Eric Bristow


Bristow is exactly how he should be, only more so: cheerfully unpleasant, brutally honest, stubbornly selfish. Brash, basic, obdurate, alert, there’s nothing false about him. He is forceful, truthful, fair, uncompromising. A splendid bastard. The most apparent thing about Bristow, the thing that constantly sneaks into his character, his behaviour, his answers, is the thing I like best and least about him – he simply couldn’t care less about anything.

Examples ?

Bristow on London: “London’s finished. Anybody with any brain or money gets out. It’s no good there anymore. You get knifed in the street, it’s like a bloody ghetto.”

Bristow on fame: “I get people coming up to me in pubs and that, calling me a flash git. I just say: ‘Yeah, I am’. Then what they gonna do ? I can’t go anywhere ‘cos I get noticed. I don’t shop. Maureen goes to the shops and buys twenty pairs of shoes, twenty shirts, twenty everything. I pick out what I want and she takes the rest back.”

Bristow on kids: “Kids ? No, I don’t want kids, sod that. Maureen’s got three brilliant kids, 18, 17 and 13, they’ll do me. I don’t want any more, screaming their heads off, shitting all over the place…”

Bristow on winning: “I hate losing. I brought Maureen’s kids up the same way. They’ll play me at anything: chess, draughts, pool, cards. I won’t let them win nothing.”

Bristow on unemployment: “There’s a lot of jobs out there. Half the spades don’t want to work anyway. I’ve never voted yet and if I did I wouldn’t tell ya.”

The number one darts player in the cosmos for the last six years, Bristow’s a veritable legend, an immortal, dominating his sport in a way Steve Davis will never dominate his. World Champion a record four times, winner of the World Masters five, his press release lists thirty-six other major titles. “A colossus that bestrides the sport of darts,” it says. He earns up to £400,000 a year, has his own £350,000 darts pub/club, The Crafty Cockney, and a calm estimation has it that one day he’ll be worth £4 million.

Born in the East End, twenty-eight years ago, into a working class family, the son of a plasterer and a telephonist, Bristow took up darts when he was 11, became the youngest-ever player to play for England at 17 and was World Master at 20. He played football and cricket for his local grammar school and left, with no qualifications, to work as a labourer, an MFI salesman, and then in an advertising agency, losing all three jobs because of darts. He then stayed on the dole in order to practice.

Involved in street-gangs, car-nicking and bottle fights as a lad (one of which, to this day, has left glass splinters in one hand), he was even done for clocking a copper: “If you’re gonna get a good hiding,” he says, “you might as well take one of them with you. I got a right hiding alright. They said I fell over. You can’t beat the police at that.”

Ten years on he’s moved from his parents’ Victorian house in Stoke Newington to a plush £80,000 home in Stoke-on-Trent. Played in over thirty-five countries and with a TV audience here of over 7 million, darts has made Eric Bristow a big fish and a very rich man. Fate, it seems, has patted him on the head and lifted him clear of trouble for the rest of his life. “I was born at the right time, that’s all.”

Ten past two on a dull Monday in Stoke. Over an hour late, Bristow breezes through the bar at The Crafty Cockney, accompanied by longtime girlfriend Maureen Flowers, with brisk authority but without explanation, apology or acknowledgement. All we get is a waft of aftershave and a chorus of “Alright Eric”s from the bar. (Bristow’s respected at the Cockney not only for his size, manner and the fact he laid out 250 grand for it, but because he’s clearly well liked). Earlier, our cab driver, a stray from Last of the Summer Wine, had provided us with a guided tour of the area – “Y’see roadworks ‘ere, they’re gonta be a B-road” – and a man and his wife had displayed a traditional Stoke sport for us on the train: “If you look carefully you can see bits of sky through the clouds.” Strange place.

Inside The Crafty Cockney, there’s a huge union jack on the ceiling over the space they use for the boxing matches; the club’s logo, a cartoon copper against a union jack, is everywhere; Bristow’s profile, in classic finger-cocked pose, is all over the carpet. A regular stands at the bar for two hours with one drink without talking to a soul, and, aside from the constant enquiry “Y’oop from London then ?” no-one talks to us.

“This place opened as a bit of fun, somewhere for me to go,” says Bristow. “We have to shut it at nine some nights, it’s so full. We have a right laugh.”

