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Essay

Remembering a forgotten survivor

MOST WAR MEMORIALS are made from stone. This one is made from paper: ten original sketches drawn in ink, pen and coloured pencil and stuck in a velvety leather autograph album with cornflour-and-water glue, three Christmas cards, four letters and nine black-and-white photographs the size of football cards. This modest memorial honours an anonymous World War II Australian field ambulance man, Sergeant Henry (Lofty) Judge Cannon, and the life-saving care he gave to British artist Ronald Searle and many other near-dead prisoners of war at Kanchanaburi, a jungle camp at the Bangkok end of the Thai-Burma railway.

The Japanese Imperial Army decided to build the railway in 1942, the year Singapore fell. It needed to get food and weapons to soldiers fighting in Burma. Prisoners of war and Asian labourers cut the railway through mountains and jungles, starting in Ban Pong in Thailand and going up through Tamuang and countless settlements to Hellfire Pass and more before terminating 415 kilometres later at Thanbyuzayat. By October 1943, the impossible track had been built by 55,000 Allied prisoners of war and 135,000 Asian labourers, including men, women and children. It is estimated that a hundred thousand of these starving and cholera-ridden people died on the job. Forty years later Ronald Searle wrote in his war memoir, 'If the men who died building it were laid end to end, they would roughly cover the 273 miles of track they built that year.'

Searle was one of these tortured labourers and the pictures he drew in the jungle slave camps and back in Singapore's Changi goal are a rare and valuable record of a particularly cruel episode in a cruel war. Three hundred of Searle's war drawings are held in London's Imperial War Museum and a selection published in his account of that time, To the Kwai and Back: War Drawings 1939-1945 (Collins, 1986). His drawings also illustrate an early edition of Australian soldier Russell Braddon's classic POW memoir, The Naked Island(Werner Laurie, 1951).

Ten other Searle war drawings have never been published. Instead they were hidden for decades in a shoebox kept in the pantry of a family home in Coppin Street, East Malvern, in Melbourne's comfortable eastern suburbs. 'I think Dad didn't know what to do with it,' Jill Parkes said of the album of drawings that Searle had given to the man she called Uncle Harry. 'He put it away. It was too hard, too sad.'

 

LOFTY CANON RETURNED to Melbourne in 1945 but didn't really survive the war. He spent most of the last twenty years of his life in Bundoora psychiatric hospital, in a ward for veterans with war-related mental illness. He died there in 1980, demented and alone. It was three days before his estranged wife Peg, Jill Parkes' aunt, was told of his passing.

Postwar, Lofty Cannon shrunk while Ronald Searle grew to become one of the most famous illustrators of the century. Between 1946 and the early 1978, Searle published fifty books. He is most famous for his subversive St Trinian's pictures about monstrous British private school girls, but these stockinged, hockey-stick-wielding horrors are just a small part of an extraordinary career that includes animation, sculpture, painting, magazine and newspaper illustration. His pictures have been on the cover of The New Yorker, Punch and Lifemagazines. In 1961, he covered the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem for Life. Between 1958 and 1960, his work included reports on refugees for UNICEF and coverage of two American presidential campaigns, travelling first with Nixon, then Kennedy.

Searle's output has been so great that many people have a private exhibition space of his work in their heads. Mine is the spidery, gothic illustrations he did for a hard-cover edition of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. My parents owned the book and every December I would get it out and make myself cry.

Searle is still alive, aged eighty-seven and living in a village in the south of France. He is a private person but I was given his address and fax number. No email, no phone number. When I began this research, I wrote a letter asking for an interview. Then, panicked about my poor handwriting, I sent a typed fax. As the machine beeped transmission success, I noticed that the word 'Searle' appeared on the screen. 'Look, Searle!' I said, hardly believing it myself.

Ronald Searle is famous, Lofty Cannon is a nobody, yet without Lofty's care, the artist would not have survived the war. The drawings kept in the shoebox for so many years are now in the State Library of Victoria, along side the men's correspondence and background material compiled by Jill Parkes and her husband John. The library considers 'The Lofty Cannon Collection' one of its archival treasures.

