From the TCJ Archives

Ralph Steadman: Into the Gentle Darkness


STEADMAN: The next time I went to a convention was 1976, with John Dean of all people. Hunter could never understand my relationship with John Dean.

GROTH: You seemed fond of him in the essay I read.

STEADMAN: Yeah, I liked him. A nice guy. He was very kind to me, and so was [his wife] Mo Dean. I went and stayed with them and I did all the drawings at their house in Beverly Hills. He seemed to me to be the only one of the Watergate inner circle with a conscience. It seems like it, yeah. The problem is he has a photographic memory and couldn’t lie. I guess he could lie, but he found it difficult. After a while he could remember things all too clearly. If you just have a vague memory like me, you could just put something in and wouldn’t feel as if you were lying. Well, wouldn’t it be easier to lie with a photographic memory because — I don’t think so. I think the problem was that it was all too lucid in his mind. Everything he said, if he was changing the story, it was compounded in his mind, the deceit, and if you have a conscience — that’s what makes the difference. He realized that he was going to get in deeper, so to save his neck, I think, he decided to come clean because he had all the facts, all the figures; he had papers; he’d been taking them home for months before it all blew up. He’d be copying stuff and hiding it at home under the water tank in the attic. Before he testified, he had to be very careful with that stuff. He had that fear of being put out. He rang Mo and told her, “Get rid of that stuff.” She knew what he meant. She had to shred it all. If he’d been caught with the stuff, he’d have been indicted for stealing government papers or whatever. It was a decision he had to make. As he said, blind ambition made him do what he did. Just like all the other young men in Watergate, he went along with it because it was a good life. He said, “I was having a fantastic time — booze, women, fast jets all over the world. So, whatever was OK at the top, we figured that was OK because that was matters of state.” That’s how Hitler operated, really.

GROTH: Do you think your American experience in collaboration with Thompson signaled a turning point in your artistic development?

STEADMAN: Yeah. If there is an artistic development, then it was in the ‘70s. I found myself, and I developed arrogance for my own work: “I don’t have to look at anyone else’s work; I’m doing my own work.” There’s something I wanted to say, which has just come to mind now, and that is if I have to make a living as a political cartoonist, I wouldn’t be very good at it, because I never did that stuff in the ‘70s to make a living. I almost did it as a cause.

Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon at the Miami Republican convention, 1972.
Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon at the Miami Republican convention, 1972.

There’s a difference. It was not a business. I was thinking of that after you left [last night] — you were going on about this political cartoon business and “why are you giving it up.” It would have to be the right reason again for doing it. It’s not that I’m giving up; I just think there’s a change coming and I’m curious to know what it is. I’d like to go that way, and instead of fighting it and saying, “No, I’m a political cartoonist and therefore I must do political cartoons,” I don’t feel the need to do them at the moment, whereas there was time when I genuinely felt I must do them. That’s the difference, really. What’s the point of fighting it? If all I was doing was bad drawings of political figures, I wouldn’t see the point of it — there are tons of those around. We don’t need any more; the world’s lousy with people like that. So I’d rather not do it, and preserve that part of me which is the objective part for something else, so that it can be objective. So that what one goes into has some sort of rhyme and reason to it. Whether it’s going to be funny I don’t know — humor or pathos, profundity, or whatever. We change in different ways; we cannot help it. It’s nothing to do with selling out. It’s a fundamental change in an artist; they change directions.

GROTH: How much control do you think you have over that?

STEADMAN: I don’t think you have any control over it, unless you’re determined to go down a particular path and simply day-after-day make a positive stance. I’ve never really done this, but I’ve thought of doing it, spending a specific time daily, drop everything else, and say, “OK, it’s sabbatical time.” I don’t mean to go off and sit in the sun; I mean, to become a painter: go into the studio every day — and I mean every day — and paint. And whatever you paint, that’s part of this sabbatical thing. It’s about the only way you’ll ever find out about your change of direction. So I have to do that. But at the moment there’s all these bloody things I’m doing — films, etc. So I want to get this done and do it. Maybe if I have to sell this house — because Anna [Steadman’s wife] would want to do that more than anything. I’d be happy to leave here and not hold it back and find out what there may be there. We’ve got this one life and it goes ticking by, and you think, “Jesus! There may be something there; I’ll never find out unless I try it.” It’s no good to dabble: you’ve got to settle down to it. There’s drawing ability there now, and even painting ability — all those things are there in the technical sense. Although I’ve never been much of a technician, I’ve always found that if I need to pull it out of the bag I could probably do it.

I’ve got to do a set of panels, eight foot by five foot, for a theater in London. They’ve asked me to do it because they think I can. It’s a new theater — it was destroyed by fire — called the Tricycle Theater, in Kilburn in West London. It’s kind of a radical theater group, but I did a drawing for them that they made into a print. It’s called “An Audience of First Nighters and the First Time Theater Goer.” The first nighters are all the critics and they’re sitting in the audience bored, but the one guy who’s never been before is electrified; the others are all blasé. I think I said something at the bottom like, “Theater is for the dreamers, those without ideas, or anyone else who doesn’t know how to entertain themselves.” It’s like a Philistine’s quote — I love doing that, going the other way, playing devil’s advocate, just saying nasty Philistine things. I never know where some of the bullshit comes from in the arts, so it’s nice to dig in and play with it.

GROTH: Does it worry you that these Philistine quotes might be taken to be representative of your own views?

STEADMAN: No, because they’re so blatant. I think, “Fuck it. If you’re that stupid, then go ahead and believe it.”

