As the ink-spattered architect of Gonzo journalism and Hunter S Thompson’s co-conspirator, Steadman’s inimitable illustration style is known the world over. Here he talks bomb-shelter dining, Donald Trump and the unceasing march of time over a Turkish lunch.
“My earliest memories are of Blitz food in an Anderson [air raid] shelter, the kind of food that my mother prepared. It wasn’t bad, just quickly cooked and put in a container so that we could go down and wait for the bombs to finish dropping. One of my most vivid memories is my mother picking me up as a baby and being taken down in the middle of the night.
At 16 I went to technical college in Wrexham and there I had to do technical drawing, which is where I picked up the straight lines and circles, which I still use in my work. When I was 17 my late brother-in-law Ron got me a job in the stock room at Woolworths in Colwyn Bay. One day, my old headmaster, who I couldn’t stand, caught me clearing up outside the store. ‘Look at you,’ he said, ‘sweeping the streets’. He was a wicked bastard. I thought I’d become a manager [at Woolworths] but there was another under-manager there who was mean. We ended up fighting in the stock room. I can’t remember why but it’s the only tussle I’ve ever been in and I had to leave.
I thought that because I built model aeroplanes I could try and get in the raf, or, as I used to call it, the ‘Raff’. I remember being told off about that. I went and became a radar operator, where they taught me how to watch television. I had nine months left before I had to go on military service so I got a job as tea boy in an advertising agency. McConnells it was called. The studio manager was Mr Fiddler. He didn’t fiddle but he used to draw. While I was working there I saw an advert that said, ‘You too can learn to draw and earn pounds’. It was for a Percy V Bradshaw Press Art School course, where for £13 you get 12 lessons in how to draw. You could have also another six lessons on how to be a cartoonist.
I thought it could be a career and that I’d get a job. I also sent drawings to the Leicester Mercury, The Aberdeen Press and Journal, and the Manchester Evening Chronicle. The first cartoon I had published was for the Manchester Evening Chronicle in 1955. It was of a lock-keeper, sitting on a deckchair, legs crossed. He’s just saying, ‘Nasser, who’s he?’ Nasa was big at the time, you know. I got an agent. I also started drawing down-and-outs. I remember one with a park-keeper who was lifting him on the bench and putting him in the bin. It was an attempt at humour.
I try and help the younger cartoonists. I remember once I went to Turkey to be on a judging panel for a cartoonist-of-the-year award. [But] I’ve always said that awards are the badges of mediocrity. I say to them, ‘You’ve got to see some wet ink.’ Most of the things in this century are done online and are so lacking in a sense of being there or liveness.
My first international assignment was to cover the Kentucky Derby in 1970. I saw Hunter S Thompson for the first time in the press room and he said, ‘They said you were weird but not that weird.’ I was intrigued – curious about him. He once invited me to meet his pals and said, ‘By the way Ralph, don’t do any of the filthy scribbling.’ Americans don’t have a tradition of a William Hogarth and James Gillray and people like that – and so me drawing somebody is a kind of insult. They don’t see it as just a bit of fun, you know; they take it personally.
I still dabble in politics but in an impartial way. I’ve done – what’s her name – Theresa [May]. I’ve drawn Trump as ‘Trumplestiltskin’. I’ve also done him fouling as a baby. I think that’s an apt image. He’s a ghoulish man, isn’t he? He’s probably the worst they’ve ever had.
For my ‘last meal’ I’d be with Anna [his wife] and my daughters, the whole family. But I don’t want to start talking about that. My father said the only thing he knew about growing old – this was when he was 87 – was that the undertaker now raised his hat to [greet] him. We’re all getting older.”
Born in Cheshire in 1936 and raised in North Wales, artist Ralph Steadman’s visceral cartoons have appeared in periodicals for the past 60 years. He rose to prominence in the 1970s for the ghoulish images accompanying the stories of Hunter S Thompson in Rolling Stone and novels including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Curse of Lono. He has since sketched for newspapers, novels and even wine-company catalogues, and published a retinue of books (the latest of which is called Critical Critters and is available from Bloomsbury).
“I’m a reticent cook,” he admits. “I do eggs, you know, boiling an egg. People ask me, ‘Can you boil an egg?’ and I say ‘Yes, probably’.”
Founded 32 years ago by the late Mehmet “George” Özel, Özgür has been run by his nephew Mustafa Özel for the past 21 years and specialises in traditional Turkish fare. Steadman has been visiting the 50-cover restaurant in Tenterden for the past three decades. He used to favour a spot in the far left corner as you enter but has since “graduated” to a berth on the right.
126 High Street, Tenterden, Kent ozgurturkishrestaurant.co.uk
Hummus, yaprak dolmasi (stuffed vine leaves), tabbouleh, bakla salatasi (broad beans with dill, garlic, vinegar and mint) and pancar tarator (beetroot with garlic and olive oil).
Grilled halloumi, kofte, sautéed liver, falafel, fried whitebait and muska borek (filo pastry with cheese, egg and parsley).
Baklava and vanilla ice cream.
Efes beer and a sweet Turkish coffee.