The death of Ronald Searle, announced today, brings memories not so much of the St Trinian's illustrations for which he was perhaps most famous but of the Molesworth books he illustrated for Geoffrey Willans. For a boy like me growing up in the 195os they were part of a staple diet of British schoolboy fiction; others on the menu included the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge, Richmal Crompton's William and of course Billy Bunter, who though dated by then still did the business for me anyway. I believe I read dozens of these kinds of books, which in their own way probably did for my generation what the Harry Potter series (another variation on schoolboy fiction) does for its.
The Molesworth books were more anarchic, though. Nigel Molesworth was a brute of a child who took no prisoners and was forever plotting evil schemes aimed at the downfall of teachers or fellow pupils. His withering characterization of the hapless Fotheringay ('He is utterly wet and a weed') stays with me still. He was also a shamelessly bad speller, as any fule kno. Searle captured his essential thuggishness brilliantly with a savage spiky style of drawing that was clearly a big subsequent influence on Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman.
When I read in the news what I hadn't know before, that Searle was imprisoned by the Japanese at Changi during the Second World War and worked on the Burma railway, I remembered that someone else with an extraordinarily anarchic imagination—Mervyn Peake, author of the Gormenghast books—was one of the first civilians to enter Belsen concentration camp in 1945, and his mind was seared by what he saw. On the same spectrum would be the ultimate anarchist, Spike Milligan, whose Goon Show creations were very much a product of his wartime experience. There is no pattern here. Millions of men went to war and didn't create brilliant works and memorable characters as a result. But these three did, and I thank them for it.