Jeffrey Archer: ‘In the holidays I’d go back to Weston while other boys went on skiing holidays’
My father died of a heart attack when I was still a boy. I don’t remember him much, but he seemed fine: he loved his cricket. We then had no money so my sister and I lived in a tiny flat in Weston-super-Mare that my mother had purchased from John Cleese’s mother.
I won a scholarship to Wellington School in Somerset – just as well because we couldn’t have afforded the fees. My mother did three jobs to make sure I had cash to see me through the term. She was a hotel receptionist, ran a pamphlet called What’s On In Weston, and did odd jobs. I didn’t realise at the time what sacrifices she was making for me. It was only in later life that I understood what she had been through – but I like to believe I made the last 20 years of her life very easy indeed, because by then I’d made a lot of money. It was my way of saying thank you. And my mother did well – she lasted until 87.
Wellington was 40 miles away from our flat. At the beginning of term my mother and I went there by train and walked from the station. The grounds were wonderful – beautiful cricket pitch, the most amazing rugby field, a running track and a wonderful chapel. I was impressed by people turning up in cars. There was wealth there that I’d never come in contact with, I couldn’t even conceive how you could own a car.
I was lonely at first but I made friends with a boy called Neil Copp, and he became my closest friend there and right through life. I was always ambitious and so was he. He went on to become a multimillionaire when he sold his company 30 years ago, and he was a decent man too. He’d be alive today but he smoked 30 cigarettes a day, despite me and my wife Mary having a go at him, and died of cancer.
I discovered quickly that I was a good runner: every race I entered, I won. People noticed, and running became a great part of my life. I wanted to run for England, though no one gave a damn about that because in those days cricket was the all-important thing at Wellington: the priority was that you might score 50 runs for the First Xl against Blundell’s. Actually I loved the game – I was passionate about it, and still am – but unfortunately I couldn’t bat, bowl or field.
There were some wonderful teachers at Wellington. I had a housemaster called Bert Nichol who was just super, but the man I adored was Mr Kenny, the gym master. When I was very young I was so small I was called “Puny” – we all remember our nicknames at school, don’t we? So I went to Mr Kenny, and I didn’t need to tell him anything, he just looked at me and saw what I needed. He made me go to the gym every day and within three years I was captain of gymnastics and of athletics, and by the time I left Wellington I was running for my country.
Mr Kenny was something of a father figure, but not as much as a man called Mr Quilter, who taught English and went on to become headmaster of Wells Cathedral School. He was a good schoolmaster, and gave me my love of literature and theatre. He was the producer of the school play and he allowed me to perform. In my last two years I played the lead in Molière’s L’Avare and Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. Before I left school Mr Quilter asked if I wanted to go to RADA. I thought about it but didn’t take it that seriously. I was a child, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
My first headmaster, Mr I.M. Bankes-Williams, was an old-fashioned Victorian gentleman – he stood up when his wife came into the room, and I was impressed by his courtesy. But the next headmaster, Mr Stredder, didn’t. I thought him very ill-mannered, but I suppose he was just a man of his time.
I wanted to produce a school play myself so I went to see Stredder to talk about it but he said only a master could produce the school play. I felt that was ridiculous: I knew the actors I wanted to cast and the play I wanted to do, but he told me to stop even thinking about it. Looking back on that I think what a lack of imagination the man had.
If a child came to me now and said he wanted to write a novel, I wouldn’t say to him, “You’re too young, go away”. I’d enquire: “Oh, what’s your novel going to be about?” and give all sorts of encouragement. He just missed the whole point. But then I’d taken agin him not standing up for his wife, plus Stredder never made me a prefect and that hurt, so we never got on. But he hated me – I was far too ambitious, too cocky and clever by half for him. I’m sure he was very glad to get rid of me.
In the holidays I’d go back to Weston while other boys went off on skiing holidays. I suppose I was disappointed about that but I never made a fuss – we just couldn’t afford it. I went out and earned money. I worked on petrol pumps and I sold team-sheets on the cricket ground. I also took my old pram to Weston Station and picked up luggage for people who couldn’t afford taxis, and wheeled their bags to their hotel for sixpence.
I was always trying to make money. At school there was a craze for collecting cheese labels. I’ve no idea how that came about. Anyway I sat down and wrote to every major cheese company in Switzerland: Cher Monsieur, Would you be kind enough to send me your cheese labels? Envelope enclosed. All I could afford was the stamp and the enclosed envelope. But within a month I had more cheese labels than any other person in the school. Plus duplicates. So I flogged off the duplicates and bought my mother a watch from H Samuel. It cost 30 shillings and she couldn’t believe I’d made that amount of money; she thought I’d stolen either the watch or the money.
Immediately after school I worked in a hotel – well, they called it a “Luxury Coaching Inn” – the Lygon Arms in Broadway, Worcestershire. I was the lowest of the low: a bellboy, a bag-carrier. But one of the American guests asked if I would like to come and work for him in the retail business and he’d pay for me to come over on a tramp steamer. I loved America. I sometimes wonder how my life would have changed if I had stayed there. But I missed England – and there’s no cricket in San Francisco.
I can’t pretend I was in love with Wellington when I went there, it wasn’t the great academic establishment it is now. But it’s never an institution that makes a school great – it’s the teachers. Howell Kenny and Alan Quilter changed my life. Howell Kenny made me an athlete, and I went on to run for my country. And perhaps I became a writer because of Alan Quilter giving me a love of literature.
I go back to Wellington all the time. I went back to do its speech day some years ago, and to open a library in my name – a great honour. I’ve just received the invitation to the Annual Wellington Lunch. I always love seeing my contemporaries there, though sadly, because I’m 82, ever fewer attend each year, which is horrid.
Jeffrey Archer’s latest novel, Next in Line, is published by HarperCollins