There are many reasons to feel queasy at the prospect of interviewing Geoffrey Boycott – but the most obvious are that he’s rude, obnoxious and, when he’s in a good mood, charmless. Such a pity he has to be morbidly fascinating as well. Or at least that’s what I tell myself as I approach Wakefield station. The clouds over the taxi rank are inky black. Boycott has insisted on being interviewed by a man. I’m a Yorkshireman as well, but this doesn’t necessarily mean I’m obsessed with cricket or proud that Boycott is the county mascot. As it happens, I do recall queueing for half an hour to get Geoffrey Boycott’s autograph (and Chris Old’s) when I was 12. And I did get goosebumps watching him score his 100th first-class century against Australia at Headingley in 1977. But that doesn’t mean anything. Call it denial if you like but I do not believe, as many people seem to, that this boorish, pantomime northerner is the archetypal Yorkshireman.
The conference hotel where we are to meet is a few miles from Boycott’s house. According to one chambermaid, this is where Boycott ‘brings his womenfolk’ (but she may have been pulling my leg). The demagogue himself arrives late – dressed in a pastel-blue jacket, fawn slacks and pale slip-on shoes which may well be snakeskin. He applies some Lipsyl and is soon telling the photographer to stop ‘arsing about’ and get on with it. I cross myself and prepare for the interview that is to follow. At least I’ve got a panic button I can press if things get too ghastly. I can mention Margaret Moore, Boycott’s former girlfriend. If I do this, Boycott will walk out – or so I’ve been warned in a fax from his publicist. The 58-year-old former England batsman allegedly beat Moore up in an Antibes hotel room in 1996. In January last year a French court found him guilty of the charge, fined him £5,300 and gave him a three-month suspended sentence. He didn’t turn up for the trial, though he did deny the charge, adamantly. Indeed, he launched a bizarre charm offensive intended to show he wasn’t an aggressive man – then rather undermined the thing by losing his temper and saying to one reporter: ‘Shut oop, this is my press conference, not yours.’ Boycott appealed, attended the second trial last October, complained it was ‘all in bloody French’, and lost again.
I sit down on a low sofa. Boycott orders tea with honey and sits opposite me in a high, upright chair – barrel-chested, stiff-backed with his jacket buttons done up, looking down his nose. He has a mobile face: eyebrows that arch and dip; a recurring blink; a mouth so lopsided it’s as if he’s chewing his left cheek. He has mad, starey eyes, the sort you imagine Rasputin must have had. They are a cold, cobalt blue (but this is not, contrary to folklore, because he wears coloured contact lenses). There are no awkward silences when Boycott is on the subject of cricket. He rarely draws breath and when he runs out of things to say he just repeats himself. Loudly. Flat-voweledly. With a frankness that is exciting and dangerous. I find myself wondering if there is an element of self-parody to his manner. Mistake. ‘I don’t know what that means. Self-parody. I don’t have your words.’ I explain. ‘What are you going on about? I’m just being myself. I haven’t changed for anyone. I only know about creakit. I love it. Self-parody.’
Actually, he’s not as intimidating as you expect him to be. Over the next two and a half hours he reveals himself to be an animated storyteller and we have, to my surprise, a few laughs. But for Boycott there is little difference between a conversation and a contre-temps. And so we also have – again to my surprise – two full-blown arguments. These help me appreciate Boycott’s genius for making enemies. His worst feuds have been with his fellow Yorkshiremen, notably Fred Trueman, Brian Close and Ray Illingworth. ‘I suppose it’s because Yorkshiremen are strong-minded and individualistic,’ Boycott says when I ask why this is.
Boycott is a private man, self-contained to the point of introversion. Before he appeared on In the Psychiatrist’s Chair in 1987 he told Dr Anthony Clare, ‘You’ll get nowt from me, Mister.’ After the programme, a gibbering Dr Clare said he had had to revise his opinion that no man is an island. I suspect, for all his protestations to the contrary, Boycott simply doesn’t care if he rubs people up the wrong way. He doesn’t crave approval. And surely even he would be able to curb his pathological rudeness if he did. It is clear, too, that he hates having to woo the media. And that he only attempts to because he loves making money. His main motive for trying so hard to clear his name last year was, I bet, that he wanted the BBC to renew his lucrative contract as a commentator. It didn’t. (And Channel 4, which is taking over Test coverage this summer, has boycotted him too.)
