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With a new book out and a fresh athletic drive, former prisoner Jeffrey Archer is a changed man – he still enjoys the best food and drink though, as he tells James Kidd
I have picked a bad time to meet Jeffrey Archer for lunch. Despite looking fit, trim and rather younger than his 68 years, the novelist, former Conservative Party deputy chairman and one-time London mayoral candidate is on a diet.
Helped by his ferocious female New Zealand trainer, Archer wants to shed a stone in weight: after months of globe-trotting to publicise his new bestseller, A Prisoner of Birth, the literary dinners, hotel restaurants and airline food have all taken their toll.
‘I hate her,’ he says, half-joking. ‘We trained this morning and I was doing continual step-ups with weights until I fell. She allows me 10 seconds rest, then says, “Do you want to do this properly or do you want to mess about?”’
Lucio on the Fulham Road is not a place to avoid temptation. Archer’s favourite London restaurant alongside Le Caprice, it is frequented by Chelsea footballers, Sven-Göran Eriksson and shortly, according to owner Gian Lucio, by current England manager Fabio Capello.
The menu is packed with all manner of diet-ruining temptations. Not content with watching his own weight, Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, casts an eagle eye over mine as well. When I reach for Lucio’s pre-lunch bread, he slaps my wrist in admonition. ‘How old are you?’ Archer demands. ‘Are you overweight? These are deadly, I must warn you. Wonderful, but deadly.’ I am to be allowed only one, he tells the waiter, with just a little olive oil.
Archer himself begins nutritiously enough with an aperitif that Lucio calls a ‘Jeffrey Special’: blood orange, grapefruit, pineapple, passionfruit syrup, grenadine and rosé. His starter is courgette flowers with goats’ cheese and fresh vegetables, followed by rump of lamb tagliata with rosemary, olives and cherry tomatoes. Archer’s trainer will be relieved to hear that he doesn’t touch the roast potatoes or any further alcohol: nearly teetotal, he allows himself half a glass of red wine with dinner. Archer even forgoes the afrogato al caffé for dessert: a speciality of the house, it is an espresso shot poured over vanilla ice-cream. Archer asked Gian Lucio to make it for his and Mary’s 40th wedding anniversary. Lucio refused, saying he can make only six afrogati at a time; with 300 guests, it would be a long evening. ‘It is the best in the world and absolutely deadly. If I could eat it and not put on weight, I’d have it every day of my life.’
All this is a far cry from the last time Archer found himself out of shape – during his two years spent in prison for perjury and perverting the course of justice. Then, denied time to exercise and wholesome food, he gained two stone.
‘It was dreadful,’ he recalls. ‘Bad food. I’ll never do that again. There are awful pictures of me.’
Prison food could be described as ‘Beans and…’ beans and sausage, beans and beef, beans and spam fritters. The only alternative, Archer says, was to become a ‘VIP’ – a Vegetarian in Prison – a tactic he also tries to apply to aeroplane food. ‘Golden rule – never touch it.’
Mealtimes in prison were horrifying in other ways than the gastronomic. ‘More fights break out over food than anything else,’ Archer says. ‘If the stupid man behind the counter likes you, he’ll give you an extra potato or portion of beans. If someone notices, then a row breaks out and everybody wants one.’
That Archer survived largely unscathed (and in Belmarsh prison particularly) says much for his thick skin, political savvy and downright bravado. ‘I used political skills quite ruthlessly in prison,’ he says. ‘It quickly got round that I wouldn’t hold a conversation if you swear. Don’t say effing this and effing that, I just won’t answer. If you talk sensibly, I’ll treat you as an equal and a friend.’
Archer encountered some truly frightening people, including one inmate who cut his girlfriend into tiny pieces (memorialised in A Prisoner of Birth as the psychotic Leech). ‘He was terrified of me,’ Archer says with more than a little pride. ‘Most of them were because of my tongue. I couldn’t hit anyone, I wasn’t physically strong enough, but they were terrified of being humiliated in front of their friends.’
Prison seems to have lent Archer a fresh perspective on life, not to mention a fruitful subject to write about: he completed over a million words in his first year as an inmate. More charming than his public image suggests, he acknowledges how much he has put his wife Mary through, although he argues that she was fortunate compared to most prison wives.
‘Mary has a wonderful career, no financial problems, a beautiful home, grown-up children and immensely strong friends. The wives of many convicts have young children, no money and no jobs.’
Despite doing time, Archer has still retained most of his friends. Among the many names that drop like scones are Barry Humphries, John Madejski, David Frost and former prime ministers Lady Thatcher and John Major.
Although he admits his political days are finally over, Archer claims to be happier as a result. ‘I am much more relaxed. Politicians are always on edge. Can you imagine what Gordon Brown’s going through?’ His one great disappointment is that he did not become London’s mayor. ‘I wanted to be mayor and I failed. F.A.I.L.E.D. Get it?’
Archer admires Boris Johnson and wishes him well. ‘I envy him, of course. I envy him the privilege of doing such a tough job. There are so many things to do in London. Now he has the chance to sort them out.’
Archer has certainly made the most of his free time: he goes to the theatre twice a week (‘You look surprised’), the cinema at least once, and watches cricket as often as possible. The next leg of his literary world tour takes him to India for the first time, a prospect that excites him immensely. He also finds the time to raise enormous sums for a wide variety of charities: last year, his auctions made £2.1 million. ‘I have just done Ian Botham’s knighthood party at the Grosvenor House Hotel,’ he tells me. ‘One thousand people at £1,200 each, all raising money for leukaemia.’
Archer even continues to make his own eccentric contribution to British culinary life: the shepherd’s pie and Champagne he serves at his famous Christmas parties. ‘Mary wanted lobster,’ he says of its origins. ‘I wanted shepherd’s pie because men will come in and say, I never get this at home and I can’t get it at any restaurant.’
The only innovation is that Krug no longer supplies the Champagne. ‘Krug had a huge party just before I went to prison to celebrate a big anniversary, and they didn’t invite me. I thought, after all the free advertising I gave Krug over the years... stuff you!’
A Prisoner of Birth is published by Macmillan, priced £18.99
Lucio, 257 Fulham Road, SW3 6HY, 020 7823 3007
Photography by Dan Weldon
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2008