 

FOR EVERY ITEM in every archive there are two stories: the story embedded in the object and the story of how the object got there. This essay is about both stories, and the chance encounters that gave these illustrations a new life. Stories arrive from the most unexpected places. I learnt about Lofty and Ronald from Melbourne artist Leigh Hobbs, creator of the Old Tom children's books. Old Tom is a diabolical, self-centred young child disguised as a cat who lives with his neat freak mother Angela Throgmorton. Searle is famous for his drawings of cats. One wonderful image shows a fat black cat sitting on a wooden chair in front of a table laden with a sumptuous spread of jellies, cakes, profiteroles and fruit. A thought bubble above the cat's head is filled with fish: 'They're all against me ...'

Hobbs loves Searle and each time he has spoken publicly about his influence something significant has happened. First, in a 2001 profile in The Age Hobbs explained how, as a child, he had pored over Searle's works: The Rake's Progress, the Changi drawings and, of course, the St Trinian's books, drawings that critics have described as being concerned with three themes: torture, confinement and forced labour. After the article appeared a reader contacted Hobbs. She wanted to give him her collection of Searle first editions and a book he autographed in 1953, the year Hobbs was born.

In 2002, Hobbs wrote a personal piece for The Age explaining why Searle was so special to him. This time, John and Jill Parkes got in touch. Jill's mother Fay had died two years before and when they cleaned her house, Jill discovered the shoebox of Searle drawings. The Parkes had no idea what to do with them and called Hobbs and asked if he would like to see them. 'I thought, oh no, the whole Searle thing has been laid to rest,' Hobbs recalled. 'I didn't want to go over the Searle stuff again. I went grudgingly to meet them.'

At their house the couple started piling things on his lap: Christmas cards from Searle and his first wife Kaye Webb, a founding editor of Puffin Books. One on pink cardboard with a black and white sketch of a St Trinian's girl – a single black garter flashing – stealing presents from Santa's sack. Another big yellow card with a couple dancing in an empty ballroom to a song played by a beggar on a violin. Disguised in the swirls of the rococo roof are voluptuous naked dancing girls. Then there were the 1943 pictures: a lithe Thai dancing girl, barefoot 'natives' walking up the jungle path, elephants hauling logs in a jungle clearing.

Six sketches featured Lofty. As Australian nicknames go, Lofty was either very short or very tall. He was six foot six. The most affecting image 'Ronald Searle the Beauty of Ward 5' shows the artist naked and startled, his skin pocked with purple sores, 'a foul, creeping skin disease,' his knees drawn up to his chest and sitting on a bamboo platform. In front of him are two soldiers, a short man with a moustache and Lofty, so tall that his chest, shoulders and head are missing. 'Hmm – now here's a pretty thing, wardmaster!' Lofty says. The perspective is like that of a child who draws adults with fantastically long legs and pinheads. A similar and much warmer image is simply captioned 'Thanks Lofty!' depicting a bespectacled Searle peeking out from under a mosquito net to shake hands with his gigantic, stooped carer: Lofty as solid and mountainous as his name suggests, Searle a tiny child.

In To Kwai and Back Searle wrote: 'I have one or two memories of a great hut in Kanchanaburi in which I lay, no longer able to move. High, endlessly long and crammed with skeletal-looking bodies sprawled on raised bamboo platforms, it was a luxury hotel compared with what we had just left in the jungle.' Searle weighed almost nothing. Like all the other prisoners, he lived on boiled rice supplemented by whatever they could catch and kill, everything from snakes to kittens. Lack of vitamin B12 meant most men had 'happy feet' and 'rice balls'. Happy feet caused stabbing, burning pain in the soles. Rice balls described an affliction by which the skin of the genitals split and peeled. Searle also had dysentery, malaria, fever and his legs were puffed up with beri-beri. 'Large areas of my body were decorated with a suppurating crust from some exotic skin disease and one of my ankles was eaten to the bone by a large tropical ulcer. Apart from this, my three-weekly bouts of malaria had left what was still visible of my skin between scabies and ringworm, a pleasing bright yellow.'

