Why John Major did not go to Hong Kong

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The Independent Online
John Major could have been in Hong Kong but, for him, there was no competition. If saying goodbye to Britain's last colony of significance meant not saying goodbye to Denis Compton, his boyhood cricketing hero, then Hong Kong could wait.

The former Prime Minister was one of 2,000 friends, families and faithful who turned up at Westminster Abbey in London yesterday to say that goodbye and to remember the skill, grace and flamboyance that thrilled a generation of cricket lovers.

"To watch Denis Compton play cricket on a good day was to know what joy was," said Mr Major. "I could have been in Hong Kong. But I think I made the right choice."

It was the sort of choice being made more often these days by the former Prime Minister. Immediately after his general election defeat, Mr Major chose to go to Lord's instead of presiding over his party's disarray. And many commentators are already predicting that his memoirs will distance him further from those he will say alienated the voters.

Compton, who died on 23 April - Saint George's Day - at the age of 78, is the first cricketer to be given a memorial service at Westminster Abbey.

And not since the service for the broadcaster Richard Dimbleby in 1966 was a celebration of life so oversubscribed. More than a thousand applicants had their request for tickets turned down.

Those who made it came from all walks of life and spanned several generations. Keith Miller, 77, Compton's old Australian adversary, hobbled in on crutches; Sir Colin Cowdrey was there, talking of the man who brought sunshine to the dark post-war years; and JJ Warr, former president of the Marylebone Cricket Club, told how effortlessly the genius astonished those who came to see his flair on the football field for Arsenal and his panache between the wickets for Middlesex.

"In the last weeks of his life, a comet appeared in the skies over Britain," said Mr Warr in a gently irreverent but warmly-received address. "Compo was a comet in his own right. Wherever he went, he cast brilliance in the sporting firmament."

The outpouring of goodwill took Compton's family by surprise. Richard, 41, his son from the second of three marriages flew over from his South African home to attend.

"I didn't live with Dad for most of my life, so it's very moving for me to see the regard in which he is still held over here," he said. "It is a tribute to the British people that they have remembered him so well."

Compton played cricket 78 times for England, scoring 38,942 runs - an average of 51.85. He also played on the left wing for Arsenal, winning championship and FA Cup medals and earning 14 caps for England.

"He was unique," said Sir Colin Cowdrey. "Everything he did was effortless, yet, despite his brilliance, he never displayed any arrogance whatsoever.

"After the war, there were a few priceless people - like him and Vera Lynn - who brought us back to our senses and taught us how to smile again."

After the service, the air was thick with Compo anecdotes. Of his notoriously bad timekeeping and disorganisation. Of the times he would turn up to play for England wearing the dinner jacket from last night's party.

"This has been a great honour for him," said his widow, Christine. "I knew he was regarded as a big sporting favourite, but I had no idea that he was this big. He would have loved it."