Lord of the Lies
I wish I could have said the title is mine. I found an English paper had used it, while doing some checking on Lord Jeffrey Archer, the best-selling writer who has figured so prominently and so rapturously in the Indian papers these days. No matter. It fits the man perfectly.
Archer’s background first intrigued me a couple of years back when I got a call from Dubai. The caller was a certain Aziz Kurtha, a lawyer of Pakistani origin who shuttled between the Britain, Dubai and Pakistan. My father [Khushwant] and I were then in Kasauli and he wanted to thank Dad for having written a favourable review of a book he had done on Indian art. He mentioned that he had also written on Francis Newton Souza, whom he had known since the 1970s and many of whose paintings he had. MF Husain, too, he claimed as a close friend who stayed with him when in Dubai and whose paintings he also possessed. But the name Aziz Kurtha tugged at my memory, so I emailed my journalist friend in London, Amit Roy.
“Low life,” he warned me, “Keep away from him — don’t you remember his connection with Jeffrey Archer?”
Then, it came back, with some help from Google. Kurtha had played a key role in the political downfall of Archer. Late one night on September 8, 1986, Monica Colquhoun, a prostitute, came out of the Albion Hotel, near London’s Victoria station, after having sex with her third client, none other than Aziz Kurtha. He was about to drop her home in his blue Mercedes Benz, when another car flashed its lights and beckoned Monica. Kurtha recognised the driver, Jeffrey Archer and quickly informed Private Eye, the British satirical magazine that takes on the high and the mighty. Private Eye in turn told News of the World, the tabloid that has built a huge circulation through carrying sensational, sleazy stories. News of the World got hold of Monica, for a considerable price, needless to say, wired her up with a hidden tape-recorder, while she negotiated with Archer’s fixer, Michael Stacpole. He gave her a wad of £50 notes, to leave the country, so that she could not testify about Archer sleeping with her.
When the paper, along with another tabloid, the Daily Star, carried their exposes, Archer sued both of them. He got his friends to lie in court and provide an alibi for that particular night, while his secretary was made to cook up a false diary of his movements. He won close to £1 million (Rs 80 crore) in damages from both papers. (The editor of one of them was sacked by his owner and subsequently died of a heart attack, while Monica was killed in 1991 by a stolen car driven by a drug addict.)
Archer’s meteoric political career — he had been elected to Parliament when he was just 29 — was back on track. He was then Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party and spoken widely as a future Prime Minister. He was also made a life peer.
Four years later, when Archer was the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London, one of the friends, TV producer Ted Francis, got pangs of conscience and admitted he had earlier lied in court (and got paid £40,000 for it). Archer’s reputation began to unravel as he went on trial for perjury and “perverting the course of justice”. He did not say a word in his defence, was found guilty and sentenced to four years in jail. One highly respected British paper did not mince words while describing him as “the most consummate liar and bragger the modern literary world has known”, while another called him a “mendacious wretch”.
They had good reason. He had claimed that he was a graduate of Oxford University. It turned out that he had only got an ordinary teaching diploma at Oxford, no degree. He said his father was ‘Viceroy of Brunei’ and another time ‘British Consul in Singapore’. Brunei never had a viceroy and there was no British consul in Singapore at the time. His father was actually a convicted fraudster and bigamist.
The day after Archer learnt that Anglia TV was facing a takeover bid (his wife was a director of the company), he bought shares on behalf of somebody else and when the share price soared, sold them, making a cool profit of over £70,000. The government of Equatorial Guinea alleged that he was one of the financiers of a failed coup attempt against them and million of pounds raised by one of his charities for Kurdish refugees were somehow not accounted for.
Financial shenanigans aside, he kept a mistress in London for weekdays, while spending weekends with his wife. He made his secretary buy gifts for his mistress from her credit card, so that they could not be traced to him. One of his books, had ‘Number one best-seller’ emblazoned on its cover, before a single copy had been sold. He boasted of being in the same literary league as Graham Greene and Charles Dickens, yet it is well-known that all his books are heavily re-written.
Nevertheless, his books have sold 120 million copies and earned him £100 million (Rs 800 crore). And that’s no lie. But at least a part of that money he had to pay back to the Daily Star, the paper from whom he had won almost a million pounds before he was found guilty of perjury. When asked how much it would claim, the paper cheekily replied, “Not a penny more, not a penny less” — which happens to be the title of his first book.
Rahul Singh is a Mumbai-based writer and is currently working on a biography of Indira Gandhi.