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Ralph Steadman: The gonzo marksman

For six decades, the Welsh artist's savage cartoons have thrilled, angered and shocked readers. He is not done yet.

IIn the summer of 1970, a 34-year-old Welsh artist with a shock of prematurely white hair and a thick, moustache-less goatee was asked by the Times to draw political cartoons during the general election campaign. Idealistic and mistrustful of authority, Ralph Steadman saw little that was likeable or even distinguishable in the Conservative Party’s Edward Heath and Labour’s Harold Wilson. But he had four children to support from a recently ended marriage and needed a steady income, so he accepted the assignment – and got on with causing offence.

Steadman’s first cartoon for the newspaper, featuring the diminutive Mr Weath and Mr Hilson, as he named them, along with the Liberal Party leader, Jeremy Thorpe, was titled Happiness Is a Small Politician. Another used the three faces to form the undulations of a landscape, which he called The Wasteland. Most memorably, he portrayed Enoch Powell as a fly sitting on a heap of shit, with the Northern Irish unionist Ian Paisley buzzing in from the side. “Go find your own heap, Paisley!” Powell says, as Mr Weath approaches from behind with a fly swatter.

The then Times editor, William Rees-Mogg, worried that the drawings were inflammatory, but others on the paper liked Steadman’s strange, savage style. After the election, he was offered a three-month trial as a staff cartoonist, which he took. As the letters of complaint from readers began to pile up at the newspaper, Steadman was receiving another stream of correspondence from the United States, which often started like this:

 

Dear Ralph . . .

You filthy twisted pervert. I’ll beat your ass like a gong for that drawing you did of me . . .

 

The author was Hunter S Thompson, a renegade journalist who had achieved renown in America for his book about living and riding with the Hell’s Angels. The two men had met earlier that year, when Scanlan’s Monthly magazine commissioned Steadman to join Thompson at the Kentucky Derby horse race and provide pen-and-ink illustrations for his article.

The collaboration started badly – Thompson greeted Steadman with the line, “They told me you were weird, but not that weird” – and got worse. Steadman showed some of the locals the grotesque portraits he had drawn of them and came close to being beaten up. Thompson, who was six foot three, drunk and ill-tempered, sprayed Steadman with Mace. Yet when the magazine published their work, under the headline “The Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved”, it caused a sensation in literary journalism circles. Bill Cardoso, an editor at the Boston Globe Sunday magazine, wrote to Thompson praising the piece, which he called “pure gonzo”. Gonzo journalism – in which the reporter becomes the story – was born.

Now, a few months later, Thompson was eager to capitalise on the success by taking on more assignments with Steadman. In what he described as a “king-bitch dog-fucker of an idea”, he suggested that they travel around America and produce a series of articles “so weird and frightful as to stagger every mind in journalism”.

Steadman knew that he was not cut out for a long-term career in newspapers and so, that August, he took leave from the Times and flew to Newport, Rhode Island, to cover the America’s Cup yacht race for Scanlan’s. Though they lacked accreditation, Thompson had hired two berths on a boat – the other occupants were members of a rock band – so they could sail out and observe the contest. But the wind was mild and the racing boring.

With just a day of the competition left, they had no story and Steadman was seasick. He asked Thompson, who had shown no sign of discomfort on the water, for one of the little yellow pills that he had been popping. It was a bad mistake. Steadman had little experience with drugs – hallucinogens, in this case – unlike his companion.

“Hunter had no fear of the effect of drugs on his body,” he tells me, when I visit him in October. “People would come to him and say, ‘Have one of these.’ He’d eat it and then say, ‘What was that?’”

The yellow pill made Steadman feel weird and brave. That night, when Thompson produced two cans of spray paint and suggested that they row out in a dinghy to deface the racing boats – Australia’s Gretel II and America’s Intrepid – Steadman was game. As the artist, it fell on him to decide on the graffiti. He suggested spraying “FUCK THE POPE” on one of the multimillion-dollar yachts. As they approached the vessels in the darkness, Steadman shook one of the cans of paint. The clicking noise alerted a guard on the jetty, who pointed his torch and shouted at the trespassers.

“Ralph, we must flee!” Thompson said, and frantically rowed the dinghy away from the yachts. To distract the police, he fired two flares towards the harbour, one of which landed on the wooden deck of a boat. He and Steadman caught a lift on a passing fishing boat and escaped the scene.

“It was just a schoolboy prank,” Steadman says. “But if I had managed to spray the graffiti and got caught, I may never have been allowed to leave America!”

