By Ronald Searle (Souvenir Press)
Britain has a fantastic and enviable history and tradition of excellence in the arts of graphic narrative and cartooning. Whether telling a complete story or simply making a point; much of the modern world’s most innovative, inspirational and trenchantly acerbic drawing has come from British pens powered by British hearts and minds.
If you’re quietly humming Rule Britannia or Jerusalem right now, pack it in. This is not the tone we want. I’m just stating a few facts.
Ronald Searle was one of a very gifted few (I’d number Ken Reid, Leo Baxendale, Murray Ball and Hunt Emerson among them) who can actually draw funny lines. No matter how little or how much they need to say, they can imbue the merest blot or scratch of ink with character, intent and wicked, wicked will.
During the Second World War he was a Japanese POW at the infamous Changi Prison. The second St Trinian’s cartoon was drawn in that hell-hole in 1944 and it survived along with his incredible war sketches to see print once peace broke out. Searle was a worker on the Siam-Burma Railroad (a story for another time and place) and risked his life daily both by making pictures and by keeping them.
His mordantly funny cartoons appeared in many places such as Punch, Lilliput, The Sunday Express, and other collections of his work include Hurrah for St. Trinian’s!, The Female Approach, Back to the Slaughterhouse, The Terror of St. Trinian’s, Souls in Torment, Merry England, etc., The St. Trinian’s Story, Which Way Did He Go? and Pardong m’sieur.
Searle’s work has influenced an uncountable number of other cartoonists too. His unique visualisation and darkly comic satirical cynicism in the St. Trinian’s drawings and the utterly captivating vision of boarding school life as embodied in the classically grotesque Nigel Molesworth (created with Geoffry Willans for Punch and released to enormous success as Down With Skool!, How to be Topp!, Whizz For Atomms! and Back in the Jug Agane) influenced generations of children and adults and even played its part in shaping our post-war national character and language.
And have I mentioned yet that his drawings are really, really funny?
Although perhaps a bit of a one-trick pony – and still readily available despite being despite being 30 years old – this sharp and immaculately depicted slice of satirical buffoonery still affords a chuckle or two, but the truly magical aspect of this book is the unforgettable collection of black and white cartoons delivered with stunning absurdist candour and the peculiarly tragic warmth that only Searle could instil with his seemingly wild yet clearly-considered linework.
By transposing such terms as “Semen” with “Sewomen” or “Hymn” with “Herm” he can still make us pause and ponder, but the total immersion that his bridled insanity delivers in his illustrations reaches much deeper and lasts so much longer.
You will laugh, (it’s impossible not to) but you will also grieve and yearn and burn in empathised frustration at the marvels in this lost supply of ordinance in the Battle of the Sexes.
Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant stuff! See for yourself, whatever side of the battle lines you cower behind…
© 1988 Ronald Searle.