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Tuesday, August 25, 1998 Published at 11:40 GMT 12:40 UK


Fear and Loathing at the Book Festival

Ralph Steadman: Describes himself as "perverse and degraded"

Show: Ralph Steadman on Gonzo - the Art
Venue: Edinburgh Book Festival


[ image:  ]
Explaining "gonzo" is an impossible task and despite the title of his appearance Ralph Steadman hardly attempted it. He has returned to the subject after almost three decades but he knows an exact definition will remain elusive.

A film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and a rash of Hunter S Thompson biographies prove "gonzo" remains a crowd-puller - a subject of fascination, attraction and revulsion. Despite the unlikely timing of 11:30am on a Sunday morning, Steadman drew a virtually full house at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Steadman first met Thompson, then a young journalist working for a radical magazine, when they were sent to cover the Kentucky Derby together. The writer evidently saw something in the cartoonist he had failed to grasp in himself. Thompson took pleasure in pushing Steadman to the edge through psychotropic drugs and orchestrated mayhem.

Steadman remains ever grateful. He begins by reading Thompson's foreword to Gonzo - The Art. His old friend heaps abuse on insult, even comparing the artist to Hitler. Steadman clearly adores it. As he later says: "That's when I know he loves me."

Steadman equally relishes the role of the rebel, the old devil, who repeatedly describes himself as "perverse and degraded".


[ image: Visions of a distorted reality]
Visions of a distorted reality
His slide-show, a self-confessed wander down memory lane, offers few clues to the origins of this. He recalls his loathed headmaster who "instilled a desire in me to get back at society" but this hardly seems to account for the misanthropy Steadman claims.

His first job was in a bank and he is old enough to have done National Service. In his work, Steadman depicts working life as a conveyor belt of monotony and misery. Like most of his cartoons, it is a nightmare vision of distorted reality.

In his commentary, Steadman makes a rambling attempt to explain and celebrate his inner demons. He is an entertaining if laconic speaker. You get the impression he could talk about himself for hours and most of the audience would probably have been happy to sit and listen to him.

Steadman's current work includes a series of drawings of politicians' legs, which first appeared in The New Statesman. When he first decide he would no longer draw their faces, he created an exploding Margaret Thatcher, who remains clearly identifiable from her hem-line and stockings. Some of the later ones are less obvious, but all express his growing revulsion about the current state of democracy.

Steadman also draws the catalogue for the wine merchants Oddbins, and has designed a stamp at the request of the Royal Mail. The latter project seems something of a departure, bringing the outsider into the role of official court jester. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Post Office got nervous when they saw the final design and decided not to issue it, although they have asked him to have another go.

The key difference between Steadman and other '60s counter-culture heroes such as Thompson and Ken Kesey is that he keeps producing valuable work. He appears far less damaged from his excesses. He looks healthy and happy and lives in the country where he draws and cooks on his Aga.

But it is the tales of depravity the audience want and Steadman is only too happy to give it to them. He was close to Thompson when the writer was wild and brilliant and so just seeing him is "gonzo" personified.

The short question and answer session quickly takes Steadman back to his relationship with Thompson. He recalls the time the political editor of Rolling Stone magazine nearly shot him while trying to produce art by blasting ink jars with a high-calibre rifle. He says this is the only time he has ever seen Thompson realise he is out-of-control.

But does he think Thompson is washed up or could he still produce another significant work? Steadman is guarded, yet he won't write off his partner. "I still think he has the ability to do something," is all he eventually says.
Matthew Grant




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Ralph Steadman unofficial site

Ralph Steadman: gonzo caricaturist


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