Stranger than fiction

British novelist and politician Jeffrey Archer became a Member of Parliament at the age of 29. Bankruptcy forced him to resign, so he sat down and wrote a novel that made him a millionaire. But in July he was sentenced to four years in jail for perjury. This is the story of his rise and fall.

Prisoner FF8282 is sitting in a cell in Camp Hill prison, the Isle of White, England. He is scheduled for release in 2005. This means he has lots of time to look back on his life. He used to be a politician. He has been a great success as a novelist, and his books have been translated into 30 different languages. He is still very rich. He has a fine art collection and several homes: one of these, a ł2 million penthouse, has a view of the House of Commons in Central London.

So, where did it all go wrong for Jeffery Archer? The fact is that the novelist who loves to tell fictional stories in his books has told as many, if not more, fictional stories about himself. All his life, the writer of Kane and Abel and First Among Equals, among others, has told half-truths and lies about his past. But he needn't have. His story was strange enough already.

It runs in the family

Jeffrey Archer, born in 1947 in southern England, loves to tell the story about his father being a World War I hero who won medals for bravery. This is not true. His father, William Archer, was a convicted fraud and bigamist, who travelled to New York with a stolen, dead man's passport. Archer also loves to tell the story of how he studied at Oxford University. This isn't true, either. He did study physical education in Oxford, at the Oxford Department of Education, but this is not part of Oxford University.

Whilst at Oxford he began an athletics career as a runner, and was chosen to compete for England and Great Britain. After he left his studies he worked as a successful charity worker. Archer made friends easily and in 1966 he married Mary Weedon, who is still his wife today. On the marriage certificate she wrote "research assistant" as her occupation, which was true. Jeffery Archer also wrote "research assistant" on the marriage certificate, which was not.

Political animal

In 1967 he entered local politics, and two years later became a Conservative MP in the county of Lincolnshire. Archer has claimed that, at 29, he was the youngest MP ever to enter the House of Commons. This is not true - he was actually the fourth youngest MP ever. But this is still an impressive achievement. Things were going well for the young politician.

Then disaster struck. A Canadian cleaning company in which he had rather foolishly invested all his life savings went broke. Archer was declared bankrupt. A bankrupt cannot be a Member of Parliament, so he had to resign. With no money and no career, Archer sat down in 1976 and wrote a novel. Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less was not appreciated by literary critics, but readers in the UK and the US loved it. The book sold well, and his next work Kane and Abel sold even better. Jeffrey Archer was suddenly rich and successful again.

From the courtroom to the House of Lords

But Archer always wanted more. He re-entered politics in 1985 as Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, serving under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He still dreamed of being Prime Minister himself one day. But disaster was, yet again, lurking around the corner. In July 1987, he sued the British tabloid, the Daily Star, for libel. The newspaper had alleged that Archer had spent a night with a prostitute in a London hotel the year before. The scandal forced him to resign from politics for the second time. But the master of fiction delivered a sound alibi in court, "proved" his innocence, won the libel trial, and was awarded ł500,000 in damages.

Afterwards, he continued to write very successful novels. He worked again for charity. He collected money for the Kurds after the Gulf War in 1992, and later that year he was made Lord Archer by the then Prime Minister, John Major (a Conservative, of course). As a Lord he could sit in the House of Lords. Archer had bounced back again, entering politics for a third time. But, never satisfied, he now wanted to become Mayor of London. He believed his ups and downs in life would be popular with the voters. "When I talk to Londoners they treat me as an equal," he said in 1997. "The people say: 'he was in terrific debt, he has had his problems, he understands us.' Londoners trust me."

Guilty as charged

In 1999 the Conservative Party nominated him as their candidate in the elections for Mayor, even though many in the Party felt nervous about him. They didn't trust him. Archer, they said, "was trouble".

And he proved them right, for another disaster lay in waiting, and this time there was no escape. In November 1999 another tabloid, the News of the World, reported that Archer had persuaded a former friend, Ted Francis, to lie in court in the 1987 libel trial. It also emerged that the novelist had asked his PA (personal assistant) to create a false diary, which "proved" that he couldn't have slept with the prostitute, for he was somewhere else at the time. This summer he was found guilty of perjury and obstructing the course of justice, and sentenced by the Judge to four years in prison. An amazing up-and-down life had taken another downward turn.

It is reported that Jeffrey Archer is spending his time in prison writing. Another novel, perhaps? Or maybe his autobiography? Even after bankruptcy, three resignations from politics and lots of self-delusion, scandal and lies, don't be surprised if Jeffrey Archer bounces back one more time. The story of the novelist and storyteller who couldn't stop telling stories has yet to enter its final chapter.

- Peter Gentle