In memoriam: Ronald Searle

One of the most remarkable cartoonists, artists and creative minds of the 20th century died on Saturday.

Ronald Searle was born in England in 1920, in the same month as my late mother. He sold his first cartoon at the age of 15. He joined the Royal Engineers in April 1939, realizing that war with Germany was inevitable, but continued his cartooning, and published the first of what would become his famous St. Trinians cartoons in 1941. However, events overtook him. He was sent to Singapore, where he became a prisoner of war of Japan in 1942.

Searle was initially interned in Changi prison camp in Singapore. In 1943 he was sent to work on the Burma Railway, setting of a famous novel and film about a ‘Bridge on the River Kwai‘. He suffered many attacks of malaria while working there, and also from the effects of deliberate starvation by the Japanese, which eventually caused him to contract beri-beri. In September 1943 a Japanese guard attacked him, striking him with a pick-axe which penetrated deep into his back. This, coupled with the effects of his illnesses, prostrated him, and he was unable to continue working. Almost miraculously, he survived, and was returned to Singapore in December 1943.

He was transferred to Changi Prison in May 1944. Built to house 800 regular inmates, this structure was now crammed to bursting-point with some 10,000 prisoners of war. Searle lived in a cell containing 200 prisoners. He continued to draw, which was tolerated by the Japanese as long as his subjects were innocuous (he concealed his drawings of Japanese brutality, and recovered them after the war). The prison administrator, a Captain Takahashi, even had him spend three months drawing murals at a Japanese officers’ club on a Singapore beach.

Searle wrote and spoke about his wartime experiences at various times. Here are some of his comments.

“What kept me going was that, if I could only show people what it had been like, I would have achieved something in the short life I was likely to have … I desperately wanted to put down what was happening, because I thought if by any chance there was a record, even if I died, someone might find it and know what went on.”

Searle said of the day he woke up to find a dead friend on either side of him, and a live snake underneath his head:

“You can’t have that sort of experience without it directing the rest of your life. I think that’s why I never really left my prison cell, because it gave me my measuring stick for the rest of my life… Basically all the people we loved and knew and grew up with simply became fertiliser for the nearest bamboo.”

Of his second year in captivity, working on the Burma Railroad, he said:

“On many occasions there would come a . . . moment when the mind liberated itself from the body and went off independently into the most incredible flights of fantasy. This detachment of the mental faculties from the miseries of the flesh may have its parallels in drug-taking or religious trances, but for us it was an involuntary act of self-preservation that protected some of us from going stark, staring ravers, leaving us just mildly demented.”

“It was not only the hard labour that nearly drove us out of our minds; it was also the insects, that curse of the jungle, and they ate us alive. Mosquitoes and foul fat flies were a horror, and their bites were often fatal. But it was probably the non-killers that made our lives the most miserable. At night after work, tired as we were, we were kept awake by the swarms of bedbugs that wandered over us, sucking our blood and nauseating us with their smell when we crushed them. Day and night the lice burrowing under our skin kept us scratching. Sometimes giant centipedes wriggled into our hair when we finally got to sleep and stuck their million poisonous feet into our filthy scalps as we tried to brush them off, setting our heads ablaze. I think there were moments when any one of us would have preferred to brave the mountain lions rumoured to be out there somewhere, than face another bug.”

After the end of the war, he was repatriated to England, arriving in Liverpool in late October 1945. He resumed his cartooning career almost as soon as he was demobilized. His wartime cartoons became world-famous after they were used to illustrate several war memoirs of fellow prisoners, including the best-selling ‘The Naked Island’ by Russell Braddon (which is well worth reading, and may be downloaded as a free e-book in various formats). He later published his own book of wartime prisoner cartoons.

Searle’s wartime experiences have been of lifelong interest to me, for two reasons. First, my own father was supposed to be sent to Singapore in 1941. Only sheer blind chance prevented him from becoming a prisoner of the Japanese himself, as I described in Weekend Wings #9. Secondly, I grew up with friends of my parents who had been prisoners of the Japanese. Most never spoke about their experiences, but a few, when asked (and after they’d had a couple of brandies) would go into brutally horrifying detail. Searle’s cartoons were a grim and graphic confirmation of their stories.

His post-war cartooning career was prolific and extremely successful all over the world. His St. Trinians School cartoons inspired a number of books and several films, the first appearing in 1954, and one being re-made as recently as 2007. Many clips from the films can be seen on YouTube.

His work was published and critically acclaimed in books, magazines and comics. Here are just a few selections from his output (click each image to be taken to its source, where more may be viewed).

A sardonic, cynical portrayal of Homer‘s Odyssey, drawing on his own military experience to reinterpret the legend:

A femme fatale from a 1948 article in a French magazine:

And, finally, he pokes fun at himself and his own profession in what appears to be a tongue-in-cheek self-portrait (click the image for a much larger view).

He spoke of his wartime experiences, and his enormous output, in this interview, recorded shortly before his 90th birthday in 2010.

Someone’s even set up a Ronald Searle tribute blog, with many reproductions of his drawings and illustrations. It makes very interesting reading (at least, for someone like me!).

Ronald Searle was a truly remarkable man, one whom I held in high esteem for many reasons. I was always astonished by the fact that his ghastly wartime experiences didn’t dehumanize him. He retained a whimsical, impish sense of humor, and was always one to seek the silver lining in every cloud (and try to draw it, of course!). The world is a much poorer place for his passing.

May he rest in peace, and may he be reunited with the many comrades he lost during World War II.


1 comment

  1. Montreal has a very large Jewish community, where I lived. It was an awesome melding of two VERY contrary situations being thrown together, their Jewishness and survival of the Holocaust and our Germaness, the cause of the Holocaust. Years later I heard a complaint of the children of these parents, that they would never discuss their Holocaust experiences. (The Japanese survivors of Hiroshima also would not be very forthcoming.)
    I think we hug these disastrous experiences to our hearts, in order not to relive the horrors.
    At least Mr. Searle had an outlet for his grief and anger, which must have helped many others.

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