Saturday, 16 January 2010

Heroes (1) Ronald Searle

"Oh we could be heroes just for one page."
(David Bowie - apart from the very last word.)

I was first introduced to Ronald Searle (that's him in the picture above, politely raising his titfer.) around 1967 or 1968 through an intermediary named Nigel Molesworth. I would have been around nine or ten at the time. Of course, I didn't, nor ever did, meet him in the flesh, but at that point in my life his cartoons made a searing impression upon me (with the very able assistance of the late Geoffrey Willans). There was I, a working class kid (we still had these terms in those days) reading about public schoolboys and absolutely lapping it up. The book was How to be Topp and my edition (which I still have) was published by Puffin Books. I bought it in the only bookshop Stevenage had in those days, (apart from W.H. Smith) S.P.C.K..

I was the son of Irish immigrants and I think the best way to describe my parents would be as working class aspirants. My dad regarded all comics as 'rubbish' but he didn't prevent me from buying and reading them. He did draw the line at Civil War bubble gum cards; once he caught sight of some of those and what they were depicting, they were banned outright. Nevertheless, every now and again my dad would go foraging in a second-hand bookshop (this must have been Moore's in Hitchin) and return with a hardbacked children's classic (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table etc. I still have the latter. Can you see a book-hoarding pattern emerging here?). These I received with thanks, but I was also allowed to choose and buy my own paperbacks if I had sufficient funds. Pocket money was an irregular income for me, so my choices were very carefully made. How to be Topp must have been a bit of a worry for my parents, for (as any fule kno) Molesworth's spelling is utterly atrocious. But, the drawings, ah the drawings.
The cartoons in How to be Topp are quite spiky and angular in comparison to the drawing above and deceptively simple looking. Lines sometimes crossed over where lines shouldn't. Noses were either drawn with a set-square and protractor or were just a series of loops. They were wonderful.
Shortly after this I discovered The Penguin Ronald Searle at a friend's house. It belonged to my friend's parents and they looked on with interested indulgence as I pored over it. There was a delicious drawing of someone or something putting out a pair of feet, rather than shoes, in a hotel corridor for the night. The macabre has always appealed to me, but at this point in my life I was completely unaware of what Searle had been through.

In February 1942 Sapper Searle of the Royal Engineers picked up an abandoned October 1941 copy of Lilliput magazine in a street in Singapore. Opening it he discovered that they had published his first schoolgirl cartoon; Owing to the international situation the match with St Trinian's has been postponed. Twenty four hours later the British surrendered to the advancing Japanese forces and Ronald Searle was marched off to Changi prison camp. Incredibly, throughout the horrors he endured for the next four years, Searle continued drawing cartoons and recorded camp life (and unpredictable death) in secret: hiding his drawings under the mattresses of cholera victims which the camp guards were reluctant to search.
When the war was over Searle visited the editorial offices of Lilliput and submitted two more St. Trinian's cartoons which had been drawn during his imprisonment. Darker in tone, one depicted a schoolteacher hanging from a tree.
It must have been at this point that he met in the flesh his future wife, Kaye Webb (Kaye Webb had a huge influence on my life in 1967, but that's a different story altogether). She went on to edit a children's magazine called The Young Elizabethan, the title reflecting the coronation of the new Queen. I have a copy of this magazine from the early fifties (but not immediately to hand) and it is littered with spot cartoons by Searle along with a piece by one N. Molesworth, the curse of St. Custard's.
The pieces written by Geoffrey Willans were collected and published as Whizz for Attoms, Down With Skool! and Back in the Jug agane all of which are illustrated by Searle.
The fifties also saw the release of the St. Trinian's films, the first of which, The Belles of St. Trinian's, in 1954 provided cameo parts for Ronald Searle and Kaye Webb. One hour twenty three minutes and thirty three seconds into the film you can see Ronald Searle looking dapper in an overcoat to the left of the screen. I'm pretty sure, but I can't be certain, that Kaye Webb is the parent who is horrified, quite horrified after what she has witnessed. Their daughter, Kate also appears in one of the films, but I don't know which one.
But Searle, to me, is not just St. Trinian's, not when he produces little gems like the following:

