Amidst my most surprising possessions are 66 letters from Don Bradman. Let me be more precise since readers may get the wrong idea. They are not addressed to me and they are photocopies but much prized nevertheless. Let me explain. They are treasured objects but I am sworn to keep them secret since they are private communications and are not to be published – at least not yet – and in any case not by me since I do not own the originals and have absolutely no right to quote from them.
This does not prevent me from delighting in these marvellous documents. After all the Don was, statistically, the greatest batsman who ever graced the ancient game of cricket, an icon in his lifetime and one of the all-time sporting legends. Just to turn over the pages of the letters and look at the firm, precise, clear and absolutely legible handwriting is a thrilling experience. As one who loves poetry as much as I love cricket, it is like having been vouchsafed a sheaf of Derek Walcott’s never-seen letters to his peers.
This is the hand which held the bats which produced some of the most famous runs ever made in the history of cricket. I look over the lines in the letters as if they were a flow of runs. The strong, no nonsense writing makes me think what his batting must have been like – I never saw Bradman bat. There are no mistakes or crossings-out and I think of the most error-free batting there ever was. No flashiness, I imagine, well-considered, precise, firm, measured, well placed – batting legible for all to see and understand. Test match writing. No exclamation marks – no sixes. An accurate flow of words, a clear river of runs. A boundary scored in each efficient paragraph/over. Lucid is the word. The writing is lucid. Might the batting have been lucid too – the most lucid of all time?
When he writes about the cricket I see exactly what he means. He does not beat about too many bushes. His trail is quickly cut to the heart of whatever matter he is addressing. When he writes about fellow-cricketers I see their shapes before my eyes and understand their special traits. He is forthright, generous and shrewd. When he writes about himself he is not flamboyant or too modest. He knows his limitations but has never accepted them. I have read the letters many times, still in their old folder, stained now with coffee spills, where I put them years ago. I turn over the pages in admiration. I trust his judgements. His opinions on the administration of the game saw far when he was writing. I feel I have got to know him a little. The genius is unfathomable but here is a man who was intelligent, determined and straightforward in his life.
This is how the Bradman letters came into my possession. Many years ago – at least 20 my aging memory tells me – at a small dinner party during a visit to Trinidad I was talking with a very pleasant and interesting young man whose family knew mine quite well and whose father had been a famous West Indian cricketer. I was talking with this young man about cricket and we got round to the great cricketers we had seen and the great cricketing moments we had experienced.
I was speaking of the game’s most memorable moments. I said that surely one record would never be surpassed and that was Don Bradman’s Test average of 99.96 and I went on to say that I had often wondered about that final innings when the Don needed just 4 runs to make his Test average exactly 100 but was dismissed for nought. How could it possibly have happened? My young friend then said basically “Wonder no longer. I know exactly what happened.” His father had become a close friend of Don Bradman over the years. They had corresponded regularly and in one letter he had asked the Don that very question – how did his last dismissal happen? And the Don meticulously replied. The young man had the letter.
I begged him to show it to me. And the next day, I could hardly believe it, he brought a photocopy of the letter in which Bradman describes how he was dismissed in that celebrated final innings – and the photocopies of 65 other letters from Don Bradman to the young man’s father. He handed me all those letters and, as A E Housman wrote of how reading a great poem affected him, the hair on the nape of my neck prickled. He let me keep them with the promise that I should never publish them, of course, since they were private. As far as I know, they remain so.
I do not think I am breaking my word by writing this since I am not publishing the letters or even quoting from them. But I hope the son will not feel betrayed by me even talking about his glorious, extraordinary, much treasured gift to me all those years ago of the letters the Don wrote so filled with the marvellous insights of a unique sporting hero.
I grit my teeth and to the end I will not quote. But I have to tell you I know precisely and exactly how Eric Hollies came to dismiss Don Bradman for nought in that most famous of all last innings.