Ralph Steadman was born in 1936. He started as a cartoonist and through the years diversified into many fields of creativity. He has illustrated such classics as "Alice in Wonderland", "Treasure Island" and "Animal Farm".

His own books include the lives of Sigmund Freud and Leonardo da Vinci and "The Big I Am", the story of God. With American writer Hunter S. Thompson he collaborated in the birth of GONZO journalism, the definitive book in the genre being "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", which was made into a feature film. He is also a printmaker. His prints include a series of etchings on writers from William Shakespeare to William Burroughs.

In 1989 he wrote the libretto for an eco-oratorio called "Plague and the Moonflower" which has been performed in five cathedrals in the UK and was the subject of a BBC 2 film in 1994. He has traveled the world's vineyards and distilleries for Oddbins, which culminated in his two prize-winning books, "The Grapes of Ralph" and "Still Life With Bottle". He has an Honorary D. Litt from the University of Kent.

Gonzo the Birth

At the moment of my birth and before the umbilical cord was cut I laid my first solid bowel movement into the hand of a gentle nurse who delivered me into this world.

"Biologico impossibile!" gasped an astonished male orderly, Giuseppe Gonzaga, who had been present during my mother's titanic struggle. "Mama mia!" he exclaimed, "GONZO PURO!" which might have meant 'pure shit' or 'bad luck' as far as anybody knew if Giuseppe had not been an Italian medical student on an exchange visit from a small town 15 miles north of Mantua called GONZAGA. Guiseppe was from an aristocratic family. During the fourteenth century the GONZAGAS seized the town as the imperial powers in Italy began to fade. Luigi Gonzaga assumed sovereignty in 1328 and gave the town its name whilst his sons, inflamed by private revenge and saddle rash, took possession of Mantua with eight hundred foot soldiers and a mere snort of horsemen. The Gonzagas, tyrannical and proud, produced many celebrated offspring.

Ludovico GONZAGA was a poet in the sixteenth century. Caesar GONZAGA established the academy Degli'Invaghiti in 1565 and some of the family used their vast plundered wealth to found art galleries and museums of antiquity. They were fine people, the Whitneys of their day. Lucrezia, named after the Borgias' own impressive Comptesse, bared here sensitive soul in letters, and Louisa Maria married a couple of kings. Most impressive of all was GONZO GONZAGA, one of Italy's earliest operatic tenors, who claimed to have invented spaghetti when he fell hopelessly in love with a celebrated Jewish diva called Guiditta PASTA. It was in fact Marco Polo who had brought a sample of its characteristic effulgent gooeyness to Venice, from China, seven hundred years earlier, but GONZO claimed it as his own in a fit of amorous endorsement. His brilliant career was flawed when he discovered yodeling while touring in the mountainous region of Ticino between Italy and Switzerland. He insisted that opera's future lay in that direction. GONZO's yodeling Rigoleto finished his career and he died a tragic figure. He yodeled his last aria – the Hebrew's Chorus from Nabucco – single-handed. From the top of the Swan Mountain of Fiesole, over-looking Florence, he majestically yodeled himself to death. It was 3 o'clock on the morning of 15 May 1856 – but I digress.

I was referring specifically to 3 o'clock in the morning on 15 May 1936, when Guiseppe uttered the strange oath-like words, 'GONZO PURO', at my birth. Three hours later the Spanish Civil War broke out.

What I have told you is true and was probably the earliest manifestation of a Gonzotic event, years before its time. I went on from that very moment to fail miserably and forever in the watery eyes of those around me who viewed my act of willful excretion with utter disgust, as though I had committed the original sin. Mind you, I must say in all humility that it was a pretty damned original sin to commit in 1936 when Surrealism itself, in all its glory, was in full flood.

There is a time and place for everything, but not in that order, and my chosen style of self-expression, my DaDa DooDoo, so early in the game, hardly endeared me to those present. My dear mother apologized on my behalf, since I had not yet learned to speak, and forever after never wanted to make trouble, "I don't want to be a bother," she would say, and never was. She was sweet, gentle, generous, honest and blessed with the most trusting nature and a total acceptance of life's bitter lot. It was my mother who instilled in me a naïve trust in everyone and in that respect I discovered in my own time and in my own way the imperfections of humankind. Distrust was never learned, certainly not chosen. It was thrust upon me at an impressionable age as I stumbled from one failed try at life to another. I failed art at school. The same school, Abergele Grammar School (motto: QUALITY and EXCELLENCE), now has a Ralph Steadman Creative Suite in my honour. I proudly unveiled the plaque myself hardly two years ago.

"Hecky Pecky" was the strongest profanity my mother ever uttered to express her annoyance or her dismay. What can I do? Was my incessant question that dismayed her the most. I must have uttered it at least three times a day, particularly during school vacations, looking out of the window onto a wet backyard, the weeks and the puddles stretching out ahead. She raided the local stationery store for anything that might keep me occupied.