GROTH: You said you’ve become restless for something and want to go on to something else, but you have no control over it I assume if you started doing something that you thought wasn’t living up to your potential you wouldn’t tolerate that for very long.

STEADMAN: No, I wouldn’t just change to change things. I think I will have to continue with the painting. I’d have to treat my sabbatical like something official. I have to give it some cogent form, some sense of purpose, and the only sense of purpose I can give it is to say, “It’s my sabbatical; I’m dropping the other, not because I can’t do it — whatever it is I can’t do — I’m doing this for 12 months; I’m in a monastery.” Then at the end of 12 months, one reviews it. You see whether it continues to be a sabbatical or whether you can survive on it. That’s the other problem: you’ve got to make some kind of money somehow. It’s ghastly, which is why I may sell this house. If we could get enough money from this place, we could live in some small, modest little place.

GROTH: Would it be easy to sell this?

STEADMAN: I don’t know. Like you said, who would live in a place like this? Would it be a normal family, or —

GROTH: I would, but I couldn’t afford it.

STEADMAN: No, that’s right! But, you’d really enjoy it here; you could even have your offices here.

So, I was just saying that the thing with John Dean was an interesting experience because I’d really gone for him and all the others, MacGruder and all the Watergate crowd. I thought, “Jesus! These creepy little bastards.” Then I met John and found he was OK — he has a sense of humor and he’s a nice guy. And I realized it’s nothing to do with seeing the error of your ways; it was simply that he realized he was going to get deeper and deeper into something — he was really getting to feel unpleasant about it. If it had remained a reasonable kind of deviousness, I suppose he would have continued like any of the others if they were getting away with it. I’m sure they would. I’m not saying that he suddenly became a saint, but I think he decided to save his neck and come clean, which he did. It was a tough thing to have to do because it really is breaking your whole world apart, blowing it wide open, and you know you’re going down, so you may as well try and get out as honorably as possible. Whether it was at the expense of his friends, I don’t know.

GROTH: Most of your political cartoons seem to be about the States.

STEADMAN: Well, a whole lot of my English stuff is in Kent University. There’s over 350 major works there.

GROTH: Why hasn’t that been collected?

STEADMAN: I don’t know whether it’s worth it. It’s so dead. It’s about James Callahan and Harold Wilson. OK, it might be interesting, but in a funny sort of way it doesn’t have half the potency of American politics. Not this last 20 years: pretty boring stuff, and it got particularly boring under Callahan. Thatcher’s been interesting and though I’ve done some about her and hated her and so forth, it’s more Gerry Scarfe’s kind of scene. I just feel it’s too close to home. I don’t see through a glass darkly over here the same way. I prefer to be a stranger in a strange land, and that’s what I find about America; it’s much headier stuff. I was looking for something that was more exciting, that would stimulate me as an artist. I’m not really a political commentator. I make comments which are based on political things, but I’m not a James Reston or William F. Buckley. I’m trying to think of someone else who’s as bad [Laughter].

GROTH: Have you ever done a cartoon of Buckley?

STEADMAN: Actually, I didn’t do one of him, but I did a caricature that was a drawing of a chat show about obscenity, and I’ve got this guy in a horrible face and the obscenity he’s saying is “William F. Buckley, Jr.” That’s his obscenity.

GROTH: Prior to your affiliation with Thompson, did you have a strong political bent?

STEADMAN: Only left wing, not suicidal. I generally felt the Left was more fair-minded. It was trying to provide for the have-nots. That was nice, that politics was that simplistic.

GROTH: So how did they change after that? How have they changed?

STEADMAN: I suddenly realized that a lot of the people I used to think must be OK because they were left wing were self-serving sons of bitches who were just using the platform for their own ends somehow! And they weren’t really interested in anything. There wasn’t much warmth anywhere. I didn’t feel particularly that I had anything in common with them. I felt somehow these people were scrubbing around and would continue to scrub around and would prefer to scrub around, and then pull everything down with it. There didn’t seem to be any aspirations going on in it that appealed to me, and that was an intuitive feeling; it wasn’t one that I could reason out. Most feelings for an artist are intuitive. It’s his or her big excuse to do almost inexplicable things that are called intuitive images; it’s in there somewhere to pull out. I always wanted to try to make a point or communicate so that when somebody looks at a drawing they actually understand what I’m trying to say.

So, I stopped believing in the honesty of socialism, or at least in the parishioners of socialism. There was dishonesty there because, as I realized, they were changing their policies to try to win votes. It wasn’t a pure sort of crusade. I was naive enough to believe that there were people in the world who were genuinely trying to establish a way of life that was part of the pure crusade.

GROTH: You had the blinders taken off.

STEADMAN: Yes, I think so.

GROTH: Do you still believe in the socialist ideals?

STEADMAN: Well, basically. It’s like Christianity, isn’t it? Maybe I’m a religious freak somehow and I’m not political at all. The idea that we should take care of things like health and that society should take care of things like an education, all these things I agree with — and that it should be for everyone with no privilege: if one can’t have it, then neither can the other. At one time, I used to believe that. I say, “Used to.” I still, in a sense, do. Also, I feel that choice is part of it. If somebody can afford to pay for health, then they should be allowed to do so, but it should also help those who can’t afford it. It shouldn’t be a business. The money they can get from people that prefer to pay for hospital treatment should go towards making our health services healthier. That would be in my way of thinking the next best thing to good socialism. It’s a means to an end.


