Aged 90, Ronald Searle recalls the bad girls of St Trinian's
The great cartoonist reveals that champagne is the secret to a long life and that he has no regrets about leaving his wife and children
Ronald Searle is alive and well and about to be 90. He is used to people thinking him long dead. This is a man who, in 1945, came out of Changi prison after four years as a Japanese prisoner of war, beaten, starved and tortured on the infamous Railway of Death. Skeletal, weighing 6st (38kg) — the after-effects of malaria and beriberi — he was ready to take the world of illustration by storm. Within 15 years the Penguin book of his collected cartoons declared: “Mid- century Britain is a Searle-haunted land.”
Yet in 1961 he fled these shores to live, first in Paris, then in the South of France. He is a walking advertisement for this voluntary exile. He has a hearing aid, and his voice fades by evening, but his blue gaze exudes contentment, as does the unlined complexion of his domed forehead. Trim, alert and spry, he is brimming with bonhomie and hospitality. Each decade or so, an interviewer is granted a rare audience and, as Martin Amis rightly put it in 1977, gets greeted by Searle and his wife, Monica, “as if my presence were a key part of some rare and complicated treat they had long promised themselves”.
Our rendezvous was 90 minutes’ drive from Nice, at the Michelin-starred Les Chênes Verts, his favourite restaurant. In one room every wall is hung with Searle drawings presented to the patron, mostly on the theme of truffle-hunting. Truffles are the specialité de la maison; Searle discourses eruditely on their pervasive smell, their mysterious resistance to cultivation. His favourite rosé champagne, Billecart-Salmon, is poured at once. We are to enjoy a feast, he says, and then drive one mile to his house where we shall consume more Billecart-Salmon, which he stocks in quantity. It is his “engine-oil”. “People say, my God, all this champagne,” he says, “but I point out that we have no car, and they spend more on their cars than we do on champagne.”
What does Searle mean to the British public today? He is resigned to the ineradicable association of his name with the St Trinian’s schoolgirls (“Hands up the girl who burnt down the East Wing last night!”) who have entered the language. My generation revere him for his Molesworth books. Old actors display the Punch caricatures of themselves. Wine buffs cherish his wine books, cat-haters his cat books; and the 300 drawings he brought home from Changi and the Kwai would ensure his immortality, even if he had done nothing else.
For 35 years he and Monica have lived in Tourtour (population 150), the medieval “village in the sky”, with its 16th-century château , old stone fountain, and winding cobbled lanes. “You see the village at its best time,” Searle says. “When it’s dead.” It is cold and snowy. There are British expats about, but the Searles don’t see them.
Their hidden-away home is a labyrinthine tower with twisting staircases that would defeat most octogenarians. In 1966 the Searles could just afford the house, a ruin, with £19,000 thanks to his title sequence for Scrooge, the musical, starring Albert Finney.
For two years I have been receiving Searle’s faxes from Tourtour — always a thrill to see the inimitable spidery handwriting — while writing the biography of his first wife, the children’s publisher Kaye Webb. Before they met, Kaye took his cartoons for Lilliput, the monthly humour magazine, and he wrote her sweet letters. Their magazine alliance was happy and productive for a decade, in their Lasdun-designed Bauhausian house with its vast studio in Bayswater. But what happened next is a painful memory for all concerned. In October 1961, while Kaye and their teenage twins were away, Searle vanished. He flew to Paris and to the glamorous Monica (theatre designer and painter, whom he had met in 1958), leaving a letter for his wife saying that he had gone for good.
Apart from shockwaves and domestic misery, he left behind an enormous reputation and a punishing workload. Along with the theatre caricatures for Punch that kept him drawing half the night, there were his books, illustrations, advertising posters, theatre designs, film animations, his publishing company Perpetua Books, travelogues and serious newspaper reportage (the Eichmann trial, the JFK-Nixon presidential campaigns of 1960). His output was prolific, but the quality of the work never faltered: he was the foremost graphic artist of his time, with a distinctive style that already influenced younger practitioners such as Quentin Blake and Gerald Scarfe. He left all this behind, baffling colleagues, who missed his presence at the Punch table — at which he never sat again.