 

***

 

Nearly half a century has passed and Steadman is now 80, but the details of the escapade are still fresh in his mind. “Ralph, we must flee!” he says, chuckling as he imitates Thompson’s deep voice. It’s autumn and he is sitting on a stool in the kitchen of his large Georgian house in the village of Loose in Kent. With him is his second wife, Anna, and their daughter, Sadie, who lives with her husband and their two sons on the property. They are having a breakfast of boiled eggs, Marmite on toast and tea.

Steadman wears two fleeces over his grey-and-white-striped shirt, a necklace with several shiny pendants, navy trousers and black leather slip-on shoes. He’s still warming up after spending 15 minutes in the pool in his back garden, swimming a few lengths and then jogging through the water, as he does most mornings, even through the winter.

He dislikes sport (one of his reporting assignments with Thompson involved shouting, “Run, you bastards!” at competitors in the Honolulu Marathon in Hawaii), and being out in the elements is more important to him than the health benefits of the exercise.

“At one point in my life, I did wonder, ‘Why does the human heart keep beating?’” he tells me. “But I am over that.”

Seeing my notebook, he takes his own out of his pocket, a small, soft-cover version that he always keeps with him. He thumbs through it and shows me what he has written: “Gonzo-koala – DRAW! . . . Senet – old Egyptian game . . .”

“How did I find that out?” he wonders. “I don’t know. I’m properly ill-informed.”

He is not, of course. He may be best known for his brutal ink-blot cartoons, which have appeared in many of the world’s leading English-language newspapers and magazines, but he has also written and illustrated books about Leonardo da Vinci, Sigmund Freud, fine wine and God, among other things.

And though his most famous collaborator is gone – Thompson, depressed and struggling with chronic medical problems, committed suicide in 2005, aged 67 – Steadman has shown no sign of laying down his nib pen and paintbrush. His output in recent months includes the poster for Louis Theroux’s new film on Scientology, the artwork for the indie musician Ed Harcourt’s latest album and dozens of paintings of real and imaginary creatures for his own forthcoming book Critical Critters.

He also continues to produce for the New Statesman his political drawings that reflect his dismay at the state of the world and the role of the powerful in its decay. Sometimes it’s a commission, such as the drawing of Nicola Sturgeon with tartan horns, or Nigel Farage with a braying donkey grin. At other times, it’s something that he sends in unprompted to the NS creative editor, Gerry Brakus, who joins me on the visit to Steadman’s house: for instance, Donald Trump as a pig wearing Stars and Stripes underpants. Titled Porky Pie, it ran in the paper exactly a year ago and now seems highly prescient.

“I don’t know what else to do,” he tells me, when I ask him why he keeps working. (He does not need the money.) “It can be hard to fill the hours, so I try to make a mark every day.”

 

***

 

Ralph Steadman was born in the town of Wallasey, near Liverpool, in 1936. His mother was a Welsh coal miner’s daughter who had dreamed of being a teacher but ended up as a shopgirl at a branch of the T J Hughes department store. His father was a commercial traveller
who sold ladies’ costumes out of a van but wanted to build cars.

When war broke out and the German bombs started falling, Steadman’s mother would rush him and his sister to an Anderson air-raid shelter, where she knitted to try to stay calm. Eventually, the danger became too great. “Father drove us out in the middle of the night in his Rover car. I was four and my sister was eight. We ended up in Abergele in Wales and stayed with one of my father’s customers, Mrs Hudson. My mother did not like it, but we could not go back,” Steadman tells me.

As a child, he showed little sign of rebellion or artistic talent. He was a choirboy and a Boy Scout, neither of which especially pleased his father, “a lovely fellow” whose experiences in the First World War had left him mistrustful of God and anything militaristic. Steadman liked to build model planes and hoped to become an aircraft engineer. After leaving Abergele Grammar School at 16, he was taken on as an apprentice by de Havilland Aircraft Company in Broughton, Flintshire. He learned technical drawing – circles and straight lines would later mark his art – but hated factory life, and quit within a year.

Unsure of what he wanted to do with his life, he took a job at Woolworths in Colwyn Bay, in north Wales. One day, while sweeping outside the entrance to the shop, his old headmaster walked past. “He was a vicious bastard, who would cane boys whenever he could,” Steadman says. “He sneered and said, ‘Look at you – you could have been something if you had stayed on at de Havilland. Now you are sweeping the streets in Colwyn Bay.’

