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Ralph Steadman, The FT Weekend

“If you’re not provocative what’s the point?”

You wouldn’t know it’s Ralph Steadman’s house. No trademark paint spatterings across the substantial Victorian frontage or wide Kent lawn. Only a wheeled sculpture in the drive and an ‘America The Beautiful’ doorbell give clues. Steadman’s wife Anna, a quiet protective presence around him, leads me in.

Steadman is in the kitchen, cheery, gnome-like, on his cap a badge: Sheriff’s Department, Pitkin County (his late friend Hunter S. Thompson’s home ground). Prints of reptilian Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas barflies, and valley vineyards from The Grapes Of Ralph, decorate the walls.

Steadman has been vitally diverse: visceral gonzo journalism with Thompson; Lewis Carroll, Orwell and Flann O’Brien illustrations; biographies of da Vinci, Freud and God; from the 1950s to 80s political, often acid, cartoons; children’s books, wine books.

Now there is Extinct Boids. The book began when film maker Ceri Levy asked Steadman for a painting for an exhibition on extinct birds. Over 100 followed, lush, real birds and imaginary, comic ones, annotated in the book by the e-mails and calls that flew between Steadman and Levy.

We sit by the Aga, Steadman laughing often, patting the breakfast bar to emphasise points. His eyes search mine from inside big glasses, checking he’s understood.

Born in 1936, he was raised in Wallasey and North Wales. After Abergele Grammar School came a De Havilland Aircraft Company apprenticeship. Hating factory life, he left and worked at Woolworth’s. His old, tyrannical Headmaster saw him sweeping out the shop. “He said, ‘You could have been at De Havilland. Instead what have you  done? You’ve ruined your life.’ I felt ashamed.”

But Steadman’s parents, a commercial traveller and shopgirl frustrated by their jobs, encouraged him to find fulfilment. He loved drawing, so they paid £17 for  an art correspondence course and in 1956 Steadman’s first cartoon was published (on Suez). By the early sixties his work was in Punch, Private Eye and the national press. His old political cartoons – like Harold Wilson as da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Edward Heath as Mona Lisa, a frothing Thatcher – still startle. Why did he stop?

“I began to think drawing politicians was total bullshit. I’d rather draw inanimate objects or birds, there is something more honest about them. I like the idea of a beak, it’s expressive, like putting a big nose on a cartoon face.”

Why Boid’s invented birds?

“I could have gone on finding extinct birds. But I thought, ‘It’s like telling the same joke over and over. How can I change it slightly? How can I undermine the thing and do silly instead of serious?’”

By undermining it, was he treating the book like gonzo journalism where –

“Yes, you become part of the story.”

He rolls cigarettes as he talks (a baritone, Merseyside-Welsh accent) leaving them half-smoked on the bar, never inhaling. His Boid paintings, he tells me, were never pencilled or planned beforehand. “That is the point, the white sheet of paper, anything could be on there. Whack it with a blob of ink, then, ‘Ah there’s something, a beak’. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s got to surprise me. If I surprise myself I might surprise someone else.”

It is a benign book: would he have done a harsher Boids 30 years ago?

“You might have something. I’m a gentle person, I’m not a vicious, savage person. I just can’t stand unpleasant people. So I made my drawings unpleasant, if they were about unpleasant people.”

Steadman’s jokiness disappears. He ponders his career, the gentle-unpleasant paradox.

“I found myself between the devil and the deep blue sea. And I had to find my own way through, and I have, the best way I can. And I don’t like getting older, it’s bloody awful. That’s another thing about the devil and the deep blue, life and death. I’ve always said, ‘When I die I don’t want to know about it’. I don’t want nursing homes and the rest.”

He talks about Thompson’s 2005 suicide. “Hunter could not take that. He’d had a hip replacement, he could hardly walk. He said to me once ‘I would feel real trapped in this life if I didn’t know I could commit suicide at any moment’. And I feel rather the same.” He brightens up. “Except I haven’t got the 22 fully loaded guns he used to keep. He was a central part of my life, he gave my work a kudos in America.”

Steadman unzips his cardigan to show a pendant from gonzo days: a little head Thompson gave him, like a pinched Easter Island Statue.

“He said, ‘Wear this Ralph, it will ward off evil spirits’.”

Has it worked?

He laughs. “I don’t know, you’ve just arrived. I’m glad it [their collaboration] happened, it structured my life. I wasn’t a lone figure.”

Steadman has called himself an outsider. Is that through choice?

“I don’t feel clubby. I’m a member of the Chelsea Arts Club but don’t go very often, I don’t like the idea of exclusivity. My exclusivity if you like, is my way of doing things.”

He flicks through Extinct Boids. “This is what I like, making up little fellahs, the Orange-Beaked Mwit, the Needless Smut. Ceri said, ‘We don’t want any needless smut in this book’. I thought ‘Ooo!’ ”

As a young cartoonist, he’d go sketching at the V&A. The museum’s National Art Library now holds 32 different Steadman books. When I tell him, he seems almost puzzled. “Have they really? That’s extraordinary.” He makes an excuse, as if his work wasn’t worthy. “Maybe they know I learnt to draw there.”

And Steadman is stubbornly modest. For No Good Reason, a documentary of his life narrated by Johnny Depp, premiers this month at the London Film Festival, he has an honorary doctorate from the University of Kent, awards. Yet even in Steadman’s book Gonzo: The Art, an overview of some of his most famous images, he writes “I dedicate this book to failure”. Why? Hasn’t his work nudged consciences, moved people?

“I don’t know, it depends really.” He changes the subject, has to be drawn back, then says, “I have changed the world, the world is worse than when I started.”

Maybe it would have been even worse without him? “Now you’re trying to catch me out.” He laughs. “So, that’s how I think of failure.” Then, suddenly angry, “It’s not right. There’s too many bloody big greedy heads around.”

But Steadman is, indeed, a gentle person. Why is that often missing from his work?

“This desire to interest myself, to be provocative. If you’re not provocative what’s the point?”

Why does he want to provoke?

He pauses. “Maybe being shoved around in school, bullied. There’s a school photograph from 1947. If you look along the rows my head’s like that.” He bows his face, hiding it. “I didn’t want my photograph taken.”

Why not? “I don’t know. That is the mystery, I provoke. Maybe, unless I do that,” he bows his face, “I just become jolly and popular, or want to be popular. And I probably wouldn’t be so-“

Creative? “Or provocatively so. Which is what I try to be. It is a bit of problem that.”

13 October 2012

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