Henry Blofeld interview: ‘I hate people feeling sorry for themselves – you have to be optimistic’

'I’ve always regarded life as a series of right-angled bends that I want to look round,' Blofeld says

Credit: David Rose
Jim White

Henry Blofeld is busying himself in his kitchen, making coffee for his visitor. As he goes about boiling the kettle, then filling the cafetiere, he keeps getting in the way of Valeria, his wife, who is preparing lunch.

“Henry has a habit of being a nuisance in the kitchen which I think is entirely deliberate,” she says, as she gently eases him to one side. “He pretends he’s useless so he ends up not having to do anything in here.”

“I’m not much of a kitchen man, it’s true,” he admits. “Though I do make a particularly splendid plate of scrambled eggs.”

For 45 years of his life, Blofeld would have been nowhere near his kitchen in June. He would have been in the commentary box at a cricket ground, bringing us important news of busy pigeons, passing buses and a simply marvellous Victoria sponge sent in by a lovely lady listener in Marple. But since September 2017, when he stepped down from the BBC’s Test Match Special team, he has barely been to an England match. 

He is, he says, enjoying life away from the insistent urgency of live broadcasting. And he looks as though he is, relaxed in a salmon pink shirt, pale green shorts and a pair of swanky tasselled driving shoes. What is more, he has no intention of offering any advice to those attempting to fill the cavernous space he has left behind.

“I think there is nothing worse than oldies telling youngies how to do it,” he says, as he sits down to chat in his study. “I’ve moved on. I’ll only say one thing, which is what I said to Jonathan Agnew when he first started in 1991: Be yourself. Don’t try to do it the way John Arlott did it or Brian Johnston or me. We got over Johnners and Arlott departing, you can’t look back. The king is dead, long live the king.”

But, surely, he must have a hankering to be there at the centre of things again?

“No, I don’t miss it at all,” he says. “Largely because I’ve so much else happening. I’ve always regarded life as a series of right-angled bends that I want to look round. I’m still quite ambitious.”

He may not miss commentary, but we miss him. The way he would roll words round in his mouth like one of the fine wines he has on the rack in his dining room, the self-effacing ability to make himself the butt of any joke, the seemingly fathomless reserves of enthusiasm: from the moment he said hello it was impossible to listen to Blofeld on the radio without wearing a smile. The standing ovation he got at Lord’s on the day he retired was symptomatic of the esteem in which he is held by cricket followers.

Henry Blofeld received a rapturous reception upon ending his final commentary stint for TMS

Credit: Action Images via Reuters

“It was the most amazing experience,” he says of his triumphal farewell walk round the Home of Cricket, soundtracked by a full house applauding to the echo. “One lovely girl shouted out she wanted to marry me. I suggested she ought to take a careful look at the laws of bigamy.”

And he is keen to point out that while he might have stopped doing TMS (he stepped away, he says, after he realised his failing eyesight was causing him to make too many errors of identification), he has not retired. Absolutely not.

“What I’ve been doing since I stopped is my one-man – sometimes two-man – show, in theatres. I do at least 100 of those a year and love doing that. I do quite a lot of after-dinner speaking, which I also enjoy. I’ve written 20-odd books. Oh, and I work on cruises. They call it lecturing, but it’s basically me telling funny stories. Terrific fun.”

All of that, however, came to an abrupt halt last March when the pandemic struck and Blofeld, like everyone else in the country, was confined to home. He lives in a cottage on the family estate in Norfolk (his nephew Tom occupies Hoveton House, the grand Restoration pile that is just out of sight beyond the treeline). It was here that he was presented with what he reckons was as sizeable a challenge as any he has faced.

“I desperately need the adrenalin of my busy life,” he says. “I missed it in lockdown. I got slightly anxious whether I’d ever get it back.”

But, being Blowers, he found ways to occupy his time. And judging by the somewhat wayward condition of his garden, that did not involve any attempt to commune with nature.