GROTH: Do you meet with some resistance from publishers because you don’t draw in an acceptably commercial style?

STEADMAN: Well, in a funny sort of way, it’s beginning to be accepted. It’s because I do it; therefore, it’s done like this. But it’s taken them 30 years to get anywhere near it. Still, I have the problems of talking to people about things, about why I want to do it that way and not another way. The argument usually put to me is this problem of commercial viability. Well, I appreciate they’re in business, and I’m not there bankrupt them.

GROTH: I assume one of your problems would be that you’re difficult to pigeonhole. In other words, you can do political cartooning for a while, then you can illustrate Alice in Wonderland, then you could write and illustrate a children’s book.

STEADMAN: And then I write an operetta.

GROTH: Right.

STEADMAN: And get a standing ovation. How about that? I’m most proud of that: to write an operetta that gets music put to it.

GROTH: Now this was fairly recent, right?

STEADMAN: Yeah. This was very recent.

Inspector Mouse, written by Bernard Stone, 1980.
Inspector Mouse, written by Bernard Stone, 1980.

GROTH: I think you’ve done this between the last time I interviewed you and now, so can you explain how this came about and what this is all about?

STEADMAN: I was asked first of all to do the poster for the Exeter Festival. Exeter’s in Devon on the way — Cornwall — a lot of people would know where Cornwall was. I was asked to do the poster for them. I went down to Exeter and looked around and saw the cathedral, a beautiful Gothic cathedral, gorgeous sort of Gothic figures at the front of it all carved in stone, some of them completely weatherworn but fascinating because of it. And I was then sort of asked over lunch whether I would even consider getting more involved in the festival as, say, artist in residence. So, I said, “What would that entail?” “Well, just being here, and perhaps go to the art school and talking to the students. Perhaps thinking of something for exhibition.” I said, “Yeah, that’s nice.” All these things were nice. I thought, “Yeah, great, let’s do that.” So then he — this is Richard Gregson Williams, the festival director — said, “Would you be interested in collaborating with someone on something?” So I said, “Like what?” He said, “I have a friend — he’s a composer — Richard Harvey.” He’s just done music for Game, Set and Match, which is a television serial you might have heard of over there with Ian Holm playing the part of a spy in it. Anyway, he’d done that and various other things, for Queen and Country, I think he’s done music for that, various other television things. So he’s a quite practiced composer in using a great number of orchestra people. So I said, “Well, it sounds interesting.” And he said, “Also, his friend John Williams would like to get involved.” John Williams is a guitarist of whom you must have heard, like Julian Bream. There’s a few of them — Segovia. Great classical guitarists. So I said, “It’s a wonderful idea.”

So we got together and discussed what we would do. The general opinion was with Richard Gregson Williams; he said, “I would like something that expressed the 12 Stations of the Cross for the church.” I thought, “Well, that’s a bit stodgily religious.” So I said, “If we could come up with some aspirational idea that could move people to laughter or to tears — move them one way; if you can’t make them laugh, make them cry — it would be better somehow. Something that would inspire Richard to write music that he’d feel proud of, and John to play music that he’d love to play, rather than, “Oh, it’s just a collaboration, so that’s it; who’s going to write it?” I said, “I’ll think about it and see what I can come up with.” I was thinking of this last 10 years of our millennium, the last 10 years of a thousand years that we’re just about to enter. It occurred to me in Egypt in December, and I began to think about the beginning of civilization. I was taking in these great variables, these huge sweeps of thought, and then I saw an article about a new book that is coming out called In Search of Amazon Flowers by Margaret Mee, and one of the inscriptions in there was of a flower, an Amazon moon flower. It only blossoms once a year in the moonlight and it dies with the coming of the dawn. I thought, “What a fantastically symbolic idea.” So then I thought of all the different things along the Nile when I was in Egypt, of the plague and the extraordinary expanse of the Nile — the quiet, silent, smooth black sheen of moving splendor, this black water. And underneath, I realized, there’d be carnivores in herds, people continually fighting, eating each other, that sort of idea: in spite of its smooth black sheen, beneath it would be this incredible mortal struggle going on for survival. All those images came into this thing, and so I then invented the Plague Demon, and the Plague Demon is all that is bad in us and all that is wrong with the world generally — human nature and all the pollution and general negative side of life — who sees the moon flower, falls in love with it, but realizes he’ll never see it again unless he learns to love life. Richard Gregson Williams said to me, “Please don’t give us a hopeless ending that’ll send everyone out in tears, as it were. Can you give us some hope at the end?” So I wrote this thing over in a sort of partly blank verse, partly prose and, in many ways rhyming stanzas. It’s very [T. S.] Eliotonian, if I might be so bold, in its style. And I think it is actually moving — I mean, I’ve heard it, and I’ve seen it. In fact, it moved a lot of people. We had a standing ovation for it, for the music, the combination of music, Ian Holm the actor reading the words, the Wells Cathedral choir singing my words, opera singers singing other parts of the thing. It was such a production: gorgeous organ music coming through, huge timpani drums, trumpets and flutes, and John Williams on guitar, and it was just an incredible experience. And the lighting: we lit the whole church green; it looked like a rain forest.

GROTH: Did you art direct it as well?

