In praise of Ronald Searle, and St Trinian’s gymslips

I owe Ronald Searle, the great British cartoonist whose death was announced today, a debt of gratitude. It was thanks to him and his most enduring creations - the St Trinian’s schoolgirls - that I wore my school gymslip with, well not exactly pride but considerably less embarrassment than my chums.

While most of my classmates were understandably mortified every time we were sent out of school in the dreaded gymslip, there were a few of us who relished the chance to wear that antiquated pinnie while dragging ourselves round the cross-country run. The other gymslip fans were the the trollop squad, who relished the chance to flash a bit of adolescent leg around the perimeter of the school grounds - and who would have fitted in perfectly with the slutty St Trinian’s girls of both the classic 1950s films and the recent updated additions.

I, on the other hand, was not desperate to flash the flesh. Speccy, scrawny and stuck with a generous-sized gymslip which protected even my knees’ modesty, I simply loved having something in common with the pre-pubescent heroines of the cartoons which, almost 40 years earlier, had made Ronald Searle’s name. Speccy, scrawny blondes loomed large in these - often wielding bayonets or booze. Indeed, one of my favourites has a geeky-looking girl not unlike the 11-year-old me unpacking a broken bottle from her suitcase and muttering: “Hell! My best Scotch.”

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Those cigar-smoking, arson-addicted, pool-playing, axe-sharpening, hard-drinking school girls whom Searle sketched in gloriously meticulous and macabre detail may have been “ghastly” to adults, but they were also inspirational and cool - to those of us trapped in a very traditional school with its oppressive gothic architecture and the ever-present threat of corporal punishment. The Trinian’s girls’ toughness, their revolutionary spirit, their initiative, the way they “played” the clueless teachers, their independence.... it was all hugely appealing.

As, of course, was the black humour which permeated all the St Trinian’s cartoons to a greater or lesser degree - and is reminiscent of the great American cartoonist Charles Addams’s dark wit. I discovered Searle’s cartoons after being seduced by the first two St Trinian’s films - The Belles of St Trinian’s and Blue Murder at St Trinian’s - and, as wonderful as those films are (they must be among the best-ever translations to film of a cartoon series), they just can’t go as far as the original cartoons in terms of shock value and sheer cruelty.

The gruesome girls in the cartoons are primary school age, and their favourite past-times are torture and arson. Of course, now I know that this violence stemmed from Searle’s horrific experiences as a prisoner-of-war in a Japanese camp; a fact which makes the St Trinian’s cartoons even more important culturally than any of the films - or their unfortunate association with hen parties and strippers.