Mainlining

Ralph Steadman's drawings hit their target like a high-velocity bullet. Will Self, who tried to imit

Fortune has smiled on me during my life. Of course, misfortune has also prised my jaws open with a laboratory clamp and vomited down my oesophagus, but for now let's stick with the smiley face. When I was a callow teenager, I came into contact with the cartoon art of Ralph Steadman, and when I came to be a man, rather than putting away childish things I found myself working in collaboration with him.

The biblical trope isn't altogether out of place in that sentence, because certain aspects of life do have that feel about them, as if they are inscribed on some tablet about to be hurled down a mountainside by a vengeful prophet. To understand this further, you have to appreciate quite what an impact Steadman's work had on me. It was his line that did it; that's all you have to know about any cartoonist, the only judgement you need to make. The Steadman line is instantly recognisable, a slashing, excoriating, spurting trajectory of delineation that rampages across the page. Other cartoonists may prettify or resolve or configure, but the Steadman line opens up everything it defines. It is the draughtsman's equivalent of a high-velocity rifle bullet, and it hits its targets either messily, or precisely, but always unerringly and invariably with extreme prejudice.

Like many others, the first examples of Steadman's work that I became familiar with were his illustrations to accompany Hunter S Thompson's book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I also became acquainted with Thompson's odd rendition of Steadman's character in the piece "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved". Inasmuch as I wanted to emulate Thompson - and I fear I did - I also wanted to copy Steadman. His line, that is. When I first began to draw cartoons I went for the same apparently gratuitous attack upon the paper, only to discover (as doubtless thousands of others have), that it was in fact an expertly plotted act of satiric violence.

At their best, Steadman's cartoon illustrations evoke an entire universe of visual comprehension. There is a Steadman geometry, a Steadman light quality, a Steadman physics, even. It is no surprise to realise that as well as working in two dimensions, he has throughout his career produced a series of astonishing contrivances, including a simply breathtaking orrery (exhibited at the "Devious Devices" show of automata in 1998). The orrery simply confirms the Steadman universality, but it does not supply the moral order - that comes from the man himself.

After nearly five decades of cutting through the crap, ripping the stuffing out of the pompous, and generally doing all that he could - in H L Mencken's formulation - to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, Steadman resolved during the 1997 general election that he would no longer give succour to the insurmountable vanity of the political class by depicting their faces in any way; instead, he would draw their legs. It was at this hairy, sweaty juncture that I was asked by the editor of this magazine to write the text to follow the legs.

Working with Steadman proved to be an invigorating affair. Each week of the campaign, the fax machine would begin to whirr and grind, before disgorging a series of "Ralphograms", faxes of anything up to 20 or 30 sheets, that would comprise sketches, epistles, photocopies of texts, personal billets-doux, the occasional smeared or manipulated photographic image, and all of it caught up in the demented cat's cradle of that ineffable line.

Working this way round - supplying the words to match the images - struck me as a consummation of a whole strand of my own satirical thinking. Indeed, it occurred to me that if Steadman had been able to provide me with such images throughout my career, I never would have had to undertake the underpowered flight of imagination, so complementary did I find his vision. We never met during the course of our work together, and perhaps it was better that way. I became involved in a minor tabloid scandal, involving Taliban talcum powder, and had to go on the run from the paparazzi. My wife and I ended up ensconced in the Glasgow Hilton, but still the Ralphograms came. Once we went to Edinburgh for a day trip, and, expecting a Ralphogram, I kept calling the reception desk at the hotel to ask if it had arrived. The receptionist denied all knowledge of any faxes for me, until at last my wife suggested I tell them that it would comprise drawings. "Drawings!" the receptionist expostulated in high dudgeon. "Yes, we've got 40-bloody-pages of drawings!" I wonder what special circle of hell is reserved for people who don't delight in receiving a 40-page Ralphogram.

And now, at last, we have met. The occasion was a fundraising evening organised by the Community Action Network, with the support of Felix Dennis, the underground/overground magazine publisher. Adele Blakebrough, CAN's founder and executive director, has come up with a project that has no equal for breathtaking chutzpah. The intention is to turn the old council offices in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, into a gallery, study and art centre, with Steadman's own astonishing archive at the core. In the 19th century, these buildings housed a mental asylum, and the new project has styled itself "Asylum", picking up on the word's contemporary associations as a place of refuge, welcome and renewal.

The plan is for a whole range of voluntary organisations to move in to the buildings once they are refurbished, and that, in combination with the Steadman gallery, education facilities, a cafe, a multimedia working space and a performance centre, the Asylum will become a focus for regeneration in an area of the country that desperately needs it.

At the fundraising evening, Adrian Mitchell read a moving poem dating from the years of the Vietnam war protests. I spoke briefly, but the highlight of the evening was Ralph Steadman's own peroration, an incredible torrent of verbiage, which in a staggering feat of periphrasis encompassed all of his current and past preoccupations, from the meaning of satire and the role of the cartoonist to the corruption of hierarchies and the importance of giving young people a good start in life. Ralph did his own national service in Haverfordwest in the 1950s, so the choice of location is fortuitous rather than arbitrary.

The atmosphere at the fundraiser was ebullient and resurgent. In the opening stages of a quixotic and wrong-headed "war", which Ralph opposes with every fibre of his being, there was a sense of a gathering of an old clan that has struggled for a long time to prevent society being engulfed by a tidal wave of folly. The money is very nearly in place to buy the building for the Asylum project, but another £2m is needed to undertake its refurbishment and equip it. I suppose, in this day and age, it's all too easy to say: "It's a nice idea, but aren't there more pressing concerns, more urgent charitable undertakings that require my support?"

But I don't think I am being overly partisan when I reply: no. In a world dominated by monomania and humourlessness, there is a vital requirement for a community regeneration project based firmly on the exceptional work of a satirical, creative polymath. Fortune may have smiled on my life, but I'd like to see it grin winsomely at the lives of a great many other people.


Join us in the Asylum: £50 a ticket

Please support the Asylum project, which will create a permanent gallery of Ralph Steadman's work and bring skills, jobs and opportunities to west Wales.

For £50, you can become a Friend of Asylum, on which you will receive regular updates. Larger donations are welcome, as are offers to help with the project in other ways.

Please make cheques payable to "Bright Red Dot Foundation (Asylum Account)" and send them to: Adele Blakebrough, Community Action Network, Elizabeth House, 39 York Road, London SE1 7NQ. Tel: 020 7401 5310 E-mail: a.blakebrough@can-online.org.uk