Russell Braddon was also at Kanchanaburi. 'I remember there was nothing much of him, that he was like a baby or a monkey or something. We thought he was dying and we – some of his remaining friends – used to put him out on a groundsheet in the sun. I don't know why but we felt that the sun would do something.' Each day, other prisoners expected Searle to die but he didn't. He kept on drawing. Braddon writes: 'If you can imagine something that weighs six stone or so, is on the point of death and has no qualities of the human condition left that aren't revolting, calmly lying there with a pencil and a scrap of paper, drawing, you have some idea of the difference of temperament that his man had from the ordinary human being.'

Searle drifted in and out of a coma; his left, drawing hand was 'holed with ulcers' so these delicate, grateful pictures were all done with his right. A dying man doesn't waste his strength recording the mundane or meaningless. He records what is important and monumental. Half-dead, he chose to draw Lofty at his bedside, Lofty conversing with a Dutch patient, 'Oh ja, ja, ja – oh ja, ja, ja', his long, spotty legs and arms folded around themselves as he smokes a cigarette, listens and chats. In every picture, Lofty is distinguished by his height and by the Red Cross bandage on his arm. There is Lofty bandaging a soldier's leg in the hut they called Ward 5, Lofty 'at his sheep dip', the place where patients bathed and, finally, a gigantic, weeping Lofty waving off a Changi-bound train. 'Ward 5 says farewell to Thailand – land of romantic jungles! (and 'Lofty'), Searle wrote.

Hobbs looked at the pictures then he read a letter from Searle to Lofty, dated August 30, 1946. 'Can I read it to you?' he asked when we met.

Dear Lofty, I've just received your letter of June 22. It's funny (peculiar) that my letter didn't reach you. I did answer your first letter and as far as I remember I sent it to the hospital where you were still a patient. Well I am glad you are out anyway, and I hope it this time it is for good. I have been keeping fairly well these days, I suppose it will take quite a long time to get over the experiences completely – especially from the mental side, but bodily all I need is a little more weight. My war beauty hasn't disappeared completely, I still come out in purple patches when I go swimming! I managed to bring back practically all of my drawings and the pick of them (the serious ones) are going to be published as a book later on in the year by Cambridge University Press. I am glad all my drawings weren't enjoyed by the rats (two and four legged) and that you have some left for yourself. I don't really think I ever properly thanked you for your great kindness to me 'up country' in that stinking hospital. I know, as you do, that you helped to save my life and made my existence under that net almost bearable. Believe me Lofty, I've praised the stars that brought you to that ward many times.

As Hobbs read this his voice started to crack. He had been even more upset when he read the letter for the first time with Jill and John Parkes. 'I said, do you realise one of the blokes who was the greatest graphic draughts-man of the century was saying your uncle saved his life?' They had not, and they too were upset. Searle's 1946 letter ended with best wishes for the man who had saved him: 'Well, enough of this and I hope you are getting all the best out of life. You deserve it. Let me know how you get on. Yours, Ronald.'

 

LOFTY DID NOT get the best out of life. After this encounter Jill and John Parkes began to research Lofty's life, driven in part by the guilt they felt about the way 'Uncle Harry's' life had turned out. 'When Harry was ill in Bundoora we were young parents, totally absorbed in our children and work,' John Parkes wrote in a two-page document that is now part of the archive. 'Today we feel guilty that we did not give Harry more time. It is likely that he died demented and miserable. The least we can do now is tell his story.'

Jill's memories of her unusual uncle and John's substantial research allow us to recover something of this story. The narrative is a 'forgotten double' to the well-documented pre– and postwar story of the artist whose work captured them together. Like the deservedly well known story of Weary Dunlop, the rugby international and playboy surgeon whose heroic doctoring saved many lives on the Thai-Burma Railway or the rather more mythic tale of Simpson and his donkey at Gallipoli in World War I, the story of Lofty and Ronald is one of caring rather than killing. I am not telling it to try to create a new figure in Australia's war-memory machine, but to demonstrate how two men can go through a similar experience and one can survive and thrive while the other is hospitalised and permanently incapacitated.

