Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Changi Gaol 2

. Original pen and ink drawings for house program and advertisement.
Searle, Ronald William. [Original pen and ink drawings for house program and advertisement of a dramatic play performed by English and American Prisoners of War while in Captivity.] Two original pen and ink drawings by Searle for a play produced at the infamous Japanese Changi prison camp in Singapore where Searle was incarcerated during the war. The play entitled Speakeasy.... An American's idea of an Englishman's impression of An American Gangster Play" was produced September 21st - 26th, 1944 at the prison camp. Searle is credited with the stage sets and he designed the programme. Members of the cast have signed the announcement or the playbill. British graphic satirist Ronald William Searle (b. March 3, 1920, Cambridge, Eng.) was educated at the Cambridge School of Art and published his first humorous work in the late 1930s. During World War II he served with the Royal Engineers and was captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore. A book of grim drawings of his experiences was published after the war. The drawings offered here are unpublished.


Published: August 10, 1986
TO THE KWAI - AND BACK War Drawings, 1939-1945. By Ronald Searle. .

MOST newspaper readers in this country are familiar with Ronald Searle, whether they know it or not. This brilliant British artist-caricaturist-illustrator-cartoonist has spawned a massive school of admirers and imitators now into its second and even third generation. Chances are that many young American political cartoonists practicing today don't even know under whose influence they are really working.

This is not grumpy criticism of young colleagues by an aging coot. Unfortunately for me, Mr. Searle and I are within a year or so of each other's ages, else I'm sure I'd have spent the last 50 years under his influence too. By the time my generation had fallen in love with his work, my own drawing hand had taken a set. Ronald Searle is like Pablo Picasso in that he makes it all look so easy . . . which can be seductive for lazy art students eager to score and hoping that if they paint both eyes on one side of a model's nose they will be Picassos too. Mr. Searle's mature drawings, which sometimes superficially resemble scrambled eggs laced with cobwebs, are even more misleading in this respect.

It has been obvious all along that Mr. Searle is a superb draftsman, trained and disciplined. But he turns out to be every bit as vivid an author as he is a draftsman. ''To the Kwai - and Back'' offers new substantiation to the theory that artists tend to be writers (and vice versa). After all, both professions deal with imagery and communication. Now we can study what was surely his most important period of development as artist and man (and writer too, we discover), from his late teens to his mid-20's, through the incredible sketches in this book, done under the most impossible circumstances and miraculously preserved through three and a half years of brutal Japanese imprisonment in the rain forests of Asia. Had Mr. Searle's drawings been discovered, they would almost certainly have cost the artist his life. Several times his sketches were saved by sick or dying comrades - victims of cholera who had stashed the pictures for him and counted on the Japanese dread of the disease to forestall discovery.

Mr. Searle volunteered for the British Army early in 1939, before World War II began in Europe. He was sent to the Far East as a sapper (combat engineer in our parlance) and in 1942 fell with Singapore, so to speak. Moviegoers who saw ''The Bridge on the River Kwai'' will have some notion of what he endured and sketched during the rest of the war. Incidentally, the movie, according to him, was inaccurate in that no bridge was built across Thailand's Khwae Noi River itself, most of the work being done on railway cuts along the steep and rocky bank.

Also, he considers the film portrayal of the behavior of British prisoners ''bizarre.'' Who is in a better position to know? But I wish Mr. Searle had been more specific about this instead of simply leaving us hung up with the word ''bizarre.'' Whatever the shortcomings of the cinematic version, the living and working conditions of the movie prisoners so closely match those in the book that surely we can assume they were more or less authentic. Of course, the film also dealt with a single camp and one forced-labor project, while Mr. Searle's work is about many places and tasks and the interminable, merciless treks between them. These Bataan-style death marches seem to have been a specialty of the Japanese in those days.

The following is a sample of words assembled in Mr. Searle's book by the artist. (A small warning here: by now some squeamish readers will have begun to suspect that this book might not be for them. They could be right.) This is about his second year of captivity:

''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.''

If space allowed, I would also serve up one or two of Mr. Searle's samples of the prisoners' diet, including a hilarious passage about snake chasing for culinary purposes. For me one of the greatest things about this book is its demonstration that the only chance for survival in truly impossible circumstances is to have a sense of humor so ingrained that it can't be kicked out of you. This quality, found in so many British (and American too, from what I've heard) prisoners of the Japanese in World War II, tended to drive their captors up the wall.

Most Japanese soldiers of that time were totally disciplined and imbued with fanatical certainty that the Emperor was God and the only sure way to get to His heaven was to die honorably in battle. They had little time for humor and nothing but contempt for men who would surrender their weapons and place themselves at the mercy of an enemy. Mr. Searle knew that, as his text and drawings show. Possibly this understanding of what motivated his tormentors contributed as much to his survival as did his humor. The Japanese idea of fun was to concoct elaborate forms of minor torture for prisoners. Mr. Searle's portrayal of some of this, along with the mean little grins caught on the perpetrators' faces, is unforgettable. Best of all, when he encountered a decent captor, he sketched him too. MR. SEARLE seems never to have let his anger and resentment over the stupid, barbaric treatment visited upon himself and his comrades distill itself into unreasoning hatred. Men, like metal, can be hammered beyond hardness into brittleness and vulnerability. Thus when Mr. Searle's work began to draw official attention during his last months of captivity and a prison administrator, Captain Takahashi, ''requested'' that the drawings be sent to him, the artist did not spit in anybody's eye, nor did he panic. He simply got very nervous. Making sure the tattered, stained sketches that were his real work remained hidden, he submitted innocuous, almost comic material. And then one day, when Mr. Searle was alone, working for Takahashi in the officers' club, he was visited by the captain:

''He . . . offered me a cigarette and lit one himself. . . . Looking at me sideways for a moment with what little there was visible of his pupils, he took off his gloves, picked up my sketchbook and a pencil, said, 'May I?' and began to draw the outline of a mother and child on the first blank page. Then he stopped, looked wryly at the sketch and said in his careful English:

'' 'You know, Mr. Searle, I also am an artist - a painter. I was studying in Paris when I was called home to this - ah - to serve. . . .' ''He turned over a few pages of the sketchbook with a vaguely reflective air, handed it back to me, put on his gloves again and, with his usual slight bow, left the room puffing his 'Tojo Special.'

