Smiles From The Don

Published: 2017
Pages: 54
Author: Merchant, James
Publisher: Private
Rating: 3.5 stars

I don’t mind admitting that the decision whether to purchase this one something of a struggle. A 54 page book that describes itself as a cartoon biography of Sir Donald Bradman didn’t sound particularly appealing, but on the other hand knowing that the book was appearing in a limited edition of just 29 copies meant that a speedy decision had to be made on that one. The decision to buy proved to be a sound one so, whilst the leather bound version may have sold out (if it hasn’t then Roger Page is your man), the standard edition, a snip at AUS$15 is certainly still available.

Thousands of pages have been written about ‘The Don’ who must, despite the emergence of Sachin Tendulkar, have been the subject of more biographical writing than any other sportsman, let alone cricketer. The question that I have to begin with therefore is whether anything new could be said in 2017 over the course of such a small number pages, in circumstances where the narrative content has to share the available space with 59 cartoons? The answer, of course, is no.

But the point of the book is those 59 cartoons, and they are faithfully reproduced against the background of a brief account of Bradman’s life and times interspersed by plenty of soundbites from the man himself. Those are taken mainly from the 1950 autobiography, Farewell to Cricket, but there some from other sources as well.

The cartoons, and doubtless author James Merchant had thousands of those to select from, are skilfully chosen, They vary from the handful of strokes of the pen that were the caricatures of Arthur Mailey, to the detailed and sophiscated likenesses produced by men like Ernest Shepard and Sam Wells. The former produced a drawing of Bradman stirring a cauldron containing Gubby Allen, Hedley Verity and Wally Hammond during the 1936/37 series. My favourite Wells contribution is of a giant kangaroo with the head of skipper Jack Ryder and caricatures of eleven other Australians during the 1928/29 series.

Humour changes, and cartoons produced during the Indian visit to Australia of 1947/48 and, the more so, the first ever West Indian visit of 1930/31 are as cringeworthy now as they are illuminating of the racial stereotyping of the time. Some of the cartoons are genuinely amusing but, at the same time thought provoking. Mailey’s ‘Bodyline’ effort is one such. Rather different is a reproduction from Punch of one schoolboy autograph hunter asking another whether he has ‘got’ Bradman. No, but I’ve got the signature of a chap who has is the response.

The cricket cartoon is still with us, but it is not what it once was. As noted fashions do of course change, but I suspect the main reason is that so many more people are now able to watch the actual play, and so much recorded material is now available. The heyday of the sporting cartoon was most definitely during Bradman’s lifetime and particularly during his playing career. Smiles From The Don is an excellent celebration of the genre.

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