Mary Archer: ‘There are worse things in life than adultery’

Relationships

Mary Archer talks about her recovery from major cancer surgery – and
explains why her marriage to Jeffrey Archer has survived 45
‘topsy-turvy’ years.
Mary Archer: ‘I am not perfect. I am not easy to live with. I am
obsessed with work’ – Mary Archer: ‘There are worse things than
adultery’
Mary Archer: ‘I am not perfect. I am not easy to live with. I am
obsessed with work’

By Elizabeth Grice

6:50AM BST 04 Oct 2011

Mary Archer is a very tiny person whose tasteful frame takes up a
fraction of the space in which she lives. So vast is her penthouse
flat overlooking the Thames that she is a human punctuation mark –
possibly a slash – against the domestic opulence engulfing her.

Ready for business in a knee-length black dress with a pop-art flower
motif on each high-heeled shoe, she looks poised but insubstantial, as
though a breath of wind would blow her away. In April, she had major
surgery for a highly aggressive cancer. In a complex operation, her
bladder was removed and a new one created out of half a metre of her
small intestine.

“It rearranges your insides quite comprehensively,” she says. “There
is quite a bit of work to be done on mastering the new plumbing
arrangements. But I am fitter now than before.”

That was apparent two weeks ago when Lady Archer, scientist and
chairman of the Cambridge University Hospitals Trust, was pictured on
a charity run for the Rosie Maternity Hospital, with her husband
puffing along beside her. “Anyone who has followed my topsy-turvy
life,” he said, “will already know that Mary doesn’t give in easily,
even when the odds are stacked against her.”

Contrary to his marital caricature, Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare
has proved a champion carer, the solicitous provider of cups of tea,
hot-water bottles and encouragement. He cancelled his annual writing
trip to their house in Majorca – “a unique event”, she observes – so
he could support her. “Jeffrey has been absolutely tremendous
throughout. He was always there to encourage me back to full health
and fitness but also there if I overdid it. I think we’ve weathered
the whole now: for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in
sickness and in health.”

Theirs is a puzzling partnership. The enduring liaison of ebullient,
disaster-prone chancer and cool, unblemished academic has had people
guessing for years. What is the glue, other than the many millions
Lord Archer has made by writing bestsellers, that makes the marriage
stick?

“Don’t you have to work at growing together?” she asks. “Our
personality types are quite different but we share a lot of attitudes
and tastes. I am proud of Jeffrey’s achievements and I think he is
proud of mine. We’ve been together so long [they married in 1966] I
can’t really imagine life without him. It is very sad when people who
have been married for a long time split up in acrimony. If marriage
doesn’t work, it’s better that people divorce early.”

To those who suggest she stayed for the money, she long ago pointed
out that she would be a much richer woman divorced than married. In
picking up the pieces after Jeffrey’s follies and escapades,
“fragrant” Mary has usually come across as the injured party,
confronting bankruptcy, sexual scandal and his two-year imprisonment
for perjury with a show of swan-like dignity. She mounted a ferocious
campaign to clear his name.

“I don’t feel injured at all,” she says. “I am not perfect. I am not
easy to live with. I am very obsessed with work. I haven’t always been
there. In fact, I haven’t often been there when Jeffrey and the
children would have preferred I was. And they’ve been very tolerant of
that. Jeffrey has to have an operation for a cataract and I will make
absolutely sure I am there for that.”

She believes there are worse threats to a marriage than adultery. “Far
worse things. Hostility. Cruelty. A marriage based on affection and
friendship and deep knowledge, each of the other, can survive. It can
survive infidelity better than it can survive indifference or
hostility.”

They have been giving a lot of thought to survival. Who would cope the
best after the death of the other? “Either of us would be very lonely
without the other and life would never be the same again,” she says.
“He would probably cope better without me than I would without him.
But that’s the sort of experiment it’s impossible to conduct. Let’s
hope we don’t have to find out.”

Her brush with mortality seems to have melted a layer of Mary Archer’s
fabled glacial reserve. Though she has a formal, rather queenly way of
speaking, she is direct, attentive and down to earth. There were the
practical questions – “Am I really going to survive the seven years my
will assumes I will? Are my affairs in order?” – but also a daily
audit of using her time well.

