Henry Blofeld: “My life would be an innings of desperate uncertainty”

The 'Test Match Special' mainstay talks early life at Eton and the public outcry on his retirement

In this Letter To My Younger Self, I am talking to two totally different people. Because at the age of 17, I had a very nasty accident – knocked off my bike by a bus. I was a very different person after my accident. Everything was going for me when I was 16. I was living in Norfolk at my family home and was at school at Eton. The highlight of my year was when I scored my first hundred at Lords. I played cricket for Public Schools against the Combined Services and finished 104 not out. Middlesex wanted me to join their books, I played for Norfolk for the first time that year and everyone thought I was going to play at the highest level.

In the lottery of life, I was incredibly lucky. I came from a very privileged background. I was born on a very big estate in Norfolk, with a big family house, although we didn’t live in it then. I enjoyed school, but my academic record was not great. I did enough to get by and no more. What advice could I have given to my 16-year-old self? You were a conceited little wreck, pull yourself in! At that age I knew I was going to go places. But after the accident, I was happy just to get to the next day.

I don’t understand money, my father understood it even less.

I went through quite a lot of mental agony trying to persuade myself I was someone I wasn’t. I went to Cambridge two years younger than everyone who had done national service, without the one thing I was good at. I had my accident in early June and went up to Cambridge that October. I had been very good at cricket and that was taken away from me. So I was rather an insecure human being. All I was trying to do was to pretend the accident hadn’t happened. I knew I was irreparably damaged, yet wanted to prove to myself and therefore the world – in that order – that I was still the same. In that sense I was fighting a losing battle. I was a very difficult person for anyone to get to and was trying to move much too fast. What I needed was success and confidence.

I was a terribly bad opening batsman but I had a bit of luck. I played half a dozen matches for Cambridge under Ted Dexter’s captaincy in 1958 and hit a first class hundred at Lords the following year. Getting a Blue in my second year did a huge amount for me. But I had two shots at my exams and failed them both, got kicked out of Cambridge and went to work for a rich uncle in the City of London as a junior, junior, junior getting paid £360 a year. I was absolutely back at the start and loathed it.

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Blofeld in his cricket gear while at Oxford University in 1959

I couldn’t do what my school chums from Eton did – which was belong to expensive clubs, go to expensive restaurants and take out expensive girls. I couldn’t afford it. Having been brought up in a rarefied atmosphere where there was plenty of money, I was suddenly very much out of it. That was another thing one had to get over. And I didn’t, as a look at my overdraft ever since would suggest. My father wasn’t a rich man. He had a lot of land, but land wasn’t money. I don’t understand money, my father understood it even less.

I would never give anyone advice on their romantic life, let alone my younger self. I got married when I was 21 to my daughter’s mama who is no longer around. We divorced seven years later and I think she had the rough end of the stick. I was a very difficult chap. I was insecure, doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons. I have married three times. Me and Valeria have been together for about 10 years now.

I wonder, when did I cease to become impossible? And I don’t know. But it is all to do with confidence and luck. It was thanks to a lot of curious chances that I started writing about cricket as a freelancer for The Times in 1962. I had a double dose of luck – the luck that put me in certain situations, then the luck to have the talent to be able to take advantage. Because I never had a moment’s tuition in my life on how to write or broadcast. It has all been natural. That said, I’ve never been frightened of working hard. I am a great competitor. I would write if I thought I was going to sell it, and I would write it well.

My job became the central platform in my life. I clung to it. Progress was slow and money was short. But if you had told me that I would be sitting here now having done all the things I have done I wouldn’t have begun to believe you. That knowledge would have sent me off the rails.

Commentating on Test Match Special gave me a leg up in every way. One had arrived. It was my job that kept me from deviating too much and self-destructing. I think I was close to it at the time. I drank too much because I thought it was the grown-up thing to do. And I was very conscious of wanting to be an adult, not wanting to be someone who is still getting over a bad injury. That controlled my life.

A word was never wasted with Noël Coward. We had brief times together but they were good times. I went on a honeymoon with my first wife and because I knew Ian Fleming, we had lunch at GoldenEye in Jamaica. Noël Coward was present, which started another friendship. I went to dinner with him at Firefly Hill and he played and sang – Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Mrs Worthington, the Stately Homes of England. I suppose that is the equivalent of, when you have made 100 at Lords, having Denis Compton – which I did have – walk up from first slip and shake me by the hand! Life doesn’t get much better than this.

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Blofeld with wife Valeria in London in 2017

I was amazed by the public outcry when I retired last year. Success came by degree. Did I know how loved I was by listeners? I don’t think I had any clue. I am still discovering it. It is amazing, really, that I have just done a sell-out tour of 40 theatre shows. It feels lovely.

If I could relive any time of my life I would go back to a wonderful week in July 1956. My first hundred at Lords, my first game for Norfolk when I hit 76. In the commentary box I would love to live the 1981 Test at Leeds again. I took the last wicket, when Willis bowled Ray Bright on air. But the series I would love to go back to more than any was the first major series I did, [Colin] Cowdrey’s tour to the West Indies in 1967-68, when England won against all odds. I can relive any moment of it in my mind. Extraordinary.

My life would be an innings of desperate uncertainty, playing and missing and gradually coming through it. After my accident, it was very much like finding yourself at 53-6. And then by some incredible fluke, I managed to go on to something just over 450 before I was all out. Maybe 500. The thing is to be yourself, try to enjoy it and never forget to laugh. They are my final words. We all feel better if we laugh.

Henry Blofeld is touring the UK with 78 Retired from September. Tickets are available at henryblofeld.co.uk/78retired.

Image: Richard Lakos