Satire For Art’s Sake

RalphSteadman“Hunter used to call Blair a ‘simpering little whore’, and I think we saw that yesterday” says Ralph Steadman, speaking the day after Tony Blair’s speech at the Labour Party Conference, and quoting his long time collaborator Hunter S. Thompson “Blair has dragged the socialist party of Britain to somewhere I never imagined it would be, and I don’t think the party did either.”

Perhaps the same could be said for Steadman himself, dragged out of his ordinary surroundings by his unstoppable talent. His career has taken him places that he could barely even of conceived of as a schoolboy growing up in North Wales. Born in 1936, Steadman’s artwork took him from the confines of the London College of Printing and Graphic Arts to working for the foremost satirical and cultural publications of the era, including Punch, Private Eye and Rolling Stone.

Described by Will Self as “Britain’s foremost post-war satirist” Steadman has forged a niche for himself with his instantly recognisable artwork that unflinchingly mocks and undermines the major political players of the day. However, as Self explains, he has not always achieved the intended offence; “Ralph eventually had to give up drawing politician’s faces after he discovered that no matter how disgusting, corrupt and venal he made them look, they’d still ring him up trying to buy the original prints.”

Self continues to work with Steadman on his regular Psychogeography column for The Independent, and speaks fondly about having Steadman as an illustrator. “After he gave up drawing their faces, he would just draw their legs. I used to get reams and reams of faxed politicians legs sent to whichever hotel I was staying at while I was writing the accompanying articles, which would utterly bewilder the hotel staff who received the faxes. I ended up just screaming at them ‘Have you got the legs??” Self states unequivocally that “Receiving a brand new Ralph Steadman print every week has been one of the greatest honours of my life.”

Steadman is currently in town to promote his latest work, a memoir of his late friend Hunter Thompson, entitled “The Joke’s Over”. Specifically the book focuses on the time the two spent working together covering such events as the Kentucky Derby, the Americas Cup and the Honolulu Marathon. Thompson wanted him to capture in his drawing ‘absolute evil’, the face of the decadent America that Thompson was pursuing. Steadman says he failed, and was only able to draw certain shades, certain types of evil.

He describes writing this memoir as a cathartic experience, which helped him to deal with the loss of a companion of was not only a great friend but also a constant inspiration. “I think we sparked off each other”, he says. Steadman now possesses a number of items of Thompson memorabilia, such as a distinctive hat, pair of aviator glasses and a cigarette holder. During the promotion of the work, he has begun donning these items to recreate the character of his lost friend, something he says he only feels comfortable doing now that he is dead. “When I used to go to Hunter’s house in Colorado, there were lots of people trying to be Hunter when they were with him. I could never do that.”

Steadman was always an outsider, and cursed with a naivety which at some times it seems Thompson took advantage of. He shows me a fax from Thompson, which begins with pleasantries but is soon down to brass tacks; “What I really need is $50,000 dollars. Keep your advice and send money.” Thompson was notoriously unwilling to share the credit he received for his work. Indeed, Steadman says that Thompson always regretted one of their deals when they did end up splitting the royalties. “For “The Curse of Lono” we agreed to split it 50-50, but afterwards he was never happy. He would say to me ‘Ralph, couldn’t we change that deal? Make it 51-49 in my favour?’ but I always said No.”

However, despite their differences of opinion, and of character, Steadman played an integral role in the forging of Gonzo journalism, Thompson’s great literary legacy, and Steadman delights in explaining the phenomenon. “What is Gonzo? Well, there are two concrete events in his life which I would point to and say “That’s pure Gonzo” The first would be, quite late in his life, when he had had a hip replacement and surgery to his spine, and he insisted on smoking inside the oxygen tent. The second would be his habit of turning off his lights and driving very fast down the wrong side of the road. We could see the other cars coming, but they couldn’t see us. We’d go past like ghosts, and they wouldn’t be sure whether they’d seen anything or not. The police had no idea. There was nothing to report. How could they know that some maniac was speeding down the wrong side of the road in pitch darkness?”

Thompson revelled in danger, and claimed that he wanted to drive fast enough that the “thrill of speed exceeded the fear of death”. Bearing this in mind, I wonder whether Steadman was surprised by Thompson’s suicide? “I say in my book ‘I have always known that at last I would take this road, but yesterday I did not know that it would be today.’ I always knew that he’d do it someday, but I wasn’t ready for it when he did. I understand his reasons for it. He was sick. He hated not being able to do what he loved, he hated not being able to do what he’d always done, and he hated the idea of going to an old people’s home. He used to say, “Ralph, the thing I worry about is being in an old people’s home, being strapped into a chair and some woman coming along and playing with my balls – and not being able to do anything about it.” Arthritis and illness had crept up on Thompson in later life, a man who had always been larger than life. Steadman mimics Thompson’s peculiar ambling gait, so ably reproduced by Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “Well he had one leg shorter than the other due to an American Football injury, so he always ended up with one foot just off the floor” Steadman explains “He would walk into a room and everyone would look at him. They had to; he was right in their faces.” He talks about Thompson fondly, but without deifying him, as so often happens after the death of a public figure. “He was a bastard” Steadman smiles, “but he was a lovable bastard.”

Speaking of bastards, Steadman is back to ranting about Blair. “He’s claims to have achieved everything he dreamt of coming to office – presumably that means bombing the shit out of Baghdad.” As I leave, Steadman is approached by a fan who asks him to doodle on the cover of the day’s Guardian. He willingly obliges, and sets about defacing the grinning image of Tony Blair with devil horns and other demented features. I suggest that he’s getting closer to absolute evil. He laughs, “I think you’re right”.

Originally published in the LSE’s The Beaver, 3 October 2006.