STEADMAN: I went through the whole thing with the lighting people and I gave them a drawing of the inside church, sort of diagrammatic drawing, but nevertheless to show the configuration. There’s a circular screen which would be the moon, and also serve as my back-projected image screen, so that I could back-project these images 20 foot high in the nave of the cathedral, and the Plague Demon was a 10-foot high stilt-walker. And he had this black costume on and a head with two horns and red eyes going on and off, and I built this thing out of plaster. I had one horn larger than the other, and it looks quite hideous, actually, but not Hammer movie-type hideous, but as an ominous presence. He walks through the crowd. He walks right through the audience 10-foot high, and this terrific music, and Ian Holm the actor reading out, “Plun! Plun! Plunder! Plunder deep inside the soul!” He goes on with a tremendous power in his voice. He made a real Shakespearean job of it. It was fascinating. I thought, “Gee, that’s just wonderful to see what you can do translated through all these people.” It gives you a great kick, and you realize the power of it if you find the right medium for your ideas; it can so augment everything. It’s hard to say, you know.

GROTH: I’d like to ask you about other projects you’ve taken on. What prompted you to illustrate Treasure Island?

STEADMAN: Greed; I needed a new car. No, it’s just another one of those ploys of avarice, acquisitiveness. I think I said in the introduction that there really wasn’t a decent person in the whole book; they were all after the gold. It was hardly a spiritual adventure, was it? It was just a wonderful yarn of greed and plunder and deceit.

GROTH: Had you read it as a kid?

STEADMAN: That’s one of the few I had had as a boy.

GROTH: How do you go about doing a project like that? Do you talk to a publisher first and find out if someone’s interested in publishing an illustrated version, or do you just do it and then hope to find a publisher?

STEADMAN: I was asked by Simon Scott, who was the editor then at Harrap Books, if I would like to do it, and I said, “Well, it sounds interesting.” He said, “What would you do it for?” I said, “Well, I need a new car’,’ and he said, “OK. I’ll give you a new car.” [laughter] I mean, that was the only reason I could do it, really. I can’t do it for nothing because it required a lot. At first they wanted 12 drawings, and then it ended up to be 30-odd drawings in there.

GROTH: Oh, yeah. At least.

STEADMAN: So I really got into it and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was such a gutsy kind of thing. Robert Louis Stevenson was staying with his nephew. He wasn’t well. He was in bed a lot, and he wrote this chapter by chapter and was brought down from his bed to sit in front of a fire and read the next chapter to the family. Can you imagine how exciting that must have been as a boy to wait for the next chapter of this gorgeous, juicy, thrilling yarn? Must have been a wonderful experience. And it was apparently serialized at first, its first appearance in print, so you can imagine how it developed on that basis, just as a lot of Dickens developed on that basis, in episodes; that’s why they’re so long—Dickens books are so long because they wanted more; public demand kept it going.

GROTH: Can you tell me what got you involved in children’s books? You’ve written and drawn two, and illustrated three by Bernard Stone, that I know of.

STEADMAN: The first book I got published was a children’s book back in 1960. There you are. It was a book called The Big, Grand Flyaway Peter, and it was written by Frank Dickens, who is a strip cartoonist for the Evening Standard in London. He’s still working on it, a strip called Bristow, and he wrote this little story, a very funny little story about the giraffe with a short neck and the bird that could not fly. He ended up flying and he gave up having a long neck.

That was my first, and then a chap who became a friend — he’s still a friend of 30 years now: Dimitri Sejanski, who was one of Tito’s partisans during the war — became a children’s book publisher and saw my little book — or our little book, Frank’s and mine — and he said he thinks I am the man to draw his lion. He did a thing called The Big Squirrel and the Little Rhinoceros, and so I did that for him and then I did several for him during the ‘60s, and I guess I kept on doing them. There were quite a lot of them. I did one called The Little Red Computer, which is my own story, about a computer that can’t do sums and was very bad in computer school. It was painted red to hide its embarrassment, and it really was a poetic computer and it had little flowers growing on the top of its head. When they get to the exam stage, they all pass the exam except for the little red computer. He’s always put in the corner, and he dreams of things outside. He dreams of the moon in the most romantic way possible. So, he’s a poet computer, and he’s eventually thrown out into the junkyard, and things grow up around him, and it’s quite nice for a while: the rain plays little tunes on his tin body, and the birds sing around him. He’s quite happy there, and the flowers grow big around his head and so forth. But then one day men come with a sign they put up that says “Rocket Site.” They start clearing the land, and they come across this little computer, and one says, “My God, it’s a type YK567892. Lets see if it works.” So they take it to the scientist who feeds in some information, and there’s sort of a squeak, and there’s sort of a rumble and the poor little computer says, “I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to 2 + 2, but I do know what’s beyond the seventh heaven ... ” and then he goes into a poetic description on how to get to the moon the pretty way. They take him with them, and the countdown is the first time the numbers mean anything to the little red computer because they mean the beginning of an adventure to outer space. That’s the end of that.

And then I did a sequel to it, which was the little red computer on the moon, and it’s called Flowers for the Moon. They came out only in Switzerland. No one would publish them anywhere; Americans said they wouldn’t publish it because it would make fun of their rocket program — that’s what I was told by Dimitri, who tried to sell it. They said they were worried because they were taking their space program rather seriously, and this was not good for children to have such things made fun of, the scientific side of it all. They were very pretty, really. One of these days I’ll show you those; I’ve got copies of them. So that’s how I got into children’s books. I’ve got a couple out at the moment, one called That’s My Dad, and the other called No Room to Swing a Cat.

GROTH: Right. I read That’s My Dad.

STEADMAN: That’s just a simple little thing for kids. It’s quite nice because it’s about kids and their awareness of parts of the human being.

GROTH: Didn’t you write Two Donkeys and a Bridge?

