The Terror of St Trinian's and Other Drawings - By Ronald Searle


Perhaps it is best to begin by admitting a minor, yet indulgent lapse in strict standards of editorial professionalism. There are a few of Ronald Searle’s drawings that, strictly speaking, do not belong in this book. But we put them in anyway. Although Searle’s ‘Molesworth’ drawings are reproduced fully (it should go without saying) in the Penguin Classics edition, we reproduce a few of them here, both at the series editor’s insistence (‘A Glurk Trolling’) and mine (‘grate latin lies’). We need hardly explain or apologize for their inclusion; but that we felt they had to go in, despite being duplicated elsewhere, says something about his appeal, the deep furrows he has made in the national consciousness.

Most people under forty came to Searle through the four ‘Molesworth’ books, his incredible collaboration with Geoffrey Willans, the novelist, teacher and wartime RNVS officer who found, in the depiction of the truculent, philosophical and rebellious schoolboy (a kind of Diogenes in shorts, with beetles doodled on his knees), his finest and most enduring creation. I first came to them as a schoolboy in the sixties and early seventies, in a prep school still faintly redolent of the cabbage-and-carbolic atmosphere of St Custard’s. What struck me at the time was that the book was hardly an act of imagination; it was a documentary. We made allowances for the passage of history – the school was for day-bugs only, no one said ‘cave’ at the approach of authority, and not all the masters were quite as demented – but the mise-en-scène was highly recognizable, authentic; we may even have willed our school to be a little more like St Custard’s than it actually was, forcing life to live up to the world of art.

Much of Willans’s linguistic exuberance passed us by – as far as we were concerned, he spelt ‘strubres’ more or less correctly – but it was Searle’s illustrations that sealed the matter for us. For there, right on the page, was an example of how we felt we might be able to draw, had we the application or the energy. He was so expert and painstaking that we hardly recognized how expert and painstaking he was. He had managed to climb into a child’s mind – strictly speaking, a boy’s mind – and pull out our weirdest yet, at the same time, most standard imaginings. Most importantly, perhaps because we could see that he was not condescending, did not appear to be artistically slumming it, we knew at once that he was on our side, in that seemingly endless attritional war between adults and ourselves. If Willans exposed the grown-up world as a conspiracy against youth – and an inept and pointless conspiracy at that – then Searle’s illustrations confirmed it, pitilessly, and in a visual language that we immediately understood.

It is also perhaps necessary to remind people now how rare it once was for schoolbooks to be illustrated, unless incompetently or emetically; and the molesworth books, which were, in a sense, schoolbooks, were more than just illustrated. Searle’s contribution was not so much integral as essential for their success. The ‘Molesworth’ cycle burgeoned manically and generously with drawings, satisfying the schoolboy’s craving for release from the tyranny of linear print. And the drawings were not dependent on the text; sometimes it seemed the other way round. There is no textual authority for many, if not most, of the illustrations; the word ‘illustration’ is, in this context, misleading. The molesworth-headed spider (‘closer and closer, crept the ghastly THING’) just leaps into the book, as a boy’s vicious daydream interrupts a period of great tedium, most typically, as I recall, Latin lessons. The ‘grate latin lies’, also an autonomous series of cartoons, said not only all that needed to be said about the supposed classical ideal, they also said everything that needed to be said about the timelessly disappointing nature of the human condition. Take ‘All the romans loved home’, with the browbeaten centurion still in his armour, the mocking image of an authority he can never command in his own home, the wife yelling at some prior incompetence or dereliction, the child crying at some prior and presumably imaginary or trifling injustice, even the dog pinching his dinner; the man’s resigned, exhausted slump not only that of someone trapped in history, but a horribly proleptic vision of the destiny that awaited those foolish enough to grow up. It told us all, in the blink of time it took the eye to register the