Long Read: Jeffrey Archer reveals why he can't write a book about Dubai
Over an intensely personal yet free-wheeling tête-à-tête, Lord Jeffrey Archer talks of his new book written during the pandemic, his views on the Emirates Lit Fest and much more
The first time I met Lord Jeffrey Archer was when I was a young reporter, quite unbelieving of my luck that the man who wrote Kane and Abel and Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less and all those really smart short stories with a twist in the tale was actually coming to India and I had been picked to interview him. That was 2011, and Archer was on a 51-stop whirlwind global tour to promote the first title in the Clifton Chronicles.
I arrived for the interview full of beans, but his publisher shook his head. “He’s in a bad mood, the crowds were unruly at his last book signing… all the best.” It kind of felt like walking into a tiger’s den. I wasn’t too far off the mark. Archer was dramatic, intimidating, larger than life and quite the bully… though he insists it’s all a performance, all in good humour.
Over the past decade, I have met him half-a-dozen times, twice in his beautiful penthouse on Albert Embankment in London. This last meeting, however, was unlike any other. For this time, Jeffrey Archer was in my apartment! Courtesy, a pandemic, the normalisation of Zoom calls and his very kind wife, Dame Mary, who set up the laptop connection for us.
Over these 10 years, the relentless bullying that he has subjected me to has given way to a gentler, warmer ribbing, and sometimes I try to pull his leg too, which he responds to very spiritedly. In April, he published Turn A Blind Eye, the third book in the William Warwick series, and I thought it was time to give the master storyteller another call.
Edited excerpts from a video conversation over Zoom.
Congratulations on yet another bestseller! The pandemic has made you more prolific — if that was even possible. When I met you last, you had just published Nothing Ventured. And in 20 months, you have come out with two more…
Well, that has been caused by the lockdown. Mary and I have been in Cambridge now for 11 of the last 12 months. I either watch afternoon television or I continue writing. As the story was a long-flowing one, for William Warwick, I just continued writing. For example, I have done three writing sessions today already because we’re not out of lockdown in real terms until May 17. So, I will remain here and continue writing.
Let’s start by giving our readers a sneak peek into Turn A Blind Eye…
Yes, certainly. I’ve been writing about a detective called William Warwick, who starts life as a constable on the beat when he joins the Metropolitan Police (in London) against the wishes of his father, who’s a distinguished barrister. He doesn’t obey his father and does what he wants to do for his career, which is be a detective. So, he joins the Metropolitan Police on the beat in London. That’s the first book, Nothing Ventured. He becomes a Detective Constable and he’s put in the art and fraud squad.
In the second book (Hidden In Plain Sight), he becomes a Detective Sergeant, and he is put into the drug squad. In the third book, the one we’re discussing, he becomes a Detective Inspector and is put into police corruption. So, every book is an individual book in its own right, but in every book, he rises in rank and he changes his job. If I live long enough, he will rise to the rank of Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. That will take me eight books. So, he will go from a constable on the beat all the way through to commissioner.
You always say write about what you know about. So, how are you getting into the skin of all these coppers? It’s like you had a secret life as an undercover cop…
No. I have three outstanding people advising me. A detective superintendent, John Sutherland, who sadly left the police force because of what he described as ‘one murder too many’, and he had a breakdown. And a young lady… well, not so young… called Detective Sergeant Michelle Roycroft, who worked both in the drug squad and the murder squad. I write the story and they tell me what they could’ve done, what they couldn’t have done. They are my researchers, and more important, my authentic touches. And they sometimes bring in an expert. For example, in Book 2, the one about drugs, the head of the drugs squad had just retired, and he joined the team. So, someone probably joins the team for a different subject and reads the book and tells me you can’t do that, you can do that, the way I did this was…. I hope the research is very, very thorough. The storytelling is me.
When was William Warwick born in your mind?
Well, the Clifton Chronicles sold so well all over the world, going to No 1 in 17 countries. Many people wrote to me and said, “Your hero, Harry Clifton, is an author. And his eponymous hero in his books is one William Warwick. We’d like to know more about William Warwick.” That’s where I got the idea, and got excited about it. And I must say I’ve been surprised again (laughs) by how many people are enjoying William Warwick.