“Actually I wrote a children’s book about Baby Blowers. I sat in this chair, with an iPad on my knee and by the end of last summer I’d written 50,000 words, a bit long for a children’s book I admit,” he says. “I did podcasting, which I enjoyed. I also did an awful lot of messages, where people write in and ask you to send their loved one a birthday greeting. That was fun. Though I didn’t do as many as my great friend Paul Chuckle; he does hundreds.”

At which point there is a pause in the conversation: Henry Blofeld is pals with Paul Chuckle, of the Chuckle Brothers? 

“Terrific friend, wonderful chap,” he says. “We met doing the Marigold Hotel on the television.”

Blofeld at his Norfolk home

Credit: David Rose

In fact, since he stopped spending his time at the cricket, he has met a lot of people on the celebrity circuit.
“I was on Ready Steady Cook and Ainsley Harriott said to me: ‘Can I call you Blowers?’ I said: ‘My dear old thing, as long as I can call you Ainers’. Which I hadn’t really thought through. Because when you say it back it was no wonder the whole studio audience fell about laughing. They cut it out, of course.”

And he arches an eyebrow at the memory. His ability to tell a story prompted a producer to get in touch with an idea for a series of personal films called At Home With Henry.

“I sat in that chair there and they filmed me talking about my life, about the things on the walls, about my parents who were very idiosyncratic and Edwardian. I got my nephew involved and we filmed him showing us around the big family house that he lives in. My forebears built it in 1660; it’s a really rather lovely. I did three films, almost an hour each. I think you can download them to your computer. I believe the word is streaming.”

The films are as packed with interesting diversions as his study, a room filled with paintings, books, prints and photographs (there is a shot of him playing for Eton in a match at Lord’s in which he scored a century). Plus PG Wodehouse’s walking stick, an object that comes complete with a tale of how he came to own it (“they presented it to me on the One Show, of all places”). Because with Blofeld, every incident in his life seems to have been distilled into an anecdote. Like the story of the night before his debut on TMS, back in 1972.

Henry Blofeld keeping wicket against Dennis Compton

Credit: David Rose

“I was very frightened, terrified of what lay ahead, totally unsure if I was up to it,” he recalls. “I arrived at the hotel and was invited to join the four other commentators for dinner. John Arlott took control and said to the wine waiter in that voice that had been marinated in many hundreds of bottles of claret of a very good year: ‘My good man we’ll have five of your best red and five of your best white’. And the wine waiter replied: ‘Very good, sir, that’s five glasses of burgundy and five glasses of Chablis. To which Arlott said: ‘No you fool … bottles’.”

And off he goes on a series of yarns, all delivered in his unmatchable way with words. He describes an old colleague as “gay as 17 clockwork oranges”. He remembers the late Alan Gibson, another former TMS commentator, as being “like Arlott a man of enormous thirst, but, unlike Arlott, he didn’t know when to stop”. And he talks of the astonishment he felt when his first piece of cricket reporting was published in The Times in the 1960s: “They printed every word, absolutely marvellous.”

At Home With Henry is typical of time spent in his company, a splurge of chortle-inducing tales.

“I didn’t have a script at all. I had a sort of plan on a bit of paper, two or three bullet points. But one thing did very much lead into another. I’m lucky I have a good memory, when I was telling a story another one would pop into my mind.” And he is away again, making his visitor chuckle constantly.

With Blofeld, there is never a minute that cannot be filled with jocularity. Laughter is, he says, central to his life. Particularly now he is 81, he reckons the longer he laughs the longer he will continue enjoying his life.

“One thing I hate is people who feel sorry for themselves,” he says. “I’m not good at gloomy b——. I think you have to be optimistic. There are always right-angled bends to look round. With life you’ve got to go for it. It won’t come to you.” It is advice worth following.

Tickets for “At Home With Henry” are on sale at simonfielder.com.
 

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