STEADMAN: Oh, yeah. I did that one. That’s really in a sense about the Berlin Wall. Two boys and two donkeys live on either side of a river and one day they decide to ask their fathers to build them a bridge so that they can play. The bridge is built, two villages meet and enjoy. Then one night, turnips are stolen from one side. Suspicion erupts and fights break out. A barbed wire fence is erected.

My favorite of those is the hunchback mouse, Quasimodo Mouse.

GROTH: Oh, yeah.

STEADMAN: I think that’s my favorite.

GROTH: Well, Two Donkeys and a Bridge has a wonderfully resonant ending, especially for children.

STEADMAN: I like that, too. That’s a twist in the tale, the donkey thinking, “Good, I can have another one of those turnips.”

GROTH: I thought that was terrific because, of course, the whole bloated conflict began because of this misunderstanding caused by the donkey, who was oblivious to the consequences of his own innocent actions.

STEADMAN: It was the donkey all along that just went and had a turnip; it wasn’t the people who stole anything from the other side; it was a donkey who just wanted a turnip. He didn’t mean anything bad by it, but then up goes a kind of barbed wire wall between the two little lads who want to play. They can’t understand the problem either. So it is really about that — suspicion. So it could be Russia and America; it could be England and Ireland. Anywhere, really.


Nancy and Ronald Reagan c. 1983.
Nancy and Ronald Reagan c. 1983.

GROTH: Let me ask you this: with regards to your political cartoons, do you hope to actually change people or convert people?

STEADMAN: That begs the question, “What do you want to convert them to?”

STEADMAN: …and I don’t particularly want to convert them to anything. I just like them to think and — I don’t know. I’m looking for a little bit of compassion out of people. People are getting harder and harder; I don’t think they’re getting easier to be with, a bit thoughtless. And while we’re made aware of the suffering going on in the world, we don’t do much about it still, despite the enormous efforts that even the Pop world have made to try and change things. Somehow there are still those sons of bitches out there who continue to grab everything at the expense of everyone else.

GROTH: When you do a particularly savage portrait of Nixon or Reagan I get the impression that you’re at least trying to convert people away from the ideology they represent.

STEADMAN: I was trying to do that, but I wonder if all that does is help them. At the moment I’m working on a series of Paranoids of my idea of the British cabinet of ministers called “Cabinet of the Mind.” It’s trying to do a series of portraits of people using collage and the Polaroid camera to create realistic alternatives that we could perhaps then feed into a computer and get some answers out of rather than pay homage, as I would be doing, to Maggie Thatcher and her brood, by drawing them and giving them the benefit of my attention. I’ve also written this little manifesto about why we should start ignoring politicians. I think not doing something about somebody is another kind of satire. It’s a kind of irritant for a politician to find he’s being ignored. In fact, it’s desperate; it’s the biggest thump to his ego that you can imagine. And I felt after looking at some of the drawings I’d done — I thought, “Shit, all I’m doing is giving them the benefit of strength and power; I’m acknowledging their strength and power by drawing them in awesome ways.” The more it draws out of me, the more it reassures the victim that he’s being noticed and his presence is felt. I thought maybe I should reverse that and invent my own politicians and they’re the people I want in power and I don’t recognize anyone else.

GROTH: Do you think you can change anything without confronting it directly though?

STEADMAN: Well, certainly. It’s like non-violent resistance, that sort of Gandhi idea. This is what I really want: I want cartoonists the world over, every cartoonist in the world, to ignore politicians for at least 12 months, just as a test, a year of non-political cartooning. And then others can follow suit: writers won’t write about politicians — so that all political writers, all media people that work in politics, just change and do something about beekeepers, or anything, go to the world that we actually live in and comment on the world that we actually live in. It would become almost like a pastoral year. We’d go back into life and look at life — and not politicians. Because, unfortunately, those sons of bitches have become everything that obsesses our waking hours. We can’t think of anything without thinking of politicians.

GROTH: Do you make a distinction between good politicians and bad?

STEADMAN: Not at the moment. The best is to weed them out, because you can’t give any of them the benefit of the doubt right at this moment. Now I know it’s said, “If you don’t vote for them, there’s always someone worse to take their place,” Hitler or somebody. But that’s what they want us to believe; that’s always seemed to have been the case in the past, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be that way in the future. It doesn’t mean that the wheels of administration suddenly grind to a halt, because things have to go on. But I’m trying to reduce the level of attention paid to these people so they really have to do it in a more selfless way, so they’re not doing it also to build their egos and fulfill these long self-ambitions to be a great man and to be watched just going to Russia to sign peace treaties and get a Nobel Peace Prize. There’re fairly minimal things that politicians do when there are people doing so much more in quieter situations, like in hospitals and homes for old people, and people dealing with handicapped children. They’re the people that are really making life tick, giving their extraordinary efforts, sacrificing a lot. There’s where the Nobel Peace Prize should be given, and not to these bloody politicians.

GROTH: What is your basic quarrel with politicians in general?

STEADMAN: I think they don’t realize results of their actions, like the bombing of Hanoi for instance, which I know is going back, but things of that kind. Reagan’s support for the Contras, and the use of the CIA, for instance, in American politics. They don’t realize how much deep suffering they cause, for them it’s just the signing of a piece of paper or the acknowledgement of something in their office. I find those actions completely reprehensible. They’re really kind of like murderers in a way, but quite legitimate ones.

GROTH: Would you describe yourself as leftist?

