Jeffrey is a former politician, life peer and best-selling novelist. Bolder met him at his London penthouse.
“I didn’t start writing until I was about 38 years old. I had to leave the House of Commons facing bankruptcy and it’s not easy to get a job after something like that. So I sat down and wrote my first book, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, based on the experience of how I’d lost my money. I’ve now been writing for over 40 years. I didn’t know I’d be any good at it, in fact, the first 17 publishers I went to turned the book down. Finally, Jonathan Cape printed 3000 copies and gave me £3000. I was in £440,000 of debt at the time, so my wife thought perhaps I should look for a real job, but I persevered. I’ve now sold about 270m copies.
I haven’t needed the money since I wrote Kane and Abel, but I enjoy the thrill of being number one. I love it. I wouldn’t be doing it at 80 if I didn’t. My best piece of advice to aspiring writers is never to hand in the first draft. You’ve got to go on working and working – on my current draft I am changing just three or four words a page so I know I am getting there. I love the whole process and the older I get the more I enjoy having something to get up for every day.
I grew up through what one might call a prosperous age, although for my wife Mary, it was a bit more difficult. She was shown an article from the 1950s the other day, and it advised women not to take up science but to learn how to cook if you wanted a good life. She’s gone on to be chairman of Cambridge University Hospital and the Science Museum though – so in some ways things are better now.
We’ve been married for 54 years. I think the secret is to marry someone who is cleverer than you and then you can learn the whole time. If you stop enjoying their company it’s all over – you may as well get divorced. Mary did say recently that she’d never considered divorcing me but she had considered murdering me several times! We’ve got two sons together and we’ve been blessed with four grandchildren. I talk to the children daily and they play a very big role in my life.
One of the greatest passions throughout my life has been art. When I was about 16, I fell in love with a girl called Gillian. She was an art student and not taking a great deal of interest in me; the only way I could get anywhere near her was to go to galleries with her. After a period of time, I fell out of love with her and in love with art. It’s been an affair for 60 odd years.
I suspect there are people who go through life without discovering their passion, which is an enormous shame. I always tell the true story of a young man who was working in a car factory. He got on a train one day and sat opposite a man who was making a violin bow. He became fascinated while watching him and went on to become the man every maestro wanted a bow made by. If he hadn’t got in that carriage, he might have put wheels on cars for the rest of his life.
As far as staying healthy goes, I have a coach who has been with me for 15 years. She has adapted the exercises over that time so that they are suitable for my age. She’s a wonderful lady, and I am sure she’s given me extra years. I ran a marathon for charity when I was 62. It took me five hours and 20 minutes and I was overtaken by a letterbox, a camel and a centipede. The centipede stopped to have pictures with the crowd and then overtook me again which was kind of humiliating. I didn’t have a great day but I raised half a million pounds for charity so it was worthwhile.
I think when I was a young man, I really did think that 60 was old. But Mary became chairman of the Science Museum at the age of 68. And look at Attenborough at 94, he seems to be doing a magnificent job. I’m still writing my books and I don’t see my age as a setback in any way. Of course, there have been disappointments, like when I realised I couldn’t captain the England cricket team and I couldn’t become prime minister , but I have had a wonderful life.
I have no fear of death but I don’t want to die in pain. I had a friend who went to bed one night and didn’t get up the next day, I thought that was a good way to go. Another died on the golf course, and knowing what a bad player he was I’m not surprised! But when you pass 80 you start thinking about it. As long as the brain is ticking, that’s the most important thing. I test my memory all the time, I’ll look at a page I’ve just written and try to recite it.
The best piece of wisdom I would pass down is from my mother. She used to say,“you don’t learn a lot when you’re talking.” A conversation between two people should see equal input from both. I’m also intolerant about snobbery. I passionately hate it and I’ve had to deal with it all my life. People who think they are entitled, or who think they are superior – and so often, they are not. One wouldn’t mind so much if they were.
I would also say that it is foolish to regret. We all make mistakes, I’ve had more than my fair share! I expect I’m not alone.”
Hidden in Plain Sight by Jeffrey Archer is out October 29th, priced £20 hardback (Pan Macmillan)