Show Hide image

Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

DAN BURN-FORTI FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

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