STEADMAN: I suppose so. I don’t like that. I’d rather be non-partisan, frankly. I’ve met some pretty ghastly leftist people, too.

GROTH: Would you describe yourself as socialist?

STEADMAN: In a way that one might consider oneself to be some kind of Christian. You’d like to think you could help when you could and you wouldn’t do anyone a disservice knowingly. It’s a fairly moral outlook I hoped I’d had. But I think more from a moral point of view than a political point of view.

GROTH: Why do you make a distinction between the two?

STEADMAN: Well, because they are different. Politics is more about manipulation; it’s a Machiavellian idea, I think. The difference is politics is about Machiavellianism as opposed to life. It has nothing to do with the means justifying the end at all. The end is suddenly less important than the means you use. At least off the top of my head, I should think it’s something like that.

GROTH: Do you think politics should be made moral?

STEADMAN: I think in a way it’s got to be; it’s got to get far more that way. The people have got to be more honest, more outspoken about what it is they’re doing and they’ve also got to admit times when they are failing. It should be an accepted part of political life that you can accept and declare something that you made a mistake on. The people over here have done so many different things for so many different reasons, and even if it were just giving legislation for a building in the ‘60s, high rise blocks, breaking up communities in England caused untold suffering and hardship for people. The communities just died, and now we’re reaping the benefits of that with a generation of aimless kids and bad housing and terror on the streets. And it’s partly to do with a program of rebuilding which was given all the licenses it needed in the ‘60s because some dumb fucking architect thought putting people in boxes high up in the sky was going to solve everything. So those sort of things were legislated for and given credibility by politicians. And they’re somehow unable to stop something in mid-flight even though everybody knows it’s a mistake. So we just end up stumbling on until the damages, like a storm, suddenly diminish and we’re able to take stock of things. By that time, too much has happened. So, for sure, I believe that politics ought to be a little bit more moral and, as I say, outspoken. I want to believe in those people; I can’t.

GROTH: Do you have much faith in democracy?

STEADMAN: Well, not the way we’ve developed it. For instance, I think I’d have more belief in something like proportional representation where the actual number of votes is very important and not just the number of delegations that eventually make up what forms the government. In fact, maybe a minority number of people voted but a majority of delegates got in. That’s what democracy is doing wrong; somehow, it’s not the voice of the people in the end, but it’s just the way the thing has been manipulated to form the winner.

I think I’m presently disillusioned by it all at the moment and I’m taking stock. It is like a storm has gone by and I wonder, “Was it always like this?” Probably it was worse, but it’s worse on a grander scale now — there’s more at stake now; our little planet is really suffering, and we have no right to be making large claims or programs for this or that or the other without taking stock of what damage it may be doing to what’s left of this planet.


GROTH: Let me ask you something about English politics that I’m not entirely straight on. I was led to understand that Thatcher was able to win the last three elections partly because of the peculiar democratic mechanisms you have there, which is to say the Left parties are so splintered that Thatcher gets a plurality of votes rather than a majority. Is that correct?

STEADMAN: Yes. It’s also because we have a liberal party, a third party — it’s kind of a social democratic party — and that draws off a lot of the left votes. It doesn’t get enough by doing so; it doesn’t get enough to beat the Tories. Now, what the liberals try to do is say, “We could have all the left votes to keep Maggie out, so why don’t you vote for us?” But nobody ever does because a lot of people vote by habit and they’re still socialists. We’re losing a lot of votes to the middle parties who are merely weakening the Left’s position by being there. There is a feeling in this country that a two-party system is a bad way because it really doesn’t allow for, say, environmentalists or green parties or people like that. This country is in that state of turmoil, but I do believe at the moment Maggie Thatcher has produced a whole generation of mothers and fathers with children who think even more so that we need Maggie Thatcher to remain in as a dictator for the rest of her life, and that she should already be grooming a successor. I think that’s what’s happening, because what she’s done is encouraged everybody to be a little capitalist; she’s encouraged them to buy shares: people who never thought about shares before are investing in companies like British Telecom, British Oil. They’re all buying these shares in these things, getting a taste for it, these wheeling dealings, looking at the stock market, and suddenly getting involved, suddenly no longer being a little socialist at all. Working class people are making the acquisition of things — money and property and everything —the important element in their lives, and that’s naturally the death of the Left. Unfortunately, I think the Left is bankrupt as a far as an alternative idea goes right now. So that proportional representation I mentioned was in fact how our politics works also. Maggie actually may get less votes overall, for instance in the number of seats — I don’t know, there’s 346 against 200-and-something; I can’t remember the exact numbers — but those people who got in may have got less votes to get in. Say if somebody got a 100 votes throughout the conservative party and then where the Labor party got 200 votes but lost because that amounted to fewer seats. In the general spectrum of it, Maggie ends up with less people voting for her party but more seats. Somebody got in with less votes. Do you understand?

GROTH: Yes, right.

STEADMAN: It’s difficult to explain, but that’s what happens. I know that you have another way of doing things with your primaries and so forth, where you weed out all the deadwood, all the ones who don’t make it, or the ones who don’t fit.

GROTH: We weed out the few with ideals right away.

STEADMAN: Yes. Absolutely. I always thought that what you do with your politics is you give people like Jesse Jackson a chance, and also it’s a public display to show just how democratic a country you are to even let a black man get so far. So, you have this lovely dream of a marvelously democratic country where anybody can be president. Then you wake up the next morning and you’ve got George Bush! It was all a nasty dream that you had. In reality you have George Bush.