As far as atmosphere goes, it is a wonderful piece - seedy proprietor with monsters not withstanding - but take a look at the grill at pavement level! A lovely touch of added gothic.
I have to digress a little here (how can you digress from a meandering mass of waffle?) but it touches upon Searle and what sparked my initial interest.
The Eagle comic's glory days preceded my birth and by the time I obtained my own personal copy (purely to get a Morse Code signaller free gift) Frank Hampson's duties on Dan Dare had pretty much finished. But I was aware of the huge influence The Eagle had on other British comics. Most ostensibly on Odhams' Wham! and the creation of Danny Dare by Leo Baxendale. The post-war, brightly coloured photogravure adventures of the pilot of the future really captured the imagination of British schoolboys. This could more probably be qualified as capturing the imaginations of middle-class British schoolboys as the comic was at the pricier end of the market. But its impact should not be dismissed, because it also impinged upon messieurs Willans and Searle. The visuals that grabbed my attention in How to be Topp (published in 1954) were directly derived from The Eagle.

Searle has also taken Dan Dare's enemy, the Mekon, and transmogrified him into Sigismund Arbothnot, the Mad Maths Master. To me, at the time, this was essentially a comic within a book, an amazing concept. If further proof were needed of The Eagle's influence on Searle, look no further than Whizz for Attoms (published in 1956), which contains the beautiful drawing of a St. Custard's attendee in the post-puff sickness of trying pipe tobacco. The ensuing line is: You hav caught me, sir, like a treen in a disabled space ship. The prosecution rests, m'lud.
Another intriguing aspect of How to be Topp is that, scattered throughout its pages is an unfurling little drama starring two sinister protagonists named Gabbitas and Thring. At the time I had no idea who Gabbitas and Thring were. I only knew that, through the nib of Ronald Searle, they led young men off to a fate worse than death. They are, of course, a very respectable, very establishment education consultancy that was started by Mr. Gabbitas in the nineteenth century. We have now exhausted my complete pool of knowledge about Gabbitas Thring.

Since the sixties I have collected a small number of Searle books. Some I have hunted down, some were gifts from loved ones who knew of my interest in him. But, there is a gap in my life. Gap? A gaping hole, a chasm that will never be filled. A void that has ever tormented my soul. In the mid-seventies Searle designed the characters for an animated film, Dick Deadeye. I have (or had. I can't lay my hands on it) the hardback book, most of which seems untouched by Searle himself. But, I have never seen the film. It was based on Gilbert and Sullivan songs and seems to have sunk without trace. At the time of its release Stevenage was without a cinema, so I never got to see it. I can't find it on DVD. I'm - I'm never going to see it, am I (sob!)?
He is still working today as far as I know, producing drawings for Le Monde which is fair enough since he lives in France. He was also highly influential on the amazing Mad artist, Mort Drucker and you can often see Searle-like characters in the background of his film parodies.
There you go. A highly personal take on a master, to whom I raise a glass of wine in my right hand. My left hand, in the meantime, clutches my copies of Winespeak and Something in the Cellar...


  1. Worth waiting for. Interesting that you mentioned SPCK as I mentioned it yesterday too in an email! Small World Syndrome, I guess.

    Back in the mid-1970s my father worked at Borg-Warner in Letchworth and I remember him taking me to an exhibition of Searle-inspired machinery. There was certainly a bizarre car there. These were actual models made up from his drawings. Actually, there may have been some Heath Robinson stuff there too.

    But then again, I am trying to rely on my memory. Maybe it was all a dream.

  2. While I'm at it, you could look at Mike Chisholm's blog today - it's about a War artist called Eric Kennington:

    Well worth a look.