Ronald Searle: to the Kwai and back

Living in Thailand October 1986

There is an often told anecdote about the SS guard or camp commander in Auschwitz or Dachau who played Bach in the evenings while the ovens were loaded. The idea behind the telling is to debunk the view that art is somehow ennobling.

Another anecdote, this time by Russian émigré writer Vladimir Nabokov, has the artist rushing headlong into a burning building to save the little boy at the window, but also taking time to remember his favourite teddy bear.

Whether it was Beethoven or Bach, a teddy bear or gollywog, is a matter of detail, one that Nabokov, no doubt, would carp over. But fidelity to experience is nonetheless a yardstick by which one can judge a work of art – particularly one by a war artist.

None of the recent wars has thrown up anything to rival the drawings of Henry Moore or Ronald Searle. Photojournalism has done away with the war artist. Soon the satellites will do away with the photojournalists – and Big Brother controls the satellites. Moore’s drawings of bomb shelter sleepers and refugees in London during the Blitz are more evocative. But Searle’s sketches in this beautifully produced book have a poignancy and accuracy that renders the original experience with great faith and spirit.

Searle began his career as a cartoonist at fifteen. Barely out of his teens, he spent the war years from 1942-1945 in the South East Asian theatre, most of it as a prisoner of the Japanese.

Page after page depicts harrowing camp life, physical and mental deprivation. One can see how he developed as a draughtsman. This is perhaps one of the subtle ironies of this book and of war art. It is strange that such telling drawings should survive at degree zero. Strange too that style, if one can talk of such, should advance in the midst of human misery.

The book recounts his voyage from Scotland by ship to Halifax in Nova Scotia, to Trinidad, Cape Town, Mombasa and finally to Singapore and the Death Railway. Many of these pages reproduce life as it was lived, or endured, in Changi Camp and Jail in Singapore, and in the western Thai jungle.

Searle drew compulsively and secretively. It is surprising that during his long years of captivity, while working on the railroad and keeping body and soul alive, these drawings were not discovered or destroyed.

He recounts, not without a measure of wit, the near fate of some of his sketchbooks.

“Thin paper was so rare that in desperation I smoked the spare corners of many of my drawings, half of Pickwick Papers after a fifth reading, and the whole of Rose Macauley’s Minor Pleasures of Life, which had been respectfully reprinted by Gollancz on something resembling prayer-book paper.”

Searle’s account of his enforced sojourn in the Thai jungle is vivid and packed with detail. Nowhere is there that Alec Guinness heroic posturing, stoic and British to the last: or the Hollywood falseness which has conditioned many people’s ideas of what went on up on the Kwai, as elsewhere.

“During the noon break on the cuttings, they (the Japanese) would frequently relieve their boredom by calling us into line before we had barely gobbled down our rice, to watch the torturing of one of us picked at random. The unlucky one might be made to hold a heavy rock above his head in the full sun, with a sharpened bamboo stick propped against his back.”

The illustration is as harrowing as the account.

Besides the cruelty of the Japanese, Searle’s pen-and-ink drawings bring back to a limbo-life the faces in the sick bay – emaciated, dying of dysentery and cholera. Other sketches show mundane camp life, such as it was. Drawing was a way of taking time out, of trying to get above the misery in order better to endure it.

Christmas day, 1944, finds him in Changi Jail eating kittens the prisoners had especially fattened for the festive meal. Searle is unrepentant in his wit and shows his priorities and sanity in a world whose aberrations dwarfed such minor culinary infractions. However, he did draw the kittens before they were eaten that Christmas day.

Both the narrative and the many beautiful and valuable drawings (they are now part of the Imperial War Museum’s collection) in this book serve as reminders of the need for accuracy and fidelity, where these qualities matter. In an age when Japanese textbooks blatantly and crudely camouflage and ‘remake’ history for their future generations, and in an age when America manufactures cinematic wars and two-dimensional mega-heroes, there is a need for such books. To quote the Irish poet Frank Ormsby:

So much remembered: Tamils and Javanese
buried by the hundred, barges piled with dead
nudging downstream from Ninety-kilometre Camp,
the endless epidemics, the brutish guard
snarling ‘Speedo! Speedo!’

And regular as on a timetable, page by page,
The names of the first stations:
The cemetery at Tarsoe,
The cemetery at Ban Pong,
The cemetery at Chungkai.