It’s just a world of dreams — because it always was; that’s why people went to America in the first place.

GROTH: The land of opportunity.

STEADMAN: The land of opportunity is absolutely what it is, and that means dreams, and there are lots of people living there who have a natural fear of communism or anything Left simply because that’s why they went to America in the first place, to get away from Eastern Europe and those sort of places — Italian communism and fascism and everything else. Trying to get away from extremes, you develop your own extreme. The extreme of living in America is quite extraordinary; the lifestyle is a screaming lifestyle. It’s entirely American.

GROTH: What would you say are the biggest differences between American and English politics?

STEADMAN: The grass roots. There are no grass roots politics in America. Whereas in England we still have a kind of a very close memory of what it was like. I wasn’t alive then — I was born in 1936 — but what it was like just prior to that, the poverty and unemployment and the sheer depression of a country that couldn’t work forged these beliefs in unions which I don’t think you quite got over there; you’ve got another way. I know you’ve got poverty over there; I know you’ve got roughness and toughness. But it doesn’t come from the grass roots; it comes from immigrants; it came from somewhere else. It’s still young enough to not have developed its long-standing roots; we’ve got a problem with Ireland going back 400 years. All those things, that’s what makes it a different feeling. There’s a harder edge to it somehow, and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing in American politics because it has time to grow and change and be something that really works for the people. The tendency is for people to want to party all the time so they throw these parties, these conventions, and they put on funny hats and blow things. It’s sort of a way of saying, “Whoopee, we’re the winners before the event.” It’s like old-time armies creating a noise the night before the battle to try to scare the enemy with their sheer exaltation, which I suppose is a natural, basic human activity and impulse. I tried to cover lots of things like that in the God book [The Big I Am]. I try to take an entirely non-partisan view so it will be like a non-partisan thunderbolt from above. I play both God and myself.

The Big I Am, 1988.
The Big I Am, 1988.

GROTH: This is a biography of God?

STEADMAN: Well, not really. It’s both autobiographical and biographical. That is, God speaks and also I speak, because somebody had to do the drawings for the book, so I figured it must be me so therefore I’ll do the talking as well and I’ll tell you what God’s saying. So God’s saying this thing; he has this monologue throughout the whole thing. Part of the reason I came in and interjected with my own little comments was that it could get terribly boring having God going on. So I thought of this third person — it could be me; it doesn’t have to be. When you do anything it’s just a compilation of thoughts, of one’s experience of life.

The Big I Am is very important, and it’s also dredged up from some deep area that I don’t think I’ve ever touched because I think I’ve denied it all in the cartoon style of drawing and writing — the need to be funny, or incisive, rather than profound. And I wonder whether, in fact, I’d be better off becoming a boring old fart philosopher-type writer, more philosophic, because the God book is redolent with philosophic reflections on the human kind. Every time I tried to plot the God book, I couldn’t actually arrive at a plot. It became a sort of ongoing journey through something, but not a plot, except that there’s a sort of a plot in the God book now — if it’s a plot or a reason for something; my reasoning in it is that God had a wife who died in childbirth giving birth to this earth, hence his resentment towards us. They’d given birth to all the other planets — Pluto, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mars, and the others — but they were all stillborn, except the one planet, Earth, and that became a sort of trigger for my God who would be vengeful, bitter. It gave him a reason. It was a hell of a struggle to get to that point. Then having got that, and having gone through the whole of history finding valid points to make about flagellance, the plague years, the rise of political thought, to today, and then God going back to heaven, standing on the Babel Tower, and getting the hell out, I was able to make the kind of general points I’ve always wanted to make in political drawings but wasn’t able to do so because political drawing is in effect a kind of limited art; it says specific things about specific events; it takes sides. I didn’t want to take sides; I wanted to be impartial. I wanted to be above it and look down on it. I wanted to give a non-partisan thunderbolt from above; I wanted to see man as he really was. I have no longer any partisan feeling Left or Right. I think I know that.

GROTH: You don’t?

STEADMAN: I can’t feel it. They’re all a bunch of bastards. It’s just awful to feel that, but it is that way. Everyone’s at it. There’s a line from a poem by Sylvia Plath: “Clocks cry / Stillness is a lie, my dear.” It’s a marvelous idea that nothing is ever still. One of the least still is man in his insistent quest for annihilation and supremacy, which I suppose is a natural thing; it’s in nature, but man has devised ways which are more consciously evil, somehow. We’ve denied our instincts to reach our goals. So a cat kills a bird and a lion jumps on an elk and this will be because nature is ruthless; it needs to do that to maintain its balance of species and so forth. But we are trying to change all that by our manipulation. We don’t run on instinct any more; we run on devious rationalization. It’s very difficult to express; Arthur Koestler would say all this better than me. Or even Bertrand Russell. I’ve always fancied that’s what I would like to have been if I were born again: a Russell or a Koestler, or a Spinoza.

GROTH: Now, is all this to say that you’ve lost your faith, if you ever had it, in political activism?

STEADMAN: In a way, because that’s a full-circle problem, isn’t it? Looking at the new liberal democrats we’ve got in this country and the new Social Democrat Party, the alliance — no longer alliance, they’ve got separate parties — and Dr. David Owen out in the wilderness, the best place to be for a prophet, incidentally, trying to assess the political climate of this country and lead it into the last century. But I think we’ve got to clean up this century first before we go into the next, and I was watching Dukakis and Bush yesterday and it’s like watching stale bread at work somehow. You don’t see them as great leaders; you see the most mortal men. And I don’t want to follow anyone who’s just a mortal man, like I don’t want to have these bloody silly religious movements knocking on my door with their silly nonsense. If I want to believe something, I’ll believe it. I want a politician to stand up there and say, “I’m prepared to make mistakes; I’m prepared to admit when I’ve made a mistake; I’d like to try certain things, but I don’t want to necessarily be so dogmatic as not to have the courage to back down when I realize something is wrong.”