My father was funny, as sardonic as he was repetitive. He had his private collection of jokes which he learned during the First World War when time stood still. He was wounded three times. The third time would have been fatal had the bullet not passed through the leather wallet he kept in a pocket over his heart, and deflected through his shoulder. Apart from telling me he had been in the Cavalry until the coming of tanks, and that he used his sword to make toast and peel oranges, he never wanted to talk about it. Men in the trenches preserved a silent inner self and didn't take their socks off for three months, if they lived that long. When they did and were able to remove their socks, the skin came off too. My father tended to make such odd pronouncements sound like light-hearted banter but I knew they masked dark memories he wanted to forget. He had been a surveyor before the war though he would have preferred to have been a hands-on engineer, a car mechanic. After the war he got involved with a partner in the rag trade selling wooden goods (it must have been the socks). They were doing quite well considering the economic climate in a post-war land "fit for heroes" until his partner ran off with the profits. My father became a freelance commercial traveler – in search of his rotten partner, no doubt, "or why else would you want to be one?" he used to say fatalistically. He traveled in "ladies' knickers, coats and costumes", his own phrase, and he never really did well again as far as I could make out. Denied the chance to realize his earlier ambitions, he found that his heart just wasn't in knickers.

Nevertheless he maintained a businesslike appearance all his life – homburg hat, collar-stud shirts and black dress-boots, full-length combinations nd a draught backflap. He hated draughts. He aired everything twice before he wore it. He also married twice. I was told that his first wife died. My father never told me and never knew that I knew. He met my mother, a Welsh miner's daughter, during his travels, she worked in T.J. Hughes Department Store in Liverpool. His letters to her are from places all over the north of England, and are strangely addressed to her as either Gwennie Rogers or G. Rylands. Unless he had another secret, I presume they were both my mother since they all went to the same address in Johnstown, north Wales, or to the store. They married in 1928 and lived to celebrate their golden anniversary. A Victorian to end, my father said at the age of 87 that the only thing he had noticed about growing old was that the undertaker raised his hat to him. He died at the age of 92 beneath my painting of Leonardo's Last Supper (now renamed The Last Cuppa) on the guest bedroom wall. He had a cup of tea at his lips held by my mother saying, "Buck up, Dad. You can't refuse a cup of tea. You've never refused a cup of tea in your life." He only did so the once.

I went up to the room to stand with him in silence. I looked at him long and intensely, the way an artist looks at a sitter, but I didn't draw him. I photographed him instead, beneath the Last Supper. He looked so peaceful in the shuttered light. His head lay against a purple pillow. His mouth was open. It always was when he slept in an easy chair of an evening. He was sleeping. That is what I decided there and then. That is what he would have thought himself. I'm OK. Don't fuss. At his funeral he would have said the same. Don't fuss and don't hang about in the rain. Go home or catch your death. OK dad.

He is buried just three miles away from here in Marden, Kent, full length; my mother's ashes were placed just above him six years later. Don't make a fuss love, I'm with you now. It's the only piece of real estate they ever owned.

Pure Gonzo.

Gonzo is the essence of irony. You dare not take it seriously. You have to laugh.

Gonzo the Seed

Nobody I have read knows what GONZO is, was, or ever could be, not even Hunter, and if he doesn't know what it is, I do. I am the only one who does. Gonzo make you feel GOod rather than BAd, which is BANZO. Pursue BANZO if you must but don't blame me or even credit me or you will make me sick. GOnzo is GOod. BAnzo is BAd. It is a simple equation.

I have located the tenuous hint of gonzotic frenzy I was looking for inside the stylistic variations of my work. I have uncovered the print of a drawing, the footprint of my future, my nemesis. It bears the flaw of immature work, the bloodline. The figure of the woman shop assistant demonstrates the schizophrenic tendencies present in my drawings of the early sixties when I worked for Private Eye. I am expressing the state of my subconscious. My apparent desire to conform was the trick. This drawing is the birth of GONZO in my work – a dispassionate statement of fact intended to elicit uncomfortable laughter – its ruthless portrayal a gentle assassination of the subject in a spat of ink…I am a kind person but outwardly, I project a volatile disposition, a lonely soul at peace with the forces of huridomidomatomic slavery – What?… Don't write, Ralph.

But that was yesterday. Hopeful. Today cartoon imagery has been flogged to death. Electronic wizardry has devoured it, digested it and spat out the bits left stuck in its teeth. What is unacceptable in the world is served up as light entertainment in every living room in the land. Well good! What I used to do with a passion, foolishly and vainly imagining I would change the world for the better, I no longer tolerate in myself or anyone else. But draw, always draw – and WRITE!

There is a self-regulating mechanism inside everything (the GAIA principle). Violence is a reaction to helplessness. Helplessness is impotence.


Copyright © 2003-2014, Ralph Steadman. All Rights Reserved.