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Think Piece: Cartoonist of the ‘Death Railway’

Thursday 16 February, 2017

Nigel StarckWhen Singapore fell to the Japanese invasion on February 15 1942, 80,000 Allied troops became prisoners of war. My story on this 75th anniversary is about a quest to track down one of those men – Ronald Searle.

He survived the horrors of slave labour and debilitating disease on the Burma Railway; he called upon his skills as an artist to record the atrocities; and, after the war, he achieved international fame as an illustrator, author, and cartoonist. It is for his cartoons in particular that Searle is best remembered. He invented St Trinian’s, a boarding school for girls where the teachers are variously deranged and the girls themselves are juvenile delinquents. His cartoon series on this subject led, over the decades, to seven feature films on the theme of slapstick academic anarchy.

Back in 2008, when I was writing the biography of another Burma Railway veteran, I needed to find him. It would prove one of the most rewarding interviews that I have secured in 50 years as a journalist and author.

My subject was the Australian writer and broadcaster Russell Braddon, who was also despatched by the Japanese to the Railway. There, he met Sapper Ronald William Fordham Searle of the Royal Engineers.

Braddon died in 1995, having written 29 books, become a BBC broadcaster of note, and presenter of the ABC Television bicentennial documentary series Images of Australia. My job, as his biographer, was to talk to as many old comrades of Braddon’s as I could; Searle figured prominently in that cohort – especially as he credited Braddon with being a critical force in his survival.

The trouble was, Ron Searle – celebrated artist, Commander of the British Empire, eminent illustrator for Punch and The New Yorker – had by 2008 long retreated to a singularly remote village in France. What’s more, he preferred not to have a telephone. All I had, at the outset of this quest, was a postal address supplied by one of his old friends: Box Number 1 at the post office in Tourtour, Provence. I wrote, he wrote back, we arranged a meeting.

I flew to London, did some research at the British Library and the BBC archives, secured illustrations and information from Braddon’s former business manager at his home in Lincolnshire, then flew on to Nice (and had a lovely swim), caught a train, caught a bus, and found myself in the Provençal market town of Draguignan. From there, a taxi driver named Dominic took me up the hairpin bends of the mountains to (literally) the end of the track: the creamy sandstone of Tourtour – the ‘village in the sky’, as they call it over there.

Searle, a man of immense charm, made me so welcome that I felt almost as if I were doing him the favour rather than the reverse. Accompanied by his elegantly coiffed wife, Monica, we took a table at his favourite restaurant, where he ordered the pigeon pie. “I feel I’m doing something for the preservation of St Mark’s in Venice,” he explained.

To wash down our dishes, there was Champagne. I’d expected this, for I knew Searle had vowed – on his release from imprisonment in 1945 – that, to compensate for all the deprivation, he would drink it as often as he could for the remainder of his life. By then, he had turned 88 and consumed rather a lot of it. His vivid recollections and his artist’s eye for detail, however, delivered a memorable interview. As I wrote subsequently in my book about Braddon, entitled Proud Australian Boy:

‘When Braddon encountered him on the Burma Railway, Searle had been badly injured in a labouring mishap; the wound had become infected and he seemed likely to die. Major Kevin Fagan, a medical officer widely regarded by his fellow Australians as possessing saintly qualities, operated on him under primitive conditions. More than sixty years later and leading an active retirement in the hills of Provence, Searle reflected on the operation itself and the care he subsequently received from the Australians at this makeshift jungle camp: ‘I’d crushed my hand with a hammer and it’d become poisoned, filled with pus. Kevin Fagan was a fabulous surgeon … four Australians held me down and he operated without an anaesthetic. He cut right through and saved my life. I agree. To me, Kevin Fagan was a saint.’

After this radical surgery, Russell Braddon managed to procure some sulfanilamide powder, an antibiotic widely used in World War II before the availability of penicillin to treat wounds. He gave this to the stricken artist, whose afflictions also included malignant tertiary malaria, and nursed him to what passed at the time for health. Braddon himself, in a 1975 BBC documentary, had offered this extraordinary picture of Searle at his time of crisis:

‘I do remember that there was nothing of him. He was like a baby, or a monkey. … We used to put him out … each day on a ground sheet in the sun, to sort of dry out or something. I don’t know why, but one felt the sun would do something. He couldn’t move, and there was no food, and he had dysentery. … If you can imagine something that weighs six stones or so [38kg] and is on the point of death, and should die, and has no qualities of the human condition that are not revolting, calmly lying there with a bit of paper given to him by a Japanese soldier for a dirty picture, drawing a cartoon, then you have some idea of the difference of temperament that this man has from the ordinary human being.’

In Provence that day in 2008, Ronald Searle gave me more than an interview. As I left for the downhill drive with Dominic, he presented me with copies of two drawings made at the Railway, assuring me that all such illustrations were – by their nature – free of copyright restriction. They accompany this Veterans SA ‘Think Piece’.

He also gave me a copy of his book To the Kwai – and Back. Ron Searle, prince of cartoonists, died in December 2011 at the age of 91. His memories of the Railway, inscribed in this book, endure today as a record of what it was to experience the fall of Singapore and the brutality and the brotherhood that followed its surrender:

When one has touched the bottom, become the lowest of the low and unwillingly plumbed the depths of human misery, there comes from it a silent understanding and appreciation of what solidarity, friendship and human kindness to others can mean. Something that it is difficult to explain to those unfortunates who are on the outside of our ‘club’, who have never experienced what it means to be dirt and yet be privileged to be surrounded by life-saving comradeship. – Ronald Searle

Dr Starck is an author, journalist, former university lecturer, and research fellow attached to the Narratives of War military history group at the University of South Australia. For this Think Piece, written to mark the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore, Dr Starck recalls his meeting with a soldier captured at its surrender – and who subsequently won widespread acclaim as an artist.

The cartoonist and Burma Railway survivor, with his daily glass of Champagne.


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