Just as The Sunday Times provided a frightening description of boy wonder Keith Dellar’s deterioration, the sport’s taken its toll on Bristow. A big, blunt bully of a man, not remotely handsome, he has graying, greasy hair that bears no sign of the big red comb that sticks out of his black polyester trouser-pocket. With a gruff London accent, Levi’s sweatshirt, gold ring and plain brown shoes, he charms and chides like any pub philosopher. He has a bull neck, small brown eyes, bags under both eyes and a face like a dying balloon. He’s certainly lost that sharp look he had about him when he would clean up every tournament and then take the mike to lead the chants of “If you all hate Bristow, clap your hands.” He could pass for forty.

Ignoring, or missing, the implications of my mentioning the Dellar description, he says only: “It can catch up with you. Do I still feel young ? I don’t feel old. I don’t need a nice kip every afternoon.” Still, the closest he gets to exercise is the Kung Fu video game in the bar, at which he was losing – energetically – as we left: “Fucking son of a bitch !” were his last words to us.

Eventually, we’re shown into his private snooker room with luxuriant full-size table. “These ? These cost four, five grand. We got ours for two… Knew someone.” Strangely, but reassuringly maybe, he makes no attempt to impress us, endear himself to us or play chat-up-the-journalist. Despite a 140-mile trip and a two-hour wait we get no offer of food or drink, not even an introduction as he sits down, rolls his sleeves up and waits, ready to begin.

Bristow leaps straight into his interview patter with bulldozer professionalism. He answers every question (even the teasing, testing ones about the absurdity and meaning of life !) with a mixture of honesty and apathy. He does everything our photographer tells him, even though he suspects he’s being set up: “Show up the double chins, this will.”

He’s supposed to be promoting a lively ‘Guide To The Game’ he’s written, but he doesn’t mention it, so neither do I. He’s not bothered, though his publicity agency will be. His blunt confidence shows through in answers of unequivocal assertiveness – the sign of someone who will rarely (have to) admit that he’s wrong:

Do you hate losing at all things ?

What’s the best thing about your sport ?

Do you care what people think of you ?
“Nope. Couldn’t give a shit.”

Do you miss London ?
“Not a damn thing. I wouldn’t go back. I’ve got nothing to go back for. I’ve gone past that. It’s not the same anymore and it never will be. Cooks’ Pie & Mash, that’s all I miss. Where you from again ? Croydon ! Jesus Christ ! (He’s disgusted). You don’t know nothing ! They got dough in Croydon. Jesus ! They got squirrels. Show me where you get squirrels in London.”

Hyde Park ?
“Yeah, someone would shoot it. London’s died. Everybody’s trying to do each other out of a pound. Who needs that ?”

Do you still feel working class ?
“I don’t think I’m different from nobody else, till I’m on that dartboard, then I’m the best. I work behind the bar. If you’re too good to pull a pint for someone you might as well pack up. You make your own roots, I taught meself all I know, the system’s got nothing to offer. I’ve made me own life, I’ve done alright.”

You sound like our wonderful leader.
“I’ve never voted yet, but I like her. She didn’t let Scargill dictate to her. I felt sorry for the lads, a lot of them round here stayed out. They listened to an idiot.”

Bristow’s attitude towards his own money is just as honest, selfish and uncompromising: “I don’t mind about the sport’s image, neither does my bank manager. If you earned 400 grand a year you wouldn’t either. I was never interested in being rich and famous, ‘cos originally there was no money in it. I just wanted to be the best.”

Do you use the money for pleasure or security ?
“Maureen spends it, we spend it. I don’t want a gold coffin. I could be a millionaire by now but I cut down on exhibitions. Not like Davis with his forest, nah. Buy your own deer, you can shoot it. Who needs that ?”

He tells me about his world:
“It’s a tough life. It did used to run my life, it’s like a drug. But I’ve passed the red line. I’ve cracked it. I’ve finished living out of suitcases. I do exhibitions as training and get paid for it, suits me fine. I still practise six hours a day before tournaments, have sleepless nights, can’t eat, all that. Show me someone who says he doesn’t get nervous, I’ll show you a liar. It’s like a gunfight. Graeme Souness (here comes his favourite story) said he couldn’t play my game ‘cos there’s nowhere to hide if you’re playing badly. There’s no luck like snooker neither – you can’t aim for triple 20 and ricochet into triple 18. People think snooker’s better ‘cos the players wear suits. Some of them take drugs, we take a pint on stage. Nah, there’s no drugs in darts – take speed and you’ll fall off the friggin’ stage. They’re a good lot in our game mostly. There used to be a lot more dislike and bitterness ‘cos there wasn’t the money to go round. Sure, I was flash, ‘Won it again, lads’, but you can be flash and bloody useless. I’ve proved everything now, they respect me for staying number one so long.”

How do you face the pressure that, even more than Davis, you’ve only got one way to go: down ?
“It’s nice to have that pressure, though. Davis lost his bottle, didn’t he ? Maybe he wanted to win too bad. He’ll find out one day there’s something else to life. I’m just hanging on, it’ll happen one day.”

Are you jealous of Jocky Wilson ? He’s the real people’s champion, isn’t he ?
“Jealous ! ! ! Of Jocky ! ! That handsome creature…” Bristow’s beaming, he can’t even bring himself to answer.

Seen as a big-head-wide-boy-Jack-the-lad-smart-arse (all cheap shots), Bristow has an irresistible way with him compared to the dull indifference of Whitcombe, the calm concentration of Lowe or the boisterous bullfrog brawling of Jocky Wilson. It’s true he’s almost totally self-centered – I’m reminded of Whitcombe saying, “Eric’s the more complete player…but I don’t think I want to be like him” – and he’s hard to like, but it’s difficult not to admire him. He even sees the absurdity of his life: “Crazy, innit ? You go back in time and tell someone you could make millions throwing bits of metal at a board, they’d burn ya.”

He genuinely doesn’t care less about fame and says he doesn’t even enjoy it. “It stops you doing things. I used to miss going to football, but then I think you think you miss it. Like pie and mash, I probably wouldn’t enjoy it if I did have it. It does change you. People come here and say, ‘You’re not as bad as I thought you’d be.’ At exhibitions they only talk to Maureen. ‘Will he do this ? Will he do that ?’ She says, ‘Ask him !’”

When I rang The Sun they were very keen for a story on you.
“Yeah, that’s the worst part. I’ll get done for murder if someone dies round here. You have to be very careful.”

What do you do with your days ?
“Come down here, play snooker, darts with the lads. Play in the leagues, county games…”

Music ?
“Bob Marley. Dead.”

What ?
“I don’t like Boy George, big poofter. But having said that, maybe he has made a couple of good records. I don’t like what he is, mind…”

Concerts ?
“What ? Fucking concerts ! Don’t go to the pictures neither.”

Last book you read ? (Clutching at a straw I know is hopeless).
“Never read a book, not interested in books, me.”

What’s your best quality ?
“Honest – if I don’t like ya, I’ll tell you to fuck off.”

The worst ?
“Same, innit ?” (laughs)

What was the best time of your life ?
“I’ve had lots of good times, honest.”

What else do you want from your life now ?
“Nothing. Satisfied customer, me. There’s nobody I’d like to meet, nothing I want to do. Sound a bit boring, don’t I ? I’ve met a lot of them, popstars and that, keep ‘em, they live in a different world.”

Is life difficult ?
“Life is… What is life ? (he pauses for once). Life’s what you make it. I might not wake up tomorrow but if I die tomorrow I’ve had a great time. I’ve seen the friggin’ world – Brazil, Jamaica, States, Hong Kong, Middle East.”

Do you think about the past, present or future ?
“Future. The past’s gone. I want to win some more for the next bloke to chase, so I’m the best ever… I got an award, actually. Best Player Ever.” Even he seems unimpressed. Not really bothered.

As I say, Bristow’s a splendid bastard: a lump of arrogance, dumb pride, and rough honesty. A blob of vulgarity, common prejudice and a champion chauvinist, yob and bully. That said, he has his moments, one of them being when our photographer asks, “Can I pinch a fag ?” “Sure,” snaps Bristow sharply. “Don’t say that in America, though.”

Mind you, it’s a strange man who sees even being an only child as “dead handy, just borrow a tenner whenever you like, do what you want.”

Halfway through the interview, there’s some confusion between Bristow and Maureen over car keys. At one point Bristow shouts, “That’s what I said in the first place.” Maureen mutters, “I don’t think I want to talk to you,” and leaves. Bristow turns back to the journalist not even batting an eyelid. It’s not that he’s inconsiderate, he just couldn’t care less (a quality any neurotic finds admirable). He’s without trace of spite and vanity – he literally doesn’t care for appearances, not even his own – and he is never less than honest.

When I ask him what’s the best thing in his life, there’s not a thought for the sport that gave him his fame and riches.
“Well, it’s Maureen really.”

It occurs to me that of all the people I’ve interviewed, Bristow knows his own mind the best, knows exactly who he is. Before we leave, he tells me the World Championship begins in the first week of next year in a 1600-seater Country Club in Surrey (the squirrels will be thrilled), with Bristow chasing a record hat-trick of victories.

Almost despite myself, I hope he wins it.