There is a rumour that Jeffrey Archer cannot begin his day's writing unless three Pilot pens and three Staedtler pencils, pristine tips facing north, are precisely positioned above his Oxford pad, with his folded spectacles on the left and his pencil sharpener two inches above the pens. It is actually worse than that. "I can't bear it," he winces, calling to his PA who is somewhere up in the minstrels' gallery of his London penthouse. She produces the photographic evidence of what could be borderline Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. "It all has to be in straight lines. I can't do anything about it. Even the carpet on the floor next to the door has to be straight. I can't start otherwise."
Lord Archer's mania for order is so extreme that stout pillars of perfectly spaced art books rise up on the table in front of us like the brickwork of a Roman hypocaust. This is beyond neat. Does he have an obsessive streak? "A what?" he demands. "Of course. I think my athletics created the ambition and the competition [he ran the 100-yard sprint in 9.6 seconds for Great Britain in 1966]. The discipline required for athletics carried through to writing. You call it obsession. I call it discipline. By the way, I see nothing wrong with that." Discipline, then, is behind his extraordinary ability to haul himself out of disaster — first from debts of £427,000 (Dh2.45 million) after an investment backfired, and then from a spell in jail that did not dent his readership or his self-regard one jot. His solitary writing routine is part self-flagellation, part addiction. It has brought him fabulous wealth, three homes, an enviable art collection and a reputation for pacy page-turners.
Although he holds the record for bestseller hat-tricks — in fiction (15 times), short stories (four times) and non-fiction (three volumes of A Prison Diary) — he claims: "When a book comes out I wonder if one person will buy it. It's agony. Of course it's stupid, but it's agony." The Sins of the Father is the second in his five-book Clifton Chronicles saga, and will push his worldwide sales above 270 million.
Trim and dapper in a primrose cable-knit sweater and pale slacks, Archer seems dressed more for drinks on the terrace of his Majorcan clifftop palace than for a grey London morning. That is, if any morning can be grey in the life of Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare. "I get up each day and I look at my home in Majorca or London or Cambridge and I think, ‘You lucky [fellow].' I sometimes say to myself, ‘If you died tomorrow, you really couldn't complain; you've had a pretty wonderful life'." Dying tomorrow is not part of his plan. He fights physical and mental decline with equal vigour. "I have a new game with myself," he says, "because I get terribly frightened that the memory is going to go or the brain is not going to be up to standard." Mortality is on his mind. Friends are being winnowed. School reunions are getting thinner. His books are getting shorter. His wife, the famously "fragrant" Mary, underwent a life-threatening operation for cancer of the bladder last year. He thought he was going to lose her. The surgeon at first declared she would not need an operation or chemotherapy. It proved otherwise.
Archer's Teflon-coated optimism deserted him. "If he got that wrong, what else might he get wrong? It wasn't that I didn't believe him. I just felt: ‘She's going. This woman's going to die.' Mary, being a scientist, has read every paper on the subject of this terrible cancer and understood it. She never appeared to lose confidence, till [just before the operation when] she clung on to me. I said, ‘I'll see you this evening.' She didn't reply. It was a seven-hour wait. The next morning, a senior nurse at Addenbrooke's Hospital [of which Lady Archer is chairman] came to see how she was. Mary said: ‘I'm very glad you called. I'm worried about the rota for junior nurses.' That's very Mary! She's not one to waste time."
Archer is a noisy self-publicist. But now, when he has the perfect excuse to talk exclusively about himself, he keeps coming back to Mary — how clever she is, how beautiful, how brilliant an administrator, how shrewd a judge of character, how unimpressed by material wealth, how she knows never to interrupt his inflexible writing routine, even if the house is on fire. (Once it was, and she called the fire brigade while he remained oblivious in his garden study at Grantchester.)
They have been married for 43 years, some of them rocky, all of them unpredictable. When Archer suffered his financial crash in 1974, they lost their home in London. He had no form as a novelist and Mary feared they would be paying off debt for the rest of their lives. "It scarred me deeply," she said later. "I'm now very cautious." The 1987 scandal, when he sued a newspaper for libel and won, ended his spell as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party and all political aspiration. In 2001, he was found guilty of perjury and perverting the course of justice in the earlier libel case. Mary fought his corner throughout his two years in jail. It is an unfathomable partnership, possibly even to themselves. "We are very different," he says. "But lots of people go through problems. They come through because they adore each other. If you stop respecting your partner, that's deadly.