Henry Cannon was born in Fremantle in 1914. His father, Walter, was a master tailor from Melbourne and his mother, Nettie Judge, was from Surrey, England. It is not known why Henry moved to Melbourne but army records note that he had been a science student at Perth University. Peg, the woman Henry married, told people her husband had been studying medicine at Melbourne University before the war, but he described his occupation as 'surgical dresser' in army documents. Henry didn't enlist until May 1940 and family legend has it that he was shamed into doing so after a stranger on a tram gave him a white feather, the mark of a coward.

No one recalls how Henry and Peg met but Peg was quite a catch. Her father had made his fortune as a timber merchant in Eaglehawk then retired at forty-two and lived a comfortable suburban life. His daughters went to Methodist Ladies College. Jill and John showed me the wedding photo, taken on January 11, 1941, six days before Lofty left for the war as a member of the 2/9th Field Ambulance Unit. Peg, twenty-four, is dressed in satin, her hair styled in soft curls. Her twenty-six-year-old husband is dark-haired, tall and handsome. 'Peg was considered the beauty of the family,' Jill said.

The enlistment mug-shots taken of soldier VX20397 show a man with thick, dark eyebrows and a pencil moustache. He looks handsome, self-assured, knowing, with a half-smile on his face. But there is no trace of this cocky, attractive character in the little photographs taken in 1946 when Lofty was at Gilbulla Rehabilitation Camp, a place set up in the Macarthur-Onslow family mansion near Camden in Victoria's wealthy Western Districts for returned soldiers. In these pictures, Lofty looks younger, thinner and more vulnerable, a towering, worried child next to a short, stocky, grinning soldier cradling a large goanna. On the back of one photo, Lofty called himself 'sadsack'. He looks, as my mother would say, like someone who has had the stuffing knocked out of him.

Lofty fought in the Malay campaign and became a prisoner of war in February 1942. He was at Changi. On August 23, 1943 he was part of L Force, a medical party that went to the jungle camps to nurse survivors of the railway. He left Singapore on October 18, 1945 and returned to Melbourne three weeks later. Soldiers sang songs about coming home. In 'Out of the Army', a song published in the Changi Souvenir Song Book. The words go: 'We've traded our uniforms for our civvy clothes/We've told the sergeant chap where to go/now a life of luxury is what we're going to lead/Throw all the rice into the sea and have a decent feed/Smoke Craven A's and Monopoles instead of Java weed/We're all out of the army now ...'

Lofty's homecoming did not bring this happiness. He did not fit in. His head hurt all the time. He wanted to be alone. In January 1946 Lofty was in ward 7a at the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital. A report said: 'There has been no giddiness, but he has blackouts at times, usually when travelling in trams, or if standing still for any length of time. He begins to feel cold, comes out into a cold perspiration, and if he does not sit down he keels over. He sleeps badly and has become very irritable. His headache has worried him and he has not got on so well with people since he came home and this worries him. He would rather be by himself than with his family.'

On June 26, 1946, Lofty's final Australian Defence Forces medical board examination listed his many complaints: chronic headache, loss of memory, sexual impotence, neurosis and general debility. Between 1942 and 1945 he had suffered fifty-two attacks of malaria, including one attack of cerebral malaria. He had dysentery 'frequently', had been knifed in the hand, suffered scrub typhus, chronic bronchitis, oedema of legs, tropical ulcers in both legs, varicose veins and rheumatism in his hands, back and legs. In February 1945, Japanese guards beat him severely about the head. He was knocked out between five and ten minutes and had had a 'constant' headache ever since. The examining doctor described Lofty as 'a tall, well-built, intelligent type – slight tremor'. He added: 'This ex-POW is a proud type and has come through a bad time and he has still residual symptoms of anxiety state.'

Electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) and sub-coma insulin therapy were two of the treatments Lofty received at the Repat in 1946. In March that year, he received three courses of ECT. 'Feeling much improved mentally after his treatment and ECT,' the clinical notes say. Insulin therapy caused convulsions or coma. It has long since been discredited as a treatment for depression and anxiety but it was common in the postwar years. Psychiatrists still use ECT but now patients are sedated or anaesthetised first.

In the early to mid-twentieth century, when Lofty came home from the war, shell shock or combat fatigue were little understood. By today's standards, treatments were primitive. Post-traumatic stress disorder was not recognised until 1980. New understandings about traumatic memory have helped doctors treat veterans of more recent wars, most notably Vietnam. In Remembering War (Yale University Press), his 2006 book on memory and World War I, Jay Winter explains shell shock as a condition 'in which the link between an individual's memory and his identity is severed. A set of unassimilable images and experiences, arising from war service, either in combat or near it, radically disturbs the narrative, the life story of individuals, the stories people tell themselves and others about their lives.'

 

RONALD SEARLE CLUNG to his identity as an artist throughout the war. His pen was his lifeline, the thread that connected his pre– and postwar self. What did Lofty have? The man who had pushed aside his own suffering to nurse the sick now could not get well. The 'doctor' became the patient.

In 2002, Jill and John Parkes wrote to Searle to tell him about Lofty's life and discuss what should happen to the pictures. Searle wrote back: 'Lofty was a remarkable man. Remember, he was a POW too, yet somehow he found the energy and devotion to look after we "survivors" of the Thai-Burma jungle camps. He was inspiring in his care and his splendidly forthright, Australian, no-nonsense attitude, kept us from feeling too sorry for ourselves. Under dreadful circumstances he was superhuman – and he was loved by all.'

The effort must have been huge. By 1947, Lofty was out of hospital. He got a soldier-settler farm at Tresco, near Swan Hill. Lofty grew oranges on poor land that would soon become a salt desert. Peg had had a hysterectomy before they married and in 1949 the couple adopted a son, David, who they found after responding to a plea in 'Miranda's column' in the Herald and Weekly Times. Jill's earliest memory of Uncle Harry was his height and the big pink fluffy teddy bear he gave her. She remembers visiting the farm: 'Uncle Harry was always stooped, he really seemed quite spaced out. He didn't talk much but he had this booming laugh. He seemed to be burdened then.'

They struggled to make the marriage work. Harry even joined the committee of Tresco's All Saints Church of England. 'It was so hard for her, the ignominy of having him so anti-social.' He was addicted to painkillers; he hid them in the pockets and lining of his coats. He drank too and would sometimes sleep rough in railway good sheds. 'I always felt they didn't have sympathy for Harry. You were just supposed to get on with life.'

In 1960, the Cannons left Tresco. David and Peg moved back to East Malvern and Lofty went to Bundoora. Lofty had some contact with his wife and son and extended family but it was sporadic. 'By the 1960s the family appeared largely to neglect him,' John Parkes wrote. The archival trace for the last twenty years of Lofty's life is thin. The final bit of medical evidence I have seen is from the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital.

Name: Cannon, Henry Judge.

Admitted: 5 March 1960.

Treatment for: Psychopathic Personality and alcoholism. Treatment and investigations: sub-coma Insulin; special drug treatment; individual psychotherapy; occupational therapy; social work and employment action.

Discharged: 13 June 1960.

Condition on disposal: Recovered.

Lofty's life at Bundoora would have been difficult. In 1985, a Commonwealth review of repatriation hospitals said the psychiatric hospital offered 'long-term psychiatric care for veterans with mental disorders that have been accepted as due to war service'. In 1973, Lofty was one of 255 veterans at Bundoora. In 1984, there were 154 left. 'The Review understands that until relatively recently there were serious deficiencies in certain aspects of the standard of care being provided at Bundoora. A change of administration has resulted in significant improvements.'

Even though he had been diagnosed as 'psychopathic', Lofty's remaining letters are lucid. In 1966, he wrote to Searle. The letter was on Australian Red Cross Society paper, the address is the Returned Soldiers Psychiatric Hospital Bundoora.