Was it really because he felt swamped by demands, deadlines, domesticity, imprisoned by his life? Or was it perhaps (as I suspect) that at 40 he had simply fallen in love?
“Would you like me to go away?” interceded Monica. Searle: “Why?” “Well, I didn’t want to be indiscreet.” “I’m not being indiscreet, I’ve nothing to hide.” So Monica stayed. “After I came out of prison in 1945, I had to slog every day to try to sell a drawing — I got £5 for a St Trinian’s — to pay the rent. Little by little, it advanced. Then I suddenly had children, became married, and from then on I was always running to pay the bills to keep a family. For me it became a treadmill. I never really loved London: being born and brought up in Cambridge, a condensed jewel, containing, for an art student, the whole history of architecture, from Saxon churches to Giles Gilbert Scott, London was, for me, bleak — the equivalent of poor old Dickens’s blacking factory.”
But was there nothing you missed, in an emotional sense?
“No, not at all, really. I’d made up my mind to leave some years before. Finally I decided to pack up and go when the children were 14. I don’t regret one second of it. A brutal decision, as I said to Sue Lawley (“Yes, totally egotistical,” he said on Desert Island Discs in 2005). But at 14 I was practically working myself. At 14, you are big enough to make your own life.” (A statement his twins, now 62, would dispute.) His relationship with his children remains, at best, distant and sporadic. Kaye never got over his leaving and for the rest of her life talked about him as if he had gone yesterday. The truth is, he was never a family man.
For years he and Monica travelled the globe. She, too, is a survivor: she was treated for breast cancer in 1970. They remain as interdependent as newlyweds, their 50-year togetherness reflected in their symbiotic duologue, finishing each other’s sentences. “If our relationship hadn’t worked so beautifully,” he says, “you couldn’t spend 24 hours a day here. We both respect our own corners.” They meet at 6.30pm to watch a “ghastly” TV quiz, Questions Pour Un Champion. Monica cooks. “An ideal life, because I am a solitary person, and Monica lets me concentrate on my work.” “The phone hasn’t rung in this house for 20 years,” Monica says. “He chose that it should never ring again, and had the bell switched off.” Yet they are clearly gregarious; they send Christmas cards, and welcome friends.
This week they should have been on their annual escape to Paris, at the Hôtel l’Aiglon in Montparnasse, which names rooms after creative artists. “Suite Searle” is on the fourth floor. “Suite Searle ... could have been put to music by Louis Armstrong,” he muses. They should be lunching daily at their favourite Paris restaurant, Le Duc. But their doctor — who visits every Monday to reassure them that they are alive — has forbidden all travel this year.
On March 3, his birthday, they will unplug the fax machine and open another bottle of Billecart-Salmon, à deux.
Meanwhile, in London, Searle devotees will gather at exhibitions celebrating his work. New editions will be launched.
“Dear old Ernest Hecht” has never met Searle, but his Souvenir Press has published him for 40 years, including To the Kwai – And Back, with its drawings, “the graffiti of a condemned man”. “I wrote it as a clear factual account, not an indictment. It’s not an emotional book. I adore our Japanese friends.” In fact, Nobuko Albery, who lives in the Alpes-Maritimes, helped him with Japanese words. But when the Imperial War Museum exhibited the drawings in 1986, Searle stayed away. “I couldn’t go and accept this accolade for myself, when all my friends were fertilising the jungle. Kids of 19 or 20, destroyed.” He still feels guilt to be among the few who survived. And he remains grateful for Australian fellow prisoners. “I loved their camaraderie. They couldn’t care a damn. The Japanese beat me up, and tried to crush my right hand — they didn’t know I was left-handed — but an Australian surgeon bandaged me in banana leaves, and my hand was saved.”
No one who has been taken prisoner ever really comes out of his cell, he says. “But in a way, I’m grateful, because at the formative age of 20, you realise what losing liberty means. You take freedom for granted, then suddenly you’re 1,000 miles from civilisation, in the jungle, with a fire to keep snakes away, trying to do your drawings, thinking perhaps someone might discover them one day. This is what made me an artist, because it gave me a purpose. As a student, you spend days on the folds of a sleeve, but without purpose. Suddenly, you have a way of applying it, a subject that matters. Those four years were my formation. A God-sent gift.”