“I was mortified. I should have said, ‘At least it’s honest work.’ Authority is the mask of violence – I believe that.”

His next job was as a tea boy at a small advertising company, where he saw in a brochure an advert for Percy V Bradshaw’s Press Art School that said: “You, too, can learn to draw and earn pounds.” The correspondence course cost £12 for 12 lessons and an extra £5 to study cartooning. That second part especially appealed to Steadman, whose father had introduced him to Giles cartoons years earlier.

His parents paid for the course, which he completed while doing his two years of national service as a radar operator in the RAF. “I would sit on my bed, drawing pictures of my boots,” he says. Soon, he was proficient enough to start sending off his work to regional newspapers, such as the Manchester Evening Chronicle, which published his first cartoon – about Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Suez crisis – in 1956.

After moving to London to find work, he was hired as a cartoonist for a group of newspapers distributed in the north of England. In the evenings, he took classes at East Ham Technical College, where the art teacher Leslie Richardson became his mentor.

“I wanted to learn to draw properly,” he says. “We would go to the museums of ­science and natural history and the Victoria and Albert, and draw for hours. That’s when art evolved for me into a fixation, or a conviction, or a compulsion.”

Who did he draw inspiration from? “They are all dead now,” he says, mentioning the French cartoonist André François and his British friend Ronald Searle, as well as the German artists George Grosz and Otto Dix, who were prominent members of the New Objectivity movement in 1920s Germany. His daughter Sadie chimes in: “Dix’s portrait of the journalist [Sylvia von Harden], with the monocle . . .” and Steadman nods.

In the early 1960s, at Richardson’s urging, Steadman studied further at the London College of Printing and Graphic Arts while pursuing a freelance career, publishing in Punch and Private Eye. He also started illustrating books. He takes down a couple of them from a shelf in his living room, including his first one, Fly Away Peter (1964), about a short-necked giraffe and a bird that cannot fly, and The Yellow Flowers, from 1968, about the children of immigrants in Islington, north London, a subject that seems even more relevant today. He reads a few pages aloud and says approvingly, “Isn’t that sweet?”

The artwork is tame by his later standards – these are children’s books – but all the while, his style was developing. As he drew with his William Mitchell 0565 steel-nib dipping pen and Snowdon 300-grams-per-square-metre paper, his work became edgier, more instinctive, and his confidence grew. He seldom felt the need to sketch out a picture before inking it. “I always say a mistake is just an opportunity to do something different.”

Among his peers and those who followed him, Steadman’s work has been recognised as groundbreaking. “It was all about the ­potency of his line,” says Martin Rowson, the cartoonist and writer, who regards Steadman as one of the most brilliant illustrators of the 20th and 21st centuries. “Very early on, Ralph found the courage not to care about the niceties of the line. It was so rough – like dirty sex, not airbrushed pornography. He’s a true artist.”

We are meant to be going for an early lunch at a pub, and Steadman’s wife, Anna, and Sadie are trying to hurry him along. But he keeps brushing them off, saying, “This is part of the story.”

In an adjoining sitting room, he picks up a black box that looks like a walkie-talkie and a smaller box with a button. He presses it and the larger box emits a loud fart sound. And then another, with a different pitch. He keeps pressing the button on the Fart Machine No 2 – Boom Box Blaster, a gift from a friend in the United States. Now he is laughing uncontrollably, his eyes watering, as he dances a little jig, poking out his bum. “You have to get one, it’s the best,” he says. “There’s nothing funnier than a fart.”

I’m not sure how his mother-in-law feels about that. When she came over to the house one recent Christmas, the fart machine was hidden underneath the couch where she sat, to the delight of the great-grandchildren – and Steadman.

 

***

 

We all squeeze into ­Anna’s car for the drive to the nearby Chequers Inn, which sits beside a pretty stream. Anna and Ralph, who have been together for 46 years, have been ­coming here since they bought their house in Loose in 1980. The pub recently hosted Steadman’s 80th birthday party, at which the festivities were enlivened by magic mushrooms (“brought by some Americans”) and fistfights between some inebriated guests. Hunter S Thompson would have approved.

“I once brought Hunter here,” Steadman says, as we sit down. “I said to the barman: ‘Give him a Chivas, double.’ So he does, and Hunter looks at him and says, ‘What’s that? A sample?’”

Steadman doesn’t usually drink in the day, but he allows himself a half-pint of Rockin Robin, a local ale.