We all love William, but there’s something very subtle yet very important you are doing with his sister Grace’s story arc…
I suppose… at my age, you look back and you think, what are the things you’ve cared about, what are the things you fought for? And I have fought for women’s rights all my life. I brought in the Primogeniture Bill into the House of Lords; I am very proud of that. And it took its manifestation last week, with the death of the Duke of Edinburgh [Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II]. Because, when they walked into the cathedral [St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle], Prince Charles walked in with Princess Anne by his side. That wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago. She would have been put at the back. I like to believe that my Primogeniture Bill, which said that it was farcical that if a woman was born first and didn’t become queen… then well, you could’ve had four women in a row and then a fifth one, being a man, he would be king. Well, I thought that was farcical. And I was delighted to see Princess Anne standing next to Prince Charles in the front. So yes, I’ve spent my life fighting for women’s rights.
As you well know, my wife is a very remarkable woman. She is the chairman of the Science Museum, formerly chairman of Cambridge University’s hospital, the Queen has made her a dame, she’s now Dame Mary. I have had a very strong mother, and I had the privilege of working with Margaret Thatcher for 11 years. So, I like strong women.
What will William Warwick be up to next?
I have just finished the next one. It’s called Over My Dead Body. He’s just been moved, as Chief Inspector, into the murder squad. And he’s been given the unenviable task of solving four cold murders, where the murderers think they’ve got away with it. He’s been brought in to solve those four murders. And there are one or two twists along the way.
You said William will become Commissioner….
If I live long enough! You are not listening! I have to live to 86!
You will not only finish this one, you will go on to write many more series!
(Laughs) I hope you are right….
So, will the cases take William out of Britain? Say to Dubai, for example?
Dubai? No. You mustn’t write about what you don’t know about. I know about politics because I was in the House of Commons and I am now in the House of Lords. I know about art because it’s my hobby and the love of my life. I know about auctioneering because I do it for charity. I know a little bit about business… so that creeps in. There are, I suspect, some very fine Abu Dhabi writers or Saudi Arabian writers…. they must write [about the region] I don’t expect them to write about the House of Commons!
You have been to Dubai a couple of times for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, though….
Yes, loved it! But, you say I’ve been to Dubai… I flew over first class, a car took me to one of the biggest hotels in the world, I stayed in the hotel for three days, I gave three lectures which were attended by 2,000 people, got back on the plane and came home. So yeah, I have been to Dubai and I know there are six motorways as you come out of the airport. I know my hotel room was as big as a cricket pitch. But no, I cannot pretend on those grounds that I can write a book about Dubai.
They’ve got a wonderful woman who runs the festival, she’s a wicked Scottish lady, Isobel [Abulhoul], and she’s absolutely brilliant. Frankly, I do as I am told… no one tells her off!
You said you’ve been watching a fair bit of afternoon television this past year. What has been your favourite show?
You are a highly intelligent, well-educated woman, so listen carefully. There’s a French series called Call My Agent, which is absolutely brilliant. I loved it. It was top of the year for me that won by a mile. I am told they are doing their fifth season, and even making a film. Britain has been captured by it, the Americans have been captured by it. It’s real French humour. Well-written script with some brilliant acting.
Speaking of television, did you watch the Oprah interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle?
Yes, I did.
Well… (heaves a sigh) I found it a bit self-indulgent and disappointing, frankly. The Queen doesn’t deserve this.
The last time we spoke, you had insisted I read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. It’s become one of my favourite books. Please give me, and our readers, some more recommendations…
No! You tell me of a book first. Why should I give you all my secrets? If you are not giving me your secrets. You tell me a book before I give you one!
Have you read Stefan Zweig? A genius. His Beware of Pity is a work of genius. Because he is a great storyteller and a great writer. And that is a rare combination. Sadly, I haven’t had a book this year that has made me jump out of my seat. If I read one, I’ll let you know. But not until you tell me one!