“Now, when I go to bed each night I think: What is the thing I did
today that I wanted to do? And in the morning: What do I really want
to do today?”

She refused Jeffrey’s exhortation to “go anywhere, do anything”, no
matter what the cost, and had her operation on the NHS – in a public
ward at Addenbrooke’s, Cambridge, close to the Archers’ country home,
The Old Vicarage, Grantchester.

“There was an odd sense of disconnection when I walked into the ward
as a patient and later, on the other side of the door, I was chairman
again.” Pragmatic and well-researched, she decided against a
laparoscopic approach to surgery (smaller scar, more puncture marks)
in favour of a long vertical cut (big operation, big hole an
advantage). “It will fade to a thin white line,” she says. “I might
wear a bikini again in a couple of years.” It has given her a 95 per
cent chance of being disease-free at five years, which she considers
tantamount to a cure.

One good thing about bladder cancer, she says, is that it produces the
symptom of blood in the urine quite early. “My public health message
from all this is: if you notice blood in your urine, get yourself
checked out.”

She had no fears about the operation, but the diagnosis was a shock.
“I had taken good care of myself. I’m not fat. I don’t drink too much.
I don’t do anything I shouldn’t – apart from being a chemist, perhaps.

“When I was young, I handled a lot of organic solvents and heavy
metals. In those days there was less awareness of health and safety.
Maybe that had something to do with my cancer. Maybe it was the hair
dye I’ve used since I started to go grey – I’ve now switched to a much
gentler one. Maybe there is something in my genetic make-up that
predisposes me to cancer, in which case I hope I haven’t passed it on
to my two boys [William, 39, and James, 37]. Maybe it’s not to do with
anything.”

Next year, Dr Mary Archer, 66, will stand down as chairman (she
refuses to be called a chairperson) of the hospital trust after 10
years. Her “posthumous objective” is to see an East of England
children’s hospital take shape on the huge biomedical campus which
Addenbrooke’s and the Rosie Hospital occupy. Jeffrey jokes that she
would probably sell his art collection to fund it. A second ambition
is to write the fourth and final volume of her series on the
photo-conversion of solar energy. The third, “to learn to play the
organ properly, with my feet”.

A vision of fitness in a cricket sweater and shorts, Lord Archer
strides briskly into view – the penthouse is so big you can see people
coming – and disappears into a galleried area above us. With Mary on
the mend, he is about to leave for Spain to revise The Sins of the
Father, the second in his five-novel series, The Clifton Chronicles.
The first, Only Time Will Tell, is already a number one paperback
bestseller. Inventive, indefatigable, he writes a book a year.

In the Seventies, when Archer began to write his way out of £400,000
of debt, his wife edited the rough drafts and is sometimes credited
with having made his books readable. “No, no, no,” she says. “I
couldn’t write a story to save my life. He is a great storyteller. I
am hot on commas. Even if I had had such a gift in the first place, my
scientific training would probably have ground it out of me. I do read
his books at a late stage and put in commas and pick up small points
of fact. I admire his discipline, his ability to hold so much in his
head for weeks and months.”

Fiction, as you might guess, is not her preferred form of recreation.
She likes popular books about science – Bill Bryson and Jared Diamond
are favourites – and is currently reading her friend Ruth Leon’s
tragic account of her husband Sheridan Morley’s manic depression.

Odd as it may seem, given her reputation for restraint, Mary Archer is
by no means a reluctant celebrity. “Being on show seems to go with the
job – I mean the job of being Jeffrey’s wife,” she says. “I’m glad I
got through my cancer operation before it became public knowledge, but
now it has, I’m very pleased if I can help other cancer patients to
see that they, too, may be lucky.”

The Rosie Hospital provides women’s, maternity and neonatal services
at Cambridge University Hospitals. To continue to provide the best
care to mothers and babies of the future, it needs to expand its
facilities to meet anticipated increases in both the number and
complexity of cases during the coming years. Go to
therosiecampaign.org.uk to find out more about the campaign and donate
directly