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The George Berger Column: In Defence of Jeffrey Archer

“Move in this here atmosphere where everything’s allowed”
– Patti Smith, “Gloria”

A few years ago, a completely run-down self fled for a week to an old friend’s house in Germany for some battery recharging. It was a perfect setting – a quiet suburb of Hannover where I didn’t know enough lingo to venture out and was left alone all day while my friend went to work.

All I had to do was read. But the extensive choice that lay in front of me on the bookshelves was mainly deeply esoteric books and most of those were in the German language. Hardly holiday reading even in English.

The one exception was Cain and Abel by Jeffrey Archer. A fat bastard of a paperback that took me somewhere else – a land of cotton wool – for a week. I thoroughly enjoyed it and returned to England much refreshed.

So why does it feel so weird to publicly admit that? Well, because it’s a bit like admitting you loved ELO back in the 70s (also true, by the way). In certain circles (these ones, for instance, but not only) it treads beyond unhip into some kind of unacceptable.

Those psychologically trapped in the school playground, who would seek to dictate what is and isn’t allowed (albeit culturally rather than legally) are missing the point. How many cultural movements in history begin as brave vanguards only to be swallowed up by their own sense of importance and their latent desire to be policemen? How many alternatives develop such a disproportionate sense as to forget so quickly that they are simply that – just another alternative? Increasing the choice by a factor of one – very laudable, but that’s all.

Not enough fucking perspective, to paraphrase the mighty Tap. The worst thing a writer can do is to hang around with other writers – none of my ‘normal’ friends would think twice about someone reading Jeffrey Archer. But when creativity turns in on itself, it develops an unhealthy self-conciousness that ends up courting ‘scenes’ that first celebrate and then devour themselves. Usually the rest of the world doesn’t even notice any of this happening, but even when it does (punk rock, for instance), the same cliches repeat themselves ad nauseum. Perhaps creative people should only know other creative people if they directly collaborate with them. Otherwise, you can spend all your time slagging off Archer et al, safe in the knowledge that you’ll never have their influence.

Should I have ignored the Archer book back in Hannover and gone for Dostoevsky instead? I’d oppose anyone who suggested that. Or indeed anyone who thought it better to lie about such things. Which is maybe worse.

Because life’s too short to deny yourself ‘guilty pleasures’. Freedom is brief and limited enough without stupid self-oppression. The glorious nano-moments when all bets are off and we can truly be crazy fools with no rules are (inevitably?) killed off and eaten up by new dogmas, new catmas, new fatwahs, new restrictions on free thought. We’ve seen it with youth cults – from the original Edwardian movement to punk rock and beyond. But – and here’s a pertinent point – those youth cultures didn’t actively seek out the limiting definitions of themselves so much as reluctantly admit there was no escape (beyond the exit door that so many understandably rushed for).

To dwell in a literal sense on the title of this piece for a moment, there are of course sanguine reasons to hate big bad Jeff. As 3:AM’s Richard Cabut once reflexed, he’s a “Tory bastard.” But to slag off Jeffrey Archer as an author is to enter into a game you can’t win. If he’s that bad, how come you’ve read him? And if you haven’t, how come you know he’s that bad? His real crime writing-wise is simply to not be trendy.

Away from the polemic, I come neither to praise nor bury the Arch-criminal, just to gently point out that willingly attempting to cultivate concepts via phrases like the Offbeat Generation – or any other attempt at control via semantic definition – is a step towards a new (but also age-old) child-catcher-cage-door in the human zoo. Movements are systems. Labels are cages.

We’re all worth more than that. Even Jeffrey Archer.

George Berger is a freelance writer, with Punk Rock DNA. He has written for Sounds, Melody Maker and Amnesty International among others. He has published two books: Dance Before the Storm: the Official Story of The Levellers (Virgin Books 1999) and The Story of Crass. George is the founder of Flowers in the Dustbin. He lives where the mood takes him and funds allow. More here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 11th, 2007.