Anyone who remembers the Thatcher years and the excesses of the 80's will remember Jeffrey Archer. An MP who had to resign because he went bankrupt and who then wrote a best seller to restore his fortune, his Shepherd's Pie and Krug parties at his penthouse in the Barbican attended by the glitterati of the day, the trial for libel when he got away with lying to the court as the judge could not believe that Archer would go with a prostitute when he had his wife Mary ('Is she not fragrant?' became the quote of the year) to make love to, the revelation years later that he had lied in court and he was then carted off to jail during which time he wrote a Prison Diary which sold thousands when he came out...oh the list goes on and on. He has been quiet for a while but now he has appeared on the horizon once more with a new series of books The Clifton Chronicles, of which Only Time will Tell is the first volume.
According to the blurb on the proof copy sent to me by Macmillan 'the Clifton Chronicles will span the twentieth century from 1919 onwards....Only Time will tell is as compelling as the Forsyte Sage and as powerful as Kane and Abel (one of his earlier titles). A huge advertising campaign is under foot including a bus ride around Bristol to which I was invited and to which I would have gone if it had been nearer, and a Global Campaign with full author tour and feature coverage. Wow, they are certainly pulling out all the stops on this one.
I have read one Jeffrey Archer and that was Not a Penny Less, Not a Penny More, the book which restored him to financial security after his bankruptcy and have to say that I was distinctly underwhelmed. I read some of his short stories some years later which I remember being impressed with but since then nothing. So when this dropped through my letter box I really did not know what to expect.
Well, I loved it. I have heard all the rumours that seven editors or more sit down with seven pens and rewrite Archer's books and was never sure if this was true or not, or just one of those apocryphal stories that do the rounds, but I did rather sheer away from his output because of this. Read this through in one sitting and if ever the phrase a 'page-turner' was the right description, then it certainly is applicable here.
Harry Clifton is the son of a docker who had died in mysterious circumstances, and his mother is struggling to bring him up in dire poverty. Harry is fascinated by the docks, plays truant from school and doesn't seem to have much going for him. But he is the possessor of a beautiful, treble voice and this leads him to a choral scholarship at a posh school where he meets and befriends two companions who are going to influence his future life. One of these is Giles Barrington, son of a wealthy businessman and owner of the docks where Harry's father died. As soon as we meet Hugo Barrington and see his reaction to Harry, the reader already knowing that his mother might have had an affair with him, we are left in no doubt as to the possibilities for intrigue and underhand machinations ahead of us. And so it proves.
The story is told from several viewpoints, Harry, his mother Maisie, Hugo, Old Jack Tar (a mysterious and educated man who is one of Harry's supporters but who lives a reclusive life), Giles Barrington and his sister Emma. Not a huge amount of characterisation or details given in this book, the protagonists are there for one purpose only and that is to be the hook for the story line and to be moved around accordingly. The plot turns are signalled well ahead and are easy to spot before they even happen and the ending of this first volume entirely predictable, but this did not lessen my enjoyment in any way. It is a rattling good yarn, with pacy narrative and once started, almost impossible to put down. In some ways it reminded me of Catherine Cookson when she was writing at her very best (Katie Mulholland being a title that came into my mind when reading this), before she became too formulaic and we had 'trouble t'mill' and thieving landowners and weeping virgins en masse, and this is not meant to be a slight in any way at all, au contraire. Good story telling is what this book has in abundance and I think it is going to sell millions, be a TV mini-series and bounce Mr Archer back into the limelight. Good for him.
Apropos of nothing, when Archer went to jail he was abandoned by all his Tory friends, no surprise there then, but one person who did stand by him (not only Mrs Thatcher) was John Major who did not turn his back even though being a friend of Jeffrey was not good for any career at the time. I admired him enormously for that, sticking with your friends when they are in trouble, even self inflicted and deserved as this was, is true loyalty. Many members of the Establishment sneered at John Major when he became PM and mocked him and yet I remember the day he was defeated in the polls and left No 10, he turned up on the Member's Balcony at Lord's Cricket ground in the afternoon, pint of beer in hand and enjoying the Test Match. That man has got his priorites right I thought at the time.
I think Sir John as he now is would enjoy Only Time will Tell and do hope that Jeffrey has sent him a copy....