In the 1980s, when he drew for Le Monde and The New Yorker, and sculpted medals for La Monnaie, the French Mint, and was lauded and honoured in Europe and the US, a British TV director, Patrick Boyle, proposed a Searle film. The BBC turned it down. Then Tina Brown stopped commissioning New Yorker covers. But in 2005, when Sue Lawley flew over for Desert Island Discs, his gentle voice and modest good humour charmed the audience. Latterly, the art dealer Chris Beetles (who Searle won’t meet) got his friend Jeffrey Archer, a Searle collector, to commission brilliant illustrations for his prison stories.
He has yet to watch the DVD of Rupert Everett’s new St Trinian’s film. He killed off St Trinian’s in 1952 (with an atomic bomb), but they refused to die. Now he’s glad of it. He got £300 for the first “cretinous” film, but the latest deal netted £100,000 — “enough to keep us in champagne this year!” Those wartime cartoons were inspired, first, by his sister and her friends (including P. D. James), but chiefly by two schoolgirls, evacuated from St Trinnean’s in Edinburgh, whom he met while stationed in 1940 in Kirkudbright.
A fellow soldier in Kirkcudbright was the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who published Searle’s drawings when he edited the Cambridge magazine Granta in 1939. I brought a greeting from Hobsbawm, signed “from another survivor, now about to be 93!” I delivered Searle a book by his late friend Feliks Topolski, written and drawn in 1948, when Topolski, Searle and Paul Hogarth attended a political congress in Poland. Searle peered at Topolski’s portrait of Picasso.
“I watched Feliks drawing that. The idea of seeing Picasso — to me a god, who’s opened so many doors, if you go to an exhibition of Picasso, you rush home and want to work — and there he sat! Feliks, whom I greatly admired, began sketching away. It’s a good likeness, only took him two minutes, real reportage. He got Picasso to sign it — Feliks was very pushy — then we were told to more or less clear off.”
The Searles are both squirrels. Monica’s atelier has 1,022 drawers, full of bright beads and gems for the necklaces she designs. Ronald’s study and library are lined with books, box-files, ink bottles, a nail from the Kwai railway, 20 Stilton jars of pencils and pens. Max Beerbohm’s wife, Elizabeth, turned up one day saying she had brought something special, all the way from Rapallo — a blank sheet of Beerbohm’s drawing paper. “I wrote on the corner of it, ‘piece of paper from Max Beerbohm’. ”
Everything will be bequeathed to the Wilhelm-Busch Museum in Hanover, whose Searle exhibition will run till next January. It holds Searle’s archive, his sketchbooks from 1938, and the books and drawings he has collected since the age of 15. Why Hanover, not the British Library? “They weren’t interested,” he says. “Until wonderful Frances Carey worked like mad to buy my Rake’s Progress.”
Searle does not want his collection scattered piecemeal. The Wilhelm-Busch “offered the space, and the money. They even photographed my bookshelves in the same order, and rebuilt my library in the museum — very Germanic. I don’t have a conscience about it. We are Europeans, not parochial. I don’t think I am betraying anyone by letting my work go to Germany.”
A section of his library is devoted to books on Cambridge. After I returned home, Searle sent me another fax. “I unthinkingly said that I missed nothing in England. Actually, I do miss Cambridge. Although my sister warned me that so much had changed, that should I be tempted to return, I would be seen on Clare Bridge, sobbing into the Cam.”
People have always wondered how such an amiable person could produce sometimes scabrous, cruel drawings. When I asked Searle what inspired him, he replied: “Inspired? Drawing is just slog, slog, slog ... until what you have in your head approximates to what emerges on the drawing-board. Like writing, I suppose.”
In a new anthology, Quentin Blake rejoices that Searle is still “at his drawing board and still brilliantly with it”. In the same book Searle writes of his “creaking, asthmatic body, older than Mickey Mouse ... Being old is a drag.” Then he remembers his friends, dying in the jungle of the Kwai, and concludes: “In fact, being old is lovely!”