''He returned at once. 'Oh, I forget. I intended to ask you whether you would care for these.' And he laid a handful of coloured pencils and wax crayons on the bar. ''Finally the question was answered. ''I had never for one moment imagined that Takahashi's 'request' to see my drawings would turn out to have been for reasons non-military, non-political, non-administrative, and non-suspicious. Or that . . . he was making a quiet, unsoldierly gesture of solidarity between artists. Fortunately . . . a sentimental fantasy had interposed itself between Takahashi the civilized, cultivated painter and the sordidly real circumstances in which Takahashi the prison administrator, lord of life and death, was now obliged to exercise his talents. Our paths crossed only briefly, but the resulting rare moments of peace that he had made possible for a few of us have been long remembered.''

Takahashi's drawing is reproduced in the book. There is no question that he was talented. Mr. Searle says he later tried, with the help of the Imperial War Museum, to learn what became of the captain but without success. He seems to have accepted the officer's magnanimity at face value, but for my part I can't help wondering if perhaps an intelligent fellow like Takahashi might have smelled V-J Day coming. I guess that's the difference between Mr. Searle and me.

Most of war seems to be a double image, harrowing and often tragic on one face, ennobling and sometimes whimsical on the flip side. This book of Ronald Searle's has it all. It will be rewarding for any serious art student, war buff or hardy but sensitive soul. Perhaps I can best sum up my own reaction by explaining that I like cats and was charmed by the description of a feline pet of the prisoners. Every Alcatraz story needs a bird. From Mr. Searle's sketches, the cat appears to have been more or less of the Siamese persuasion. I particularly like Siamese. Eventually she bore kittens, so fetching that he devoted an entire page to them. Then, when they grew a little larger, he helped eat them.

'Castaway' Ronald Searle condemns Lean's River Kwai

By Chris Hastings, Arts Correspondent

Ronald Searle, the acclaimed satirist and former Japanese prisoner of war, has attacked the film The Bridge on the River Kwai for providing a distorted picture of the war.

Mr Searle, 85, who was a slave labourer on the infamous Burma railway, said that the film's claim that PoWs regarded the completion of the project as a sense of national British pride was "romantic nonsense".

Sir David Lean's Oscar-winning 1957 adaptation of Pierre Boulle's bestselling novel is one of the most popular British war films ever made. It starred Sir Alec Guinness as the stoic Colonel Nicholson, a man so obsessed with the completion of one bridge that he is willing to thwart an Allied attack on it.

Mr Searle is strongly critical of the film, and the novel on which it was based, in a special edition of Desert Island Discs broadcast today to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

"It is nonsense and absolute rubbish," he said. "It is a romantic novel, a Frenchman's idea of how the British should behave. A sort of 'jolly good chaps and let's build a bridge' ."

Mr Searle says that far from being a source of national pride the railway was actually a symbol of national shame. He said that English officers assigned "troublemakers" - including himself - to the project to get them out of the way. For him the bridge remains the place "where I lost all my friends".

Mr Searle was sent to work on the railway in 1943 after he and two other inmates began producing a magazine to boost the morale of the prisoners.

"That is one reason I got sent up to Siam," he said. "It upset the extremely conservative mentalities of our own administration - the commanders and the chaplains. When the time came for the Japanese to say we want groups to be sent up north, the English chose the troublemakers."

Mr Searle's exchange with Sue Lawley is his first broadcast interview for 30 years. Although he is still a regular contributor to the French newspaper Le Monde he is notoriously difficult to contact and insists on communicating with the outside world by fax. Lawley, who had to travel to France to conduct the interview, last night said that she could "count on one hand" the number of "castaways" who had not been interviewed at Broadcasting House.

The programme, which will be broadcast on Radio 4 at 12.05pm today, is a harrowing account of life for prisoners of war. Mr Searle suffered regular beatings and his weight fell to six stone. "We were dirt - available to your captor to do anything he wished," he said.

Mr Searle, who began his career as an artist when he was 15, used his talents to record life in the camps: 300 of his sketches survived the war.

Mr Searle, who created the St Trinian's cartoons of the 1950s and was a leading exponent of black humour, has no doubt that his wartime experiences affected his work. "The horror, the misery, the blackness changed the attitude to all things including humour."

llustration by Ronald Searle from the FEPOW magazine 'Exile', September 1944.

"Where did she get those clothes?" 1944
 inscribed '... WHERE DID SHE GET THOSE CLOTHES?/Scene from Professor Roberts' burlesque pantomime "Cinderella and the Magic Soya Bean", Cathay Theatre, Sune Road Prisoner of War/Camp.Singapore.feb 1944' (lower centre)
pen and ink and coloured crayon, unframed  9 7/8 x 8in. (25.1 x 20.3cm.)
and two further unframed illustrations of Cinderella by the same hand

No comments: