Friends share fond memories of 'Johnners': Stephen Ward reports on tributes to a very English cricket commentator

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The Independent Online
FOREIGN tourists outside Westminster Abbey were puzzled yesterday, as the bells rang across the traffic in a day of national celebration. Brian Johnston would have wished it so.

Men, some in bowler hats, some in ties coloured like golf umbrellas, and women in best garden party outfits were milling around, climbing into waiting limousines and taxis.

'Tell me please,' one young Swede, was asking a television crew. 'What is happening?'

'It's a memorial service for a cricket commentator . . . a famous commentator,' came the reply.

'Cricket? What is cricket?' At that point the Prime Minister came out, and the Swede hurried off for a closer look.

John Major spoke from the pulpit, appreciating, as did the Swede in his way, the peculiar Englishness of Brian Johnston. He had listened to the way Johnston could bring to life every village he visited on BBC Radio 4's Down Your Way. 'When I heard each programme I felt I had won first prize in the lottery of life, because those people were my country,' he told a congregation of 2,000, every seat in the Abbey allocated in advance. 'Every time I saw hin or heard him, I smiled. It was impossible not to. I know the sentiment was shared by millions. That was the gift he gave us.'

Sir Colin Cowdrey, the former England captain, described how Johnston had returned from honeymoon, and given his new wife, Pauline, instructions. 'Your job will be to look after the home and family. I will get home when I can.' As usual, he was joking, but he had been passionate about cricket. He had told his wife to make sure his home was close enough to Lord's for him to hear the umpires' bell from his garden at 11.25 in the morning, and be able to walk there in time to see the first ball bowled five minutes later.

At one stage yesterday, two Grenadier guardsmen slowly processed through the nave, playing the Grenadiers' Return, symbols of the brave war record and Military Cross of which the commentator seldom spoke. Barry Johnston, his surviving brother, read lines written by the commentator's friend William Douglas- Home after an Eton versus Harrow match at Lord's in the 1920s. 'For cricket's a glorious game say we, And cricket will never cease to be.'

The congregation included faces from the many worlds captivated by 'Johnners': the wicketkeeper, Godfrey Evans; the commentator and former fast bowler, Sir Fred Trueman; Viscount Whitelaw; a Miss A K Cohen (one of the original makers of chocolate cakes which the Test Match Special team came to rely on); Marmaduke Hussey from the BBC, and Alan Smith, chief executive of the Test and County Cricket Board. As Cowdrey said, Johnston had had no enemies.

A blind listener, Melvin Collins, read the letter he had sent to Johnston's widow when he died. 'He was a friend to those who never knew him, eyes to those who cannot see, warmth to those who were alone and depressed. God bless you 'Johnners', for being a friend to me, for being my eyes during test matches, and for bringing joy when life was on top of me. Now 'Johnners' may you rest in peace.'

Yesterday's service had been intended to be a celebration, but the mood was too sombre for that. It had reminded too many people what would be missing this summer.

(Photograph omitted)