There can be a strong strain of self-parody in even the greatest commentators. When Henry Blofeld describes the progress of a pigeon in his inimitably plummy tones, or greets a visiting Ocker to the commentary box with a jovial ‘My dear old thing!’, he is impersonating himself as surely as Rory Bremner has ever done. Just where ‘Blowers’ ends, though, and the man behind the act begins, can be tricky to judge.
In Squeezing the Orange he does occasionally show us behind the scenes. He reveals, for instance, the advice which led him to his obsession with describing buses, and cheerily explains how he came by that ‘silly’ catchphrase, ‘My dear old thing’. What Blofeld does not do, though, is to explore anything so untoward as depths. ‘The nasty bits don’t hurt or matter as much as they did,’ he explains in his preface, ‘and the best bits seem to have become even more fun.’ Much the best policy, then, is to have ‘a thoroughly good laugh’.
So it is that we are given a jolly canter through the life of one of cricket’s more seasoned after-dinner speakers. Much of the material, from Botham running out Boycott to Johnners and Aggers getting uncontrollable giggles, will be familiar to anyone with even the most glancing familiarity with the sport. Other episodes, including a cricket tour to South America and the arrival of Blowers and John ‘Wooders’ Woodstock in a vintage Rolls-Royce at ‘an agreeable hostelry in Kandahar,’ take on something of the hallucinatory lunacy of Tales From the Long Room.
So too do Blofeld’s dismissals of the sinister figures who every once in a while poke their noses in from beyond the dimension of cricket. Cicero is nailed as a ‘Godawful Roman no-hoper’, John Junor as ‘a stinker in any coinage’ and General Zia Ul-Huq as ‘a Terry-Thomas lookalike,’ while Colonel Gaddafi is definitively summed up as a man who ‘never set foot on a cricket ground in his life’. An anecdote involving Clive Dunn is darkly hinted at, but never revealed in full.
‘What fun it was!’ Maybe — but there are still occasions when the fun can seem a little forced. Of the Blofeld who notoriously had a ‘disagreement’ with Botham on the 1981 tour to the West Indies, and told Duncan Fletcher to ‘f**k off’ in a restaurant, we are given only the most veiled of hints. A wife will ‘tootle down the aisle’ with him, then vanish, abruptly to be replaced with another. Any unpleasantness that absolutely cannot be omitted is smothered beneath a froth of sub-Wodehousisms. Blofeld’s father and Brian Johnson both put their cues in the rack rather than do anything so mawkish as actually die. The experience of corporal punishment, in a particularly splendid euphemism, is described as getting castled by a ball that should have been left alone. Noël Coward’s two male friends take their guard ‘somewhere between fourth slip and gulley’. It can sometimes require an effort to remember that Blofeld was born in 1939, a year before John Lennon, rather than in 1899.
Nevertheless, despite his unflaggingly Woosterish tone, there are enough episodes in Squeezing the Orange to suggest that things were not consistently a lark. Blofeld’s life has been one devoted to writing and commentating on cricket, but it might have been something much more. The key event in his career took place when he was still at Eton, and cycled out from a playing field directly into a bus. Even here, describing an accident that almost killed him and irreparably damaged his ability to play cricket at the highest level, Blofeld simply cannot help going for a touch of Wodehouse. The bus, he makes sure to tell us, was full of ladies from the French Women’s Insititute. ‘No doubt a good deal of zut alors-ing went on in the Datchet Lane.’
No doubt that is how Bertie too would have described the ruin of his life’s ambitions, had he, like Blofeld, been a schoolboy cricketer of exceptional talent and promise, good enough to impress Bradman while scoring a first-class century at Lord’s, and with an England career, perhaps, a not wholly implausible prospect.
Even now, as a commentator on Test Match Special, a job for which he is ideally suited, and which has made him famous and widely loved, the shadow of what he might have been seems never entirely to have lifted. A memory of the notoriously irascible Fred Trueman is almost unbearably sad. ‘When anyone questioned whether I had ever played cricket myself,’ Blofeld recalls, ‘he would spring to my defence, saying,“H got a first-class ’undred at Lord’s.” ’
So a fun biography, yes — but perhaps ‘the nasty bits’ still hurt more, and cast a longer shadow, than Blofeld is willing to acknowledge.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop £16, Tel: 08430 600033. Tom Holland is a novelist and historian, and a member of the Authors Cricket Club.