Good Reading : March 2011
cover story endure the taunts of Fisher, a particularly sadistic prefect, and other boys who sneer at Harry's humble origins and mock his unfamiliarity with etiquette as practised by England's ruling classes.The torment pushes him to the brink of leaving school. Only the intervention of his close school friend Giles Barrington -- who wielded the proverbial silver spoon from birth but was also blessed with the capacity to treat people kindly regardless of their origins -- and the advice of a seemingly vagrant old man, Jack Tar, cause Harry to reconsider. It becomes clear in reading the book, however, that although Harry Clifton is poor, he is surrounded by a team of people who support and encourage him. His mother dedicates virtually her whole working life to Harry's academic success. And there are many others who hold Harry's interests very close to their hearts: elementary school teacher Mr Holcombe; Harry's choir mistress, Miss Eleanor Monday; Jack Tar, the elderly mentor with a mysterious military past; Mr Frobisher, the ster n but caring teacher at St Bede's; and Miss Tilly, the wise and kindly proprietor of Miss Tilly's Café and employer of Har ry's mother. As I'm interviewing Jeffrey Archer the Australian Open tennis tournament is being played in Melbour ne. Most of us don't often stop to think about it, but all these young tennis players have received a huge amount of support from their parents or others from a very early age. Yet the myth of the 'self-made man' is very powerful in Wester n culture. Given the huge amount of support that Harry was lucky enough to receive, I ask Jeffrey Archer if he thinks there are any truly self-made people in our society, who succeed without anyone's help. 'Oh, no, I think there are people who make it totally without parents, without anything,' he said. 'They are rare objects -- I agree. It's a very big advantage to have the support of a strong family, and Harry does in Maisie, and all the people around him, such as Miss Monday and Jack Tar. But I think there are rare and exceptional people who don't have even that, and succeed. In Kane and Abel, Abel didn't have those advantages, and yet he came through just the same.' I mention to Jeffrey the story of Heath Ducker, the young author from Sydney who co-wrote A Room at the To p . In this autobiographical book, Heath outlines how he was one of 10 children born to the same mother but many different fathers. He grew up in a dilapidated house and lived in unimaginably squalid circumstances, but went on to become a lawyer. It's the kind of story we all love, the tale of triumph over almost insuperable odds. But it tur ns out that Heath Ducker had considerable support from a community organisation. Heath is entirely upfront about the support he has received. But given the allure of the myth of the self-made man or woman, I wonder if Jeffrey thinks some people might want to conceal or downplay the extent of help they may have had on their climb to the top, to make their achievements appear even more remarkable. 'I've never really given that a lot of thought,' said Jeffrey. 'It's a very interesting question. I think it is difficult to succeed without backing and without backup. But in the end, you have to have the talent and the energy, I'm afraid.' We're now 17 minutes into our conversation and Jeffrey tells me we've been speaking for 25 minutes. He says that he'll have to get back to work soon. It's clear he's a man who doesn't like to waste time.This reminds me of a conspicuous feature of his writing style, at least in his latest book: the fast pace at which the story progresses and how few words he devotes to describing people or things. Some readers might consider the scant description a shortcoming. But in the right hands it can be a virtue, enabling the novelist to propel the story along at a cracking pace without the deadweight of irrelevant detail. Is his brief description is a deliberate technique, enabling him to accelerate the story's pace? 'Pace is very important because you have to move the story on,' Jeffrey said. 'Pace is usually dictated by speech -- direct speech in particular. I want you to turn the page, so I'm always trying to make the book faster. People often say to me I could have taken another hundred pages. And I say, "Well, it's already 400 pages." So yes, I do try to write in a manner that makes you want to turn the page.' And then we came to the lesbian question. About a third of the way into the book Miss Tilly, the coffee shop owner, announces that she and Miss Monday, the choir mistress, have found 'a delightful little cottage in St Mawes' to which they plan to retire. Up to this point in the book there had been no mention of any connection between the choir mistress and the café owner. I acknowledge that I'm unfamiliar with acceptable residential ar rangements for unmar ried women in interwar England. And so, from my naive 21st-century perspective, I asked Jeffrey if it were possible that Miss Tilly and Miss Monday could have been lesbians. 'If they were what?' said Jeffrey, almost as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing. 'If they were lesbians,' I repeated. 'No, no. Never crossed my mind. And they weren't,' said Jeffrey with an emphatic tone. 'It just seemed unusual. I guess I'm reading that with a 21st-century mindset, thinking that two unmarried women who set up house together might possibly be in a relationship,' I said. 'No.That's not the sort of stuff I write.' But if, as some writers claim, characters can take on a life of their own and end up behaving in ways that their creator never first imagined, who knows what Miss Tilly and Miss Monday might get up to in later novels in the series? I think it is difficult to succeed without backing and without backup. But in the end, you have to have the talent and the energy.