Despite the disaster of the America’s Cup story, his partnership with Thompson flourished. Their best-known collaboration is “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, which was first published in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, and then as a book. That style of reporting and writing, with its fuzzy distinctions between non-fiction and fiction and its subjective focus, became a significant part of the New Journalism movement in the US, whose other practitioners included Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Joan Didion.

Steadman did not accompany Thompson on his drug-fuelled road trip to Las Vegas – he did the illustrations from London, after reading the manuscript. But they were together three years later, in 1974, when Rolling Stone sent them to Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), for the “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. After spending weeks in the city, and many thousands of dollars in expenses, Thompson decided that the fight wasn’t worth seeing and gave away his and Steadman’s tickets. On the day of the bout, he took a huge bag of marijuana from his hotel room and poured it into the swimming pool. “He put whiskey in a bucket by the pool and then dived in, swimming in the grass,” Steadman says.

It was gonzo taken to its extreme – Steadman thinks that the term means “unhinged”, after the Portuguese word for “hinge” – and beyond. Their article about one of the seminal sporting events of the 20th century was never printed. “It was the biggest fucked-up story in the history of journalism,” he says.

Even so, it did not do their careers much harm. “You could do a bit in those days, have some fun,” Steadman says. “Today, journalism has become more robotic. People don’t do things so experimentally, and news­papers have lost their idiosyncratic nature. The media is in a more controlled, restricted state – more like an assembly hall full of schoolchildren.”

In the US, he also covered the Watergate hearings, which confirmed his deep dislike for most politicians. He continued to savage them with his pen, drawing political cartoons for the New Statesman from 1976 to 1980. By the late 1980s, however,
his disillusionment with Margaret Thatcher’s Tories – and the money-obsessed British society that they had created – was so great that he resolved to stop drawing politicians altogether.

When he resumed in 1997, while covering the election campaign for this magazine, he refused to draw any politician’s face, only their legs. Today, he does the whole body, though not because his opinion of them has changed. If anything, it has sunk even lower. “Back in the Seventies, they were real politicians, even if they were crooked, like Nixon. Now it’s all fatuous,” he says.

He holds Nigel Farage in special contempt for his role in getting Britain out of the European Union, “our biggest mistake”. “He’s a bastard among them. He said he wants his life back [after the Brexit campaign]. Fine, but you’ve buggered it up for everyone else. We were part of something great. Now we are an offshore island.”

Are there any politicians he has admired? “Denis Healey. What a lovely man. A good man and a good politician,” he tells me. “A consummate human being.”

And of the current crop? “Owen Smith pissed me off. I like Hilary Benn. Chuka Umunna is interesting.”

Labour has “had it”, he says. “[Jeremy] Corbyn has a passive approach to leadership. I wish he would assert himself in a left-wing way. Do something for the workers.”

When I meet him, the US presidential election is still a few weeks away, and Steadman has faith that the American people will do the right thing. “Hillary [Clinton] will be all right. Trump is unthinkable. A thug and a molester. Who wants him?” he says.

In late November, I call him on the tele­phone and I ask what he thinks about President-Elect Trump. Steadman pauses and then says: “Where is Lee Harvey Oswald when you really need him?”

 

 

***

 

Steadman’s work may be searing, and his opinions strong, but in person he is warm-hearted, funny and generous. At the pub, he tips the staff on the way out even though I’ve already left a tip when paying the bill.

Back at the house, he insists on going into the garden to pick some apples for the New Statesman’s Gerry to take home. On a table in the living room, he keeps a Lamy fountain pen and a bottle of ink so he can write a dedication in the books that he gives away to visitors, his tongue out, flicking his wrist to send the black liquid splattering across the page.

“My mother always said, ‘I don’t want to be a bother.’ I like that. I’ve only ever been a bother to people doing my drawings,” he says. (The America’s Cup security guard and the marathon runners in Honolulu may dispute that.)

Asked if he has any regrets, he thinks for a moment and then asks for the name of a British-Scandinavian broadcaster. Sandi Toksvig? “Yes, that’s her. When I spoke to her once, I said: ‘Pity about the voice.’ She has a slightly masculine voice. That has always stayed with me. It was a very rude thing that I should never have said to her.”

The walls of his home are covered in his original art, which he resolved not to sell after being burned early in his career when his agent advised him to let Rolling Stone’s owner, Jann Wenner, buy some of the Fear and Loathing drawings for $75 apiece.