Gosh, I will have to think for a week before I suggest a book to you! Coming back to the unprecedented times we are living in, families got to spend a lot of time together during the lockdown. Any discoveries?
Yes. I discovered that my wife can’t cook… after 55 years [of marriage]! I should have discovered it earlier. How grateful I am to have a housekeeper, both in London and in Cambridge.
You are saying this only because Dame Mary is safely out of earshot…
Dame Mary hasn’t stopped working, night and day. She’s got back to her office now while we are doing this interview. She is building a children’s hospital, which will cost 200 million pounds. She’s already got a 120 million, she’s got another 80 to get. And she’ll get it. She’s a very remarkable woman. So, she hasn’t stopped working through the lockdown. She is at the same time the chairman of the Science Museum of Great Britain, so she’s a little overworked, which is maybe why I don’t get any food!
After so many books, short stories, memoirs and now a couple of book series, you are still known as the writer of Kane and Abel first. Do you ever feel like you want to write a book that would eclipse Kane and Abel?
Well, it’s now been read by a 100 million people. I am very proud of that, I don’t want to change that, but I think Paths of Glory and Prisoner of Birth are every bit as good. But the world’s public has decided otherwise, and it’s now the ninth most successful novel in history. And there’s not much I can do about that (laughs). To Kill A Mockingbird [by Harper Lee] is No 8, and War and Peace [by Leo Tolstoy] is No 10. So, I am in there, fighting!
Before we wrap up, let’s have a little fun with the title of your book. Tell us of a time when you Turned a Blind Eye as a parent…
Well, I think as a parent you do it all the time! You realise when they’re very young it’s not their fault. When they’re older you realise that they’re doing what you did, so you don’t really have the right to comment. So, you try to guide them. But I am bound to say that I adore my two sons, William and James, and I’ve now got five lovely grandchildren…
A book you’ve Turned a Blind Eye to?
If you mean have I refused to read a book, I do find Finnegans Wake a struggle. I mean he [James Joyce] has to be a genius, because everybody tells me he’s a genius, but I’ve never got past page 30.
A place you could never Turn a Blind Eye to?
St Petersburg, because it has the most beautiful art museum on earth [The Hermitage], with some of the finest paintings and sculptures I have ever seen. It also has the most wonderful palaces. The Winter Palace is almost as good as Versailles, and the different rooms…! I’ve been to St Petersburg nine times, it’s just staggering. So that’s the city I would pick and that’s the gallery I would pick. Of course, the Metropolitan Museum in New York would be a very close second. And when I was in Jaipur, I had the privilege of being taken to the Palace Museum… what a wonderful museum that is.
A piece of art that you would pick up if everyone Turned a Blind Eye?
That happens every day of my life! But if I could’ve stolen a picture in the last year, it would be Judas [The Taking of Christ] by Caravaggio. Which was in the National Gallery of Ireland. I even told them the room I would put it in, so if they wanted, they could come and see it. I think this was the picture of the year for me. Quite unbelievable…. Wonderful. Yes, I would happily… the trouble is, it’s eight foot by five foot, so for stealing it, you’d need four people at least. If you’d come and help me, I’ve got the wall for it in the flat. And I’ve been to see it several times. Wonderful picture. A privilege just to see it.
A cricketer no one can Turn a Blind Eye to?
Vivian Richards… Sachin Tendulkar... Of course, I was at Oxford with the Nawab of Pataudi [Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi], who was a special friend and remained a friend… a sad, tragic death. To bat with one eye and captain the Indian team with one eye, that’s pretty blimming remarkable! So, you couldn’t turn a blind eye to the Nawab of Pataudi.
Piece of advice you wish you hadn’t Turned a Blind Eye to…
Well… what do you want to fill? Three books? (Laughs) The advice I give children or young university students… is the motto I believe in very strongly:
Talent and energy, you’re a king.
Energy and no talent, you’re a prince.
Talent and no energy, you’re a pauper.
(Samhita is a communications professional based in Kolkata, India. She tweets at @samhita26)
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