Ronald Searle and what’s behind a drawing

I went to an English boarding school that I was absolutely sure was the basis for Ronald Searle’s St Trinian’s school. If we wanted to, we could be absolutely delightful young ladies, well spoken with impeccable manners and angelic smiles. However more often than not we were wicked hooligans getting up to no good, smuggling contraband into the school, plotting and executing wild pranks and getting into very unladylike scrapes. We certainly looked very much like those St Trinian’s girls according to my absolutely horrified, very proper English guardians who came to see me at my first Speech Day.

So I was rather surprised to learn while reading an early 90th birthday tribute to Searle in the Times, that although he started drawing the St Trinian’s before he enlisted with the Royal Engineers at the start of World War II, much of the bulk of the content of these cartoons were the sublimation of his experiences at the Changi Prison, the Japanese POW camp in Singapore and working on the infamous Death Railway between Burma and Siam. According to Kaye Webb, his first wife and publisher “unconsciously (Searle) was seeking to reduce horror into a comprehensible and somehow palatable form”.

Searle documented the brutal conditions as a POW with drawings made on stolen paper and a smuggled fountain pen. He also helped illustrate a prison magazine “Survivor”. Some of the St Trinian’s cartoons were drawn during this time.

I haven’t heard Searle quoted but I should image that drawing was an escape for him, a way to numb the pain and suffering, and the salvation which kept him alive when 95% of those who worked on the Death Railway died in the jungle.

I’m half Japanese and half British. I was born and grew up in Tokyo until I went off to the English boarding school. Several of my Japanese uncles and cousins were military men involved in the war both in Japan and in the South Pacific. One of my uncles and his wife ended up as an Allied POWs in Borneo where his wife died from a lack of medical care. My father who is the same age as Searle on the other hand was British and an Engineer for the British Merchant Marine, sailing in the South Pacific bringing personnel and supplies to the war front. Add to this mix my Japanese grandfather who was a key player in ending the war.

I have been to Changi Prison and heard the first hand experiences of the war from both sides. What I know to be true is that war is a dreadful thing for everybody. The death of so many, the pain and suffering of those left alive. Worst of all are the memories, the grief, fear and hatred; the guilt of surviving that can haunt years after the war has ended. How those who survive a war cope and make peace with their memories is critical. Searle obviously threw himself into his work becoming a very prolific artist. He became a master of the modern caricature, a leader in graphic design, with his sharp wit and satirical humor, writing for Punch, Le Monde, and The New Yorker. He wrote books, travelogues and newspaper reporting. He drew illustrations, advertising posters, theatre designs, film animations and even sculpted medals for the French Mint. He has influenced many artists including according to Andrea Walker of the New Yorker,  Groucho Marx and John Lennon. He continues to expertly capture people’s frailties and failings but in a way that allows us viewers to be compassionate, understanding and loving nonetheless.

I am looking forward to be renewing my acquaintance with the St Trinian’s girls with a very different perspective this time. I wonder who and what I’ll find.

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