Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Shrdlu, Gravy Bones and other Mercier delights

As a teenager I discovered the cartoons of the irrepressible Emile Mercier, whose take on 1950s life in Sydney is a perfect time capsule. Racehorses, politicians, housewives, drinkers, the art world... they were all grist to Mercier's wit-laden mill.

I'm going to be lazy here and quote Wikipedia: 'Mercier enjoyed including strange words in his cartoons, like 'ETAOIN' and 'SHRDLU'; nonsense words formed by the first two rows of keys on the old Linotype machines; words which sometimes - to Mercier's amusement - were accidentally included in real-life newspaper articles. 'CMFYP', the third line of keys on the keyboard, was sometimes used by Mercier as the name of a fictitious politician; the Honorable C. M. FWYP. Mercier also found the word 'GRAVY' humorous and included it a variety of contexts, including a trio of racehorses who were named 'GRAVY BONES', 'GREY SHRDLU' and 'CURLAMO' on signs above their stalls. Other Mercier's whims were depicting buildings, footpaths on floors supported by bed-springs, eccentric three-wheeled automobiles, yaks, and portraits of 'Uncle Ezra' on the walls of rooms.'

When you look at a Mercier cartoon there is often more to be discovered than just the main characters, as stated above. I particularly love his cats - scrawny, a bit bug-eyed, with a mangy tail.

In the late 1970s/early 1980s a couple of collections of his cartoons were published, and they are still treasured by me today.  Here are some of my favourite cartoons by Mercier:
See the number plate on the truck? NBG 123. NBG was shorthand for "No Bloody Good". And there's that funny little bearded chap peeping around the corner.

Classic Mercier humour.

Can't you just feel the heat and humidity of a Sydney summer in this one? Everything's drooping including the bloke in the portrait.

Now tell me you didn't involuntarily laugh out loud at this!

Shakespeare meets Mercier. Love it!  And look at the little flying cup and saucer in the sky...

Here are some of those cats with a classic Mercier spring floor. This one's very clean - Mercier usually hid objects in there - dogs, cans of gravy beef...

Mercier's bearded man in his ancient car, a frequent sight in the cartoons.

How topical is this? The Gai Waterhouse/John Singleton racing scandal broke last week...

I love the names Mercier gave his racehorses!

My love of Mercier's sense of humour got me into trouble at business college in the late 1970s. We had a very straight-laced teacher, Mrs Currie, who disapproved of me because I wasn't like the other girls. I didn't aspire to be a secretary or receptionist. No, I was going to be a journalist and made it clear I was learning shorthand and typing to assist me to get a job on a newspaper. Well, that never happened.

But I digress.

Back to Mrs Currie. Halfway through the year we were onto touch-typing our own letters (as opposed to diligently whacking out edc and rfv and qaz and ijn and ol, and other typing exercises). We could choose our own recipients' names for these business epistles. Not for this little black duck the Mr J Smith or Mr R Brown my classmates used. Nope. I drew on Mercier for inspiration and my letters were addressed to Mr Quincey J Erpnewt and Mr C M Fwyp, two Mercier characters. When the third letter was presented for Mrs Currie's approval, to be sent to Mr G Shrdlu, she pulled me up.

"You'll have to stop using these silly names," she admonished.  "I can't tell whether these are typing errors."

"Oh no, Mrs Currie, that's how they are spelled. I can show you the magazine here."

But Erpnewt, Fwyp and Shrdlu were banished. Mrs Currie told me to consult the telephone book and pick proper names. So... after much searching I was writing to people called Cholmondeley and Fitzhaugh etc.  At that time there was actually a Bastard in the Sydney White Pages.  Poor bastard (no pun intended). I wonder how many crank calls he got? Anyway I did consider it for a brief and beautiful moment, but knew Mrs Currie would hit the roof. She'd already spoken severely to me for saying "bugger". 

If Mercier had an influence on the names I used at business college, he also had an influence on my own cartoons. I confess to basing many of my cartoon cats on Mercier's design!

If you like Mercier's cartoons there is a wealth of them here on this blog. Enjoy!

1 comment:

  1. I think it's a dog peepeing around the corner in that first one.
    However...like you, I was/am a big fan of Mercier's work, having lived in Sydney from 1956 to 1984 and having been a buyer of "The Sun" each afternoon on my way home from work.
    Loved his stuff......and get quite nostalgic when I see anything that reminds me of his work.
    And I even use PostNoShrdlu as a forum name! :)