The largest artwork in his home is also the one that took him the longest: a one-third-size replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th-century mural The Last Supper, which Steadman painted on to his bedroom wall using egg-white paint. “I started in 1984 and it took me 18 months,” he says.

Below the painting, next to his side of the bed, is a pile of paperbacks that is as tall as a side table. Hunter S Thompson’s novel The Rum Diary is near the top of the stack. After Thompson shot himself in the head in 2005, Steadman flew to Colorado to help instal a monument that the two of them had agreed on in the 1970s – a 47-metre-tall silver “cannon” topped with a double-thumbed fist clutching a button of peyote, a cactus with psychoactive properties. Thompson’s ashes were fired out of the top. The actor Johnny Depp, a friend of Thompson and Steadman, picked up the bill.

Among the ornaments hanging from Steadman’s necklace – which also include a silver toothpick, an animal tooth and a silver-and-turquoise Navajo piece that he bought in 1973 – is a tiny clay head that Thompson gave to him.

“He told me, ‘Wear it Ralph: it will ward off evil spirits.’” Later, looking at a photo of Thompson in the living room, he says: “I miss him.”

Besides reading, Steadman enjoys watching television: the news in the morning and some light entertainment in the evening, such as Strictly Come Dancing. “I was quite interested in Judge Rinder [Robert Rinder, a contestant on the show]. He did a somersault.”

Yet the studio is still the place he feels most content. “It’s a mess at the moment,” Sadie says, before we go there.

“Most of the mess is your tidying up!” Steadman replies.

The studio is set away from the house and looks out over a field of apple trees. On the walk there, I spot a porcelain toilet that has been repurposed as a flowerpot. “It’s a beautiful toilet! It came out of my house,” Steadman says.

The studio, which has several rooms, is more clutter than mess, though it is true that there is paint splattered everywhere – on the walls, on the photocopier and the hairdryer. His large drawing table has a fresh sheet of paper on it, numerous bottles of Winsor & Newton ink, a tin of Caran d’Ache watercolour pencils, paintbrushes, nib pens, glue and scissors.

Besides the digital camera positioned over the table, it’s all low-tech. Steadman still works in the manner he did in the 1970s. “We live in such a self-contained electronic community now. People do things on the computer. There’s no wet ink any more.”

He’s not a technophobe, though. Around the corner, in a narrow office, is a desktop computer, which he uses to answer email and send digital copies of his work to publishers. He enjoys using Skype, because he can see the person he is talking to. But he has no interest in social media, which he views as enabling malevolence, or smartphones.

“I’m worried about the world for my grandkids. People spend all their time looking at their phones with their headphones on,” he says.

He prefers to be alive to the world and its creatures. “When I am in the pool, I listen to the birds. I blow my bird whistle and you can hear the birds calling.”

In his studio, he does not have to look far for inspiration. On the wall are pictures of the American comedian W C Fields and printouts of Dylan Thomas’s poem “Fern Hill” and Oscar Wilde’s “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young”. Behind his drawing desk is a mini-shrine to Picasso, who Steadman calls a “huge influence” – he once made a triptych called Gonzo Guernica – for his artistic genius and his work ethic. Picasso made art into his nineties.

Steadman’s legacy is assured, even if he has not received all of the accolades that some feel he deserves. “Ralph is not just a cartoonist, he’s an artist, and he’s been hugely influential,” says Dave Brown, the Independent’s political cartoonist. “But satirical artists don’t get the plaudits – you won’t see them winning the Turner Prize.”

Sometimes, when he’s working, Steadman breaks off to play music; a penny whistle, pan pipes and a ukulele are part of the clutter. But mostly he listens. He has a rack full of audio cassettes, a turntable and albums stored digitally.

On his computer, he clicks on iTunes and calls up a nine-minute rock song called “Weird and Twisted Nights”, which he wrote the lyrics for and recorded in the late 1970s. The track alludes to Thompson’s frightening habit of driving along the highway with the headlights off so the police couldn’t see him:

 

Drive your stake through a darkened heart

In a red Mercedes-Benz

The blackness hides a speeding trap

The savage beast pretends . . .

 

Steadman is the lead vocalist and has a surprisingly good, clear singing voice. Thompson contributes a single line, a gruff refrain that goes “It never really happened anyway”, before a saxophone solo by a session musician who Steadman asked to play “as if the devil has just entered the church”.

As the late-afternoon light filters through the window, Steadman leans back in his chair, lost in the music. When Thompson’s voice comes in, he smiles as he sings along: “It never really happened anyway . . .” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016