This week, Boycott is trying to charm the media again because he has something to sell, a book on cricket called… Geoffrey Boycott on Cricket . In it he gives his version of the various spats he has been involved in over the years. With a characteristic lack of pretension, he tells me about his writing process: he records his thoughts on to tapes which he gives to his ghost writer, John Callaghan, ‘to be tarted up’. Geoffrey Boycott on Cricket is a self-serving book, of course, and could be subtitled ‘Everyone Else Is To Blame’. But it is also entertaining, especially in his account of the internecine warfare that followed his sacking from Yorkshire County Cricket Club in 1983. Does it occur to him that his own bloody-mindedness is the common denominator in all the feuds he writes about?
‘Of course it is me. It’s my character. But it’s their character, too. Take Fred Trueman. He started it. He was a hero of mine. As a cricketer he still is today. But as a person he went down in my estimation because when the club decided to dispense with my services he slagged me off. He couldn’t even bring himself to say I were a good player. He said, “If I get back on the committee I still won’t give Boycott a contract.” Well that was tantamount to saying, “Fuck you, then.” I’ve never spoken ill of Fred. He caused his own downfall, not me. He had to belittle me. I was hurt. He didn’t have to say I couldn’t bat. It was dirty tactics, that. But he didn’t convince the Yorkshire members. You can’t patronise them. They can think for themselves.’
Throughout his Test and county career Boycott has been criticised for being a slow, blocking and, because of all the people he’s run out, selfish batsman. Can’t he see there was some truth in this caricature? ‘Was Trueman trying to say that all those hundreds I got were just for me? Me, slow? Look in the record books. Some innings I was slow but others…’ He leans forward and fixes me with his beady blue eyes. ‘Who got the fastest ever Gillette Cup innings? Eh? In’t final. Me. 1963. Still the biggest today. On an uncovered pitch. Wet. I could go through it…’ He does, his batting averages over his 25-year county and Test career, chapter and verse from Wisden. My hand hovers over the Margaret Moore button.
He’s a great one for facts and figures, our Geoffrey. He usually carries a bag around with him full of ‘papers’ – phone records, dates, lawyers’ letters – ammunition with which to settle arguments. A recurring theme of his book is that nearly everyone who has attacked him over the years has been motivated by financial greed. ‘We all knew Botham’s hand was on his wallet rather than his heart,’ he writes about Ian Botham’s decision to pull out of Boycott’s ill-fated ‘rebel tour’ of South Africa at the height of apartheid in 1982. ‘All he could see were the pound signs,’ Boycott writes in reference to Trueman’s offer a couple of years ago to end their feud and host a series of cricket lunches together. ‘Now with his eyes on the pound-note signs with regard to his book sales and newspaper serialisation…’ he writes of Henry Blofeld, the commentator who refused to sign a testimony last year to the effect that his former colleague, Boycott, did not have a violent nature. (Boycott believes Blofeld only refused because he wanted a controversial story to put in his autobiography.) Given that Boycott, a millionaire several times over, is notoriously stingy – former umpire Dickie Bird has a number of anecdotes on the subject – it seems reasonable to assume that he is judging everyone else by his own standards.
‘Assume? But I didn’t have a row with Botham about the South Africa tour. He decided to pull out because he got two [other] contracts for money. I don’t assume. It was a fact. Botham said that at the meeting. I have recorded everything that went on. How can I assume with Trueman when it’s a fact? I’ve got the papers. It’s you that’s wrong. Why do you assume? The lawyer has seen the papers. You can ring him up.’ He spells out the lawyer’s name for me before resuming his Pinteresque monologue. ‘Fred Trueman only wanted to work with me for the money. Fact. With Blofeld it was a fact that the Daily Mail only ran the extract about me. Nothing else in his book was interesting enough for them to pay for. I have the papers. I have it in black and white. “Fred’s going to contact you.” I haven’t fucking spoken to him in ten years and he’s been slagging me off and now he wants the money. Fifty grand. I don’t know why you assume. I have the papers. I have the papers. Believe me, I have the papers.’
