A Cack-Handed Genius
Beck, Stefan, New Criterion
The death on December 30 of Ronald Searle, Britain's foremost "graphic satirist"-to use his own designation-came as a terrific shock to his countrymen, many of whom thought he'd been dead for ages. Searle, ninety-one, had lived in Provence since 1966, and in France since 1961. He was untroubled by the possibility that his native land had forgotten him. "One marvelous thing about having left England," he said in 2005, is that Frenchmen and other foreigners have "never heard of St. Trinian's," that Pandaemonium of a girls' boarding school given diabolical life in Searle's cartoons. Searle, complaining about a British "tendency to pigeonhole you," thought it nicer to be presumed dead than remembered for work done in the 1950s.
Some were probably shocked for the opposite reason: Wasn't Searle death-proof? A story known only vaguely to his more casual admirers, but retold with grim vividness by his many obituarists, was the ordeal he survived in his youth as a prisoner of war. At the outset of the Second World War, he enlisted in the Royal Engineers Corps of the Territorial Army. Soon he shipped out to Singapore, naive, hopeful, and hopelessly ignorant of his adversary. Officers spoke of "yellow dwarves" who "couldn't shoot straight." It was 1942. After a month of jungle combat, during which fellow "sappers" were picked off by guerrillas hidden in palm trees, Singapore fell to the Japanese.
There can be no overstating the effect of his four-year captivity, split between Singapore, in Changi Jail, and Thailand, laboring on the Thai-Burma "Death Railway" made infamous by David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Searle considered Lean's version roseate nonsense, and little wonder: In the Japanese he met only cruelty wedded to an honor culture that saw prisoners as, in a sense, already dead. Starvation, insect bites, dysentery, beriberi, gruesome skin afflictions, beatings-as horrible as these were, worst was to wake up with a dead comrade on either side of him. With lapidary candor, Searle said: 'There I lost all my friends."
There he also gained the full force of his artistry. They say that I was partly a father of black humor," he once remarked. He must have appreciated the bile-black irony that a prison camp was his art school: four years as a literally starving artist, with nothing to do but suffer and sketch. Searle produced hundreds of drawings while in Japanese custody. The prisoners donated the flyleaves of their books to their resident Goya. He worked away, hiding the finished products beneath dying men. Searle had been an artist before the war, but in these conditions his creativity took on the urgency of reportage, and of survival.
As another POW put it: "If you can imagine something that weighs six stone [eighty-four pounds] or so, is on the point of death and has no qualities of the human condition that aren't revolting, calmly lying there with a pencil and a scrap of paper, drawing, you have some idea of the difference of temperament that this man had from the ordinary human being." A difference of temperament explains how Searle, despite all the "horribleness [he] saw," became the kind of artist he did. Miraculously, over three hundred drawings survived the humidity and violence of Southeast Asia. At first glance, little in die execution of these works anticipates the signature style of the illustrator of die St. Trinian's and Molesworth books; the star of Punch, Life, Holiday, and other publications; a man as comfortable with Charles Addams- and Gahan Wilson-style grotesquerie as with more broadly appealing work about, e.g., cats, dogs, and oenophilia. The prison drawings are cartoons only in the formal sense.
"Cholera," made with pen and blue ink on buff paper in Thailand (1943) is exemplary. With a gestural scattering of lines, like hairs clinging to a shower stall, Searle records for posterity the pelvis, ribs, and cavernous abdomen of a dying man. Hardest to look at is the face. …