Tory Party, which, in the eyes of its supporters, stood for the idea of England itself. There is something theatrical about this type of politics, which depends on imagery and invention, and it needs imaginative showmen to keep the system from falling into a rut. Disraeli’s flair saved the Tories in Queen Victoria’s age; Winston Churchill, another odd romantic, did the same for England a hundred years on.

Jeffrey Archer was no Disraeli by any stretch of the imagination, much less a Winston Churchill. He just tried to play the part. Like so many useful English parvenus in the past (including Mr. Toad himself), he adopted an exaggerated version of upper-class mannerisms: playing the country squire in Rupert Brooke’s old house near Cambridge, or barking at the lower orders like some retired general. He might come across to some Americans as a typically English toff, but in fact Archer is very touchy about his lower-middle-class origins, and has ambivalent feelings about his country.

Real toffs in the Tory ranks, on the whole, did not care for Archer and his puffed-up airs. Ferdinand Mount, a former adviser to Mrs. Thatcher and current editor of the Times Literary Supplement, once called Archer “the most wince-provoking, hot-making mistake….” Archer resented old Etonian hauteur. He once said: “I didn’t like in my youth that there were these peo-ple with double-barrelled names who seemed to be living in a different world to the one I did, and when you went to London there were even more of them with their noses in the air.” Simon Kerslake, the Tory MP from modest beginnings in First Among Equals, has three rivals, a gruff working-class socialist, a clever Scot, and a smooth old Etonian, who puts Kerslake down as “one of the new breed of Tories who tried a little too hard.” To the extent that these figures have characters, the old Etonian is by far the most loathsome. Like his father, the elusive con man, Jeffrey Archer appears to feel more at home in America, where energetic “achievers” (a favorite word of his) are rewarded, not sneered at. “If I was born today,” he once said, “and wanted to go into politics, I would want to be born in the United States.”

The trouble with Archer is that he tried to apply his fiction to real life. If reality didn’t conform to his fantasies, he would fix it by lying or making others lie for him. Since one can set one’s own rules in fiction, the assumption is that the same must apply to life. That was perhaps the point of his extraordinary bravura in putting on a play about a trial, with himself as the accused, on the eve of his own indictment. It was like an act of magic, in which fantasy was used to defy the facts. In Archer’s imaginary world, his errors (or “foolishness”) were not moral, or based on any ethical principles. His cardinal sin was to be exposed, like an actor whose mask has slipped. The one rule of fiction is that a story must be plausible.

The title of Archer’s last novel, published in 1998, months before the beginning of his downfall, was The Eleventh Commandment. The main character is yet another man with a secret life, a CIA assassin posing as a businessman, who is left in the lurch by his government when he is caught by the Russians. The moral of the story, and the meaning of the eleventh commandment, is simply this: Don’t get caught.

Perhaps Archer always knew he would get caught. Many of his fictional heroes do; or they are cut down at the last hurdle. There is a peculiar twist at the end of First Among Equals. After Simon Kerslake passes through the gates of Buckingham Palace, saluted by guards, met by courtiers, to have his audience with the King, he is informed that the other candidate has won. The socialist son of a butcher will be the next prime minister of Britain. And that is the end of the story. In the British edition. In the US, Archer’s editor decided that it would be better if the achiever won. A socialist victory would put American readers off. Kerslake was the more winning character. The doer must be rewarded. The difference between Britain and the United States? Or just another Jeffrey Archer fantasy?

  1. 3

    The Downing Street Years (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 422.

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