It is telling that, when Boycott describes his old feuds, he slips into the present tense. He does it when he talks about his batting, too, even though he retired 13 years ago. I have a horrible feeling that I may have started a fresh feud by quoting Dickie Bird to him.
‘I am a wealthy man,’ Boycott says. ‘I think I’m far wealthier than any of those you mention. Very few people know me. Dickie doesn’t know me. He lives two miles away but he’s been to my house once. Once. I’m not that close to him. I’m a very private person. Things become folklore, legend, myth.’
So let’s set the record straight, then. He’d describe himself as a generous man, would he? ‘I don’t describe myself at all.’ I suppose that’s why he’s so fascinating to psychiatrists. ‘I don’t know why. I’m not so bothered about myself. Not fussed. Not interested. I get on with my life. Good times you enjoy. Bad times you can either crawl away and die or pick yourself up and get on with it.’ Bad times being when exactly? ‘I used to get really down when I got a nought. But you can’t mope about. You have to show character.’
According to folklore, legend, myth, Boycott used to put a towel over his head and cry whenever he got a duck. He cried inconsolably when he had to give up football because he needed glasses – he played for Leeds United under-18s. Does he think he’s attuned to his finer feelings, then? Does he find it easy to cry? ‘No, not easy. But if I did I wouldn’t show it. And I wouldn’t tell you. It’s a bit like a bowler. If he got me worried, I wouldn’t show it. If I felt depressed, I wouldn’t ignore it, I’d try and solve it. Christ, I get cross with people like anyone else. People who won’t pay up. People who do you a bad turn. Say one thing and do the bloody opposite. I don’t sit in a corner and weep and moan. I think there is a weakness in people who aren’t straight and fair. You need to get everything in writing because for every eight people that is good there are two buggers out there who are bad. I expect people to be straighter than they are.’ So he sees himself as a man of honour? ‘No, I’m not bloody perfect. But I like to think I’m pretty straight. I’ve never done bad things to people. Haven’t stolen money or kicked anyone in the balls. I’ve just made judgements. Nothing I’m ashamed of.’
For all his lack of humility, there is an endearing naivety and vulnerability to Boycott. He seems genuinely baffled by his unpopularity. Does he have a persecution complex? ‘I don’t have your words but there is a saying in Yorkshire that you can’t do right for doing wrong. But I don’t have a complex. I don’t think I’m always right – even in my creakit commentary. Most times I keep my mouth shut – but you get to the stage where you’re sick of being pilloried. Blofeld did his book in the Mail and the only bit they ran were about me. Me!’
Boycott seems such a joyless man. Humourless. A real misery. Does he ever have fun? Is he happy? The cricketer exhales and shakes his head. ‘What’s contentment? What’s happiness? I’m living my life. I’m getting on. I’m picking myself up. I’m working in a game I love. Creakit.’ Life for Boycott is analogous to cricket in every particular. In a shift from Pinter pastiche to Becket he tells me: ‘Creakit mirrors life, if you think about it. Life, death and change in the middle.’ Certainly, no game is richer in symbolism than cricket. When a man is honest he is said to play with a straight bat, when dishonest his actions are just not cricket. For Boycott there is only one virtue worth having and that is being straight – it is far more important than being tactful. It’s the reason, I imagine, why so many of the newspaper reports about his court case last year took his side. He’s so eccentric and guileless, the logic goes, if he really had battered Margaret Moore he would admit it. He’s that perverse.
As it was, he seemed genuinely outraged at the suggestion. And, as he pointed out, indignantly, to anyone who would listen, there were other factors in his mitigation. He has no history of violence against women, indeed, if his monk-like batting style is anything to go by, he has preternatural self-control. Moore was £800,000 in debt. And before she took Boycott to court she had approached Max Clifford to see if he could get £2 million for her story. When Clifford declined to take her on as a client, she approached Boycott and offered to settle out of court for £1 million. (Fact. Boycott has the papers. Et cetera.)