Dear Ronald Searle, I take the liberty to bridge the years, because if you will remember there comes a time when a man needs an encouraging word from a friend and that is what I need right now. My eyesight is going fast and I keep thinking I am chained to the Burma Railway and so to set my mind at rest my own people have locked me up again. I know all this seems a bit harrowing but it's unburden or burst. My wife took me to see the 'Magnificent Men', although I know that your work has changed a lot, I could see the Ronald Searle I knew so well, peeping out now and again from under his mosquito net and it warmed my heart and I laughed and so I will close wishing Ronald Searle, the 'Spotted Wonder of Ward V' a still brighter future. If you find the time and in your goodness answer this, would you post it to my wife?

That letter was dated January 28, 1966 and refers to the 1965 film 'Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines' for which Searle produced still and animated sequences. In October, Lofty wrote another letter.

Dear Ronald, I was unfortunate enough to lose your letter which I wanted to give to my son, and I wondered if you would drop him a brief line and say hello. I would like him to remember, that his father, although a nut, had at least one sane and famous friend. Regards, Lofty Cannon.

It is hard to imagine that Searle ignored this request but the letter has not survived. Lofty died in 1980; a year later David was killed in a car accident. David had married by then and had one daughter; another daughter was born after his death. Peg died in 1994 and Jill's parents both died recently. 'Thus we believe ourselves to be the sole custodians of Harry's memory,' John Parkes wrote.

 

THERE IS ONE other living person, though, who could be described as a custodian of the memory. Although the trajectory of the men's lives has been so different, there is an unusual symmetry. In 1960 Lofty Cannon withdrew from family and farm life and went to a psychiatric hospital. In 1961, after covering the Eichmann trial, Ronald Searle became deeply depressed. He was convinced that his 'increasing disgust with most activities of the last fifteen years was more than justified'. He left his wife Kaye and their young twins, abandoned his life in London, his fame and success to live in France. He later married stage designer Monica Koenig and continued to travel the world, reporting and drawing. In 1968 he was stuck in his Paris apartment during the student riots and 'produced 100 variations on the snail'. His first New Yorker cover was published the following year and in 1973, two hundred and fifty of his pictures were displayed in a one-man show at Paris' Bibliotheque Nationale. In 1978, French critic, Pierre Dehaye noted the elements of horror and ridicule in Searle's sketches but suggested that if viewers looked closely enough they would also find tenderness: 'His satire is not of the cut-and-thrust variety; it is at one remove from the battle front: he acts as stretcher bearer, he takes oranges to the wounded in hospital.'

The day after my fax to Ronald Searle, I received a red and blue airmail letter from a small village in France. The hand was delicate and beautiful and the stamp depicted a stone angel.

Your letter has arrived but I am embarrassed to say that it has arrived too late. My memory is now totally unreliable and I would hesitate to recall with any guarantee of accuracy, events that passed well over sixty years ago. All I can say is that 'Lofty' Cannon was the epitome of kindness and devotion under circumstances that were medieval and barbarian. He was a nurse that pushed himself beyond the level of endurance and comfort to care for the miserable survivors that we were, from the jungle, to the relative misery of Kanchanaburi.

As you know, he gave at the expense of his own sanity. When you ask why did I write: 'Lofty helped to save my life', if I and the rest of us in that primitive hut had not had Lofty's care, most of us would have died. The background to some of this is in my book 'To the Kwai – and Back'. Sorry not to be more helpful. But there it is. The flutterings of the past in an 87-year-old head are not ice-cold sharp – or even vividly Dickensian! Sincerely, Ronald Searle.

The art of war is terrible but look closely and you find tenderness, friendship, humility and humour. Time reverses many roles. Now Searle is a stretcher-bearer for his dead friend. 'As my lucky generation of Baby Boomers heads into retirement, the men and women of World War II are well into old age,' John Parkes wrote. 'Harry probably would not have wanted to die a hero. The best that we can do is see is that he, and those like him, are remembered.' Lofty Cannon, 1914-1980. Lest we forget.


From Griffith Review Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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