Thursday, 5 January 2012

Ronald Searle, Kaye Webb, Puffins and all

‎"Did I do all that?" Ronald Searle says in this interview on his 90th birthday.  Kilometres of line!
Right from his early traumas as a prisoner of war on the Siam-Burma railway, drawing helped him survive. 


Ronald Searle had been on my mind for some months.  This week he died at the age of 91.
Returning to London after so many years in France,  I found myself thinking about my childhood reading. When I grew old enough to buy paperback books for myself, I felt oddly close to Kaye Webb and Searle.  Kaye  'signed' every Puffin book I collected, and I treasure the card she wrote to me as a young Puffin club member.  Searle felt like my best friend in the shape of Molesworth himself. Among others, I loved his pictures in Down with Skool.
So  last autumn, I read the biography of Searle's first wife, Kaye Webb, Valerie Grove's, So Much to Tell  which I had picked up at the wonderful Puffin Club exhibition at Seven Stories Newcastle. 
Kaye Webb's biography suggests that she never really got over Searle's sudden departure for France and his new love, Monica.
Her work at  Puffin really filled a hole in her life.  Out of that, she touched and linked the lives of many young readers together in an amazing community of young readers, and budding young writers and illustrators - a kind of SCBWI for the under 16s.

Before the shock of her break up with Searle, their life together in London in the 1950s  sounded exciting and creative - their Fleet Street meetings, their working trips, their full life and New Year's parties at their eccentrically decorated house with its novel exterior, by Denys Lasdun, future architect of National Theatre.  (They were far-sighted and bought it cheaply - its modernity had frightened other buyers.)

Thanks to Kaye Webb I rediscovered Searle.  I hadn't seen the POW drawings for a start.  I went to the Cartoon Museum and bought the excellent catalogue of his exhibition there. And I I'm still taking in the incredible breadth of vision he had, working in different fields from reportage, book illustration to cartooning...and defying the labels we all too easily give him.
The UK press continue to shackle Searle with the label of his least favourite series, St Trinian's.  As he says in this interview, 'The moment it's successful - kill it!" 

An ability to move on, hard work, joy and champagne bubbles; Searle's key to a long working life...

Happy New Year to all, and cheers!
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