I realise that I have inadvertently pressed the Moore button. How did he feel last year when nearly all his former friends and colleagues in the world of cricket declined to stand by him? ‘I felt sad that Blofeld let me down. I stuck by him when he were down on his luck. And I’m sick of Trueman attacking me. If he walked through the door now I’d say, “What have I ever done to you?” But he’d ignore me. The press was very fair to me, though. There are warts and all when people write about me and I don’t mind that. The only people who really let me down were the Sun.’ (The paper had promised to keep Boycott on as a columnist no matter what the verdict in the Moore trial. They reneged and Boycott is now suing them for breach of contract.)
Geoffrey Boycott’s bachelordom is complicated, to say the least. He lived with his mother until she died 22 years ago. He has had a relationship with Ann Wyatt for the past 40 years (they met when he was a clerk and she was a supervisor at the Ministry of Pensions in Barnsley). They started living together when he was 43, but she now spends most of her time in their second home in Dorset. He has also had a long-term relationship with Rachel Swinglehurst, the mother of his ten-year-old daughter, Emma. She lives a couple of miles away from him in Wakefield. He has had other long-standing relationships and, in his touring days, plenty of one-night stands. As became apparent in the French court last year, he inspires great loyalty in his ‘womenfolk’. Several turned up to speak in his defence. When I ask if he thinks this helped, he stares into the middle distance. ‘Aye, it showed that things didn’t square oop.’
Boycott’s cricketing nickname was Fiery because he was so remote and cold. Ann Wyatt’s nick-name was Fiery’s Mum because she was 12 years his senior. Is he attracted to mother figures? ‘No. My mother was my mother. I find I get on better with women than men though. In general. They are more decent. Men can let you down.’ Which of his women will he leave his millions to? ‘The people closest to me. Ann Wyatt. My daughter. People closest, Ann Wyatt. My daughter and her mother. People closest.’
Boycott himself was born into poverty. He and his two younger brothers grew up in a two up, two down in the Yorkshire colliery village of Fitzwilliam. Geoffrey went to Hemsworth Grammar and wishes he could have gone on to university. ‘But we couldn’t bloody afford it.’
His father, Thomas Wilfred Boycott, had a mining accident when Geoffrey was ten – and died 17 years later. He was in the middle of a match at the Oval on the day his father died, and to ‘show character’ Geoffrey went out to bat – scoring 70-odd – before going home for the funeral. ‘My father was 6ft 1in but walked with a stoop and a limp because his knees were crushed and his back was broken and his insides were mangled up. He was a ruined man.’
Growing up, Geoffrey Boycott didn’t see much of his father. He believes his values come from his mother, ‘She was quiet strong and determined. We were brought up properly. Clout round the earhole if you did owt wrong. But plenty of affection. She got arthritis 1968. Six months after my father died. It was the shock that did it. She got cancer in 77, at the same time I got my 100th hundred. She was dead in a year. I saw her suffer. There was a hell of a vacuum when she died. But you deal with it. Just because you don’t sit in a corner crying doesn’t mean you don’t feel pain and hurt.’
In times of adversity Boycott takes no comfort from religion – although he does believe in Chinese horoscopes and spiritualism. ‘When you’re drowning you turn to anything. When Yorkshire sacked me I didn’t know what to do with myself. The medium said I would play for Yorkshire again. I thought she were crackers but she were right.’
Boycott is wanted on the phone in reception. There is a crooked Popeye grin playing across his face when he walks back across the foyer. He has just been told by Talk Radio that he has won the contract to commentate on the Cricket World Cup. I congratulate him and ask if he thinks his second career as a commentator has filled the void in his life left by cricket. ‘I felt a sadness when I stopped playing. Something had come to an end. Something wonderful. I just thought, “This is it then.” It was 12 September 1986. I walked off the pitch and waited for the ground to clear. Then I wandered around on my own among all the newspapers and food wrappers and tin cans. It didn’t feel like a death exactly but I did think a part of my life was finished.’ But he has never picked up a bat since. ‘I wouldn’t even do it for the Queen of England. Not even the Queen of England.’
What about for a million pounds?
‘No. I’d just make a fool of myself. I have no intention of doing that. I have too much respect for the game. That would be taking the money for the fucking hell of it. I couldn’t live with myself. It would just be shit.’
He says goodbye and runs off across the car park, his shoulders hunched against the rain. As I watch him get into his silver BMW a child’s voice in my head whispers, ‘I’ve just met Boycott. The Geoffrey Boycott.’ Folklore, legend, myth.