Better Johnners' tie than Jackie's pearls

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"Have you heard about the Johnners auction?" I asked my hostess excitedly. Una looked blank. "Brian Johnston," I said, "Brian Johnston. The cricket commentator." She shook her head. I was momentarily baffled and disappointed, for Una never misses my references and always shares my joys and sorrows, but then I recollected that I was, after all, visiting Ireland, my native land, where mostly they think of cricket as an insect.

It was one of those defining moments; a kind of Norman Tebbitt cricket test in reverse - a moment when the people from whom you sprang realise that you are no longer one of them. For Una was as baffled and stunned by my excitement as I had been by her ignorance. "You really have become very English," she said. And I had to agree. You have to be a pretty well assimilated immigrant to go into a John Major-like, misty-eyed trance about village greens and warm beer and the sound of willow on leather and the blacksmith hitting the butcher for six. And, indeed, Brian Johnston.

I know Irish people who loved John Arlott but could see no charm in Johnners and his BBC commentary box playmates Blowers and Boil and Sir Frederick and his "Ooh-gosh-what-a-scrumptious-chocolate-cake-from-a-lady-listener- in-Chipping-Camden" babble. But I did, so the viewing of Johnners' cricketing memorabilia that opens at the auctioneers Phillips in London today makes me simultaneously sad and happy.

Sad like Mr Major, who remarked after Johnners' death two years ago that "summers will never be the same again" (leaving me and, I suspect, thousands of others momentarily speculating wildly on the identity of Johnners' mysterious and bereaved chum, Summers). Happy, for a world in which a great international auctioneer expects serious bidding for each of Johnners' 250 cricket ties is a world that still has innocence, perspective and a love of England that has nothing to do with jingoism or racist louts. Those who allege that England has lost its soul and fallen victim to American cultural imperialism should contemplate the moral and cultural gulf between the Jackie O and Johnners auctions - the one suitable only for the venomous pen of Truman Capote; the other for the merry typewriter of PG Wodehouse.

There will be no hysteria and little greed at the auction on Saturday, and there should be a lot of laughter. Starting with some of Johnners' funniest broadcasts, the proceedings will be interrupted for cucumber sandwiches at lunch and for tea and cake at 4pm. And if it might seem silly to pay an estimated pounds 150 for an MCC tie belonging to a happy, much- loved entertainer, surely it is healthier than paying $211,500 for false pearls belonging to a woman whose major achievement was to marry the rich and famous?

The Johnners collection includes scorecards, commentary notes, Wisdens, photographs, books, prints and cartoons. And when those lots have been snapped up, there will be a sale on behalf of the Brian Johnston Memorial Fund (set up to continue his support for grassroots cricket, young players and the disabled) of items contributed by friends and colleagues. They were asked by Mrs Johnners for headgear: Geoffrey Boycott, in his boulevardier persona, contributed a signed Panama hat; Ian Botham - ever the individualist (or did he read the letter hastily?) - sent a bat (signed and miniature) rather than a hat.

The sale ends with cricketalia for the discerning collector: tour diaries, Vanity Fair prints, an 1870 Wisden, WG Grace photogravure, oleograph and pub tables, and a 1905 autograph album put together by a Nottinghamshire committeeman.

Saturday will be a day when good Englishmen and true can feel the spirit of Johnners all about them and pretend that in Grantchester the clock is still at 10 to three, honey is indeed on the tea menu and the rumour that Jeffrey Archer lives in the vicarage has turned out to be unfounded.