You asked me the question, have I lost my faith — of course I have if I keep seeing assholes. What else can I feel? It’s no good trying to fool myself. I can’t see anyone with a great potential. Maybe he hasn’t come out of the woodwork yet. Maybe he’s out there somewhere. Maybe it was Gary Hart. I guess I’m looking to a Western leader of that magnitude. Maybe there’s someone over here that will come on like a great Aneurin Bevin — he was a great Welsh leader — or Lloyd George: great orators who can move people. Neil Kinnock’s tried to be and he’s quite a good orator, actually, but he’s kind of lame somewhere else. He’s got the kind of pedestrian, utility, council estate mentality — not even council; that’s an insult to council estates. It’s more like local boy did well with his exams so he’s doing all right, so we must give him encouragement. He’s all right; he’s quite bright. There is fire there, but there’s not a real quality of enriching things.

GROTH: If you lose your faith in political activism and political partisanship, don’t you become disaffected and ultimately morally paralyzed?

STEADMAN: Yes. Absolutely, right. Now what do I do? It’s a terrible dilemma, isn’t it? Look, would you like another cup of tea? [laughter] The problem is I have no answers, and neither should a satirist or cartoonist — just complaints, really.

GROTH: I think this segues into something else I want to get into. We were earlier discussing Jules Feiffer and you talked about how he’s much more pragmatic a political cartoonist than you are, that he deals with specific policies and politicians more directly than you do. And incisively, more knowledgeably; let’s get that straight. I’m not knowledgeable about politics. In a way I keep forgetting who’s supposed to be doing what in the end.

It occurred to me reading your essays — I think your essays clarify your political status as a political cartoonist.

STEADMAN: You mean kind of a waffling liberal?

GROTH: No, I was going to say something — different. You don’t criticize politics qua politics so much as you seem to criticize politics as a symptom or a harbinger of a kind of aesthetic putrescence.

STEADMAN: Ah! Like it’s a completely wrong activity altogether for the human kind; it’s not in fact serving the human being at all. I think that’s what it is.

GROTH: But your political criticism is based less on programs of social utility than on an aesthetic basis.

Queen Elizabeth, 1980s.
Queen Elizabeth, 1980s.


STEADMAN: Well, I probably do because I crave an aesthetic kind of life for everybody. I think we’re all too crass and utilitarian as human beings, as creatures. Let’s not say “human beings” — say “creatures.” And we want to kill the aesthetic sense in us for some reason as though it’s not important. I believe that’s the road to the spirit, not necessarily from a religious point of view, but somewhere in us there’s a kind of spirit, which at the moment is doused, watered-down or drowned or overcome by a lethargy, a lack of belief in something good, that things can be better again. I think it’s been doused by our own self-betrayal — as a bunch of creatures on this planet, we’ve betrayed ourselves, and we’re still, in our betrayal, betraying everyone else around us in the hope of rising above it all. And that’s a pretty sick situation to be in, and I think the political system is perpetuating that because it’s a contrived situation. The way to get to be president isn’t simply by saying, “I think I’ll go for it because I really have something to say.” You’ve got to go through all these different elaborate and contrived sequences of events and committees and money caucuses to get to the position, or even to get into the primaries, or to even get your nose in somewhere.

GROTH: You wrote that American culture had “nothing for the soul,” and from that I assume you mean politics has a direct effect on the aesthetic life.

STEADMAN: Because politics is really about economic life and nothing else. Politics talks about nothing but economics, it doesn’t talk about quality of life.

GROTH: It equates economic advantage with quality of life.

STEADMAN: Exactly: it’s just that. I find it all so debilitating, so crushing, really. So, I don’t feel my spirit rising, or I don’t feel proud of my fellow man. Why? It’s not because I’m just an old grouch. I think there’s some basis for my feelings. I am very moved sometimes by the odd stories I read in the press — somebody does some amazingly heroic thing and I am incredibly moved that there are people about in this land, this planet, who still have a wonderful code of behavior. And I do not have to read shit all the time about how much worse and diabolic man can become in maiming, hurting, cheating his fellow man. We seem to be getting clever at that.

GROTH: Well, how do you think the political system could have a direct impact on that side of life that you believe is so essential?

STEADMAN: How do I think it could be changed? I think it should start again back in the schools where it’s got to be made an important part of all school curriculum to inject back in the need for appreciation of spiritual things, whatever they are — and I don’t mean religious things, again; this is baloney: we don’t need fundamentalists around. We’ve got enough of them. Something that the spirit needs — that’s what man is crying out for; he’s just not got it, that sense of appreciation of wonderful things that have been created by man for our benefit, or, if you like, for our soul. The greatest art in the world was done because of a belief in something, the greater glory of something. I don’t mind what it is — it’s just an aspiration, and we’re losing our aspirations because we’ve invented so many diabolical things in this century and we have nothing to counteract it with. They are essentially destructive things and they are essentially going to destroy us, and probably before we get into the next century, the way things are going.

GROTH: Hasn’t there been a big debate in England about the educational system, and isn’t the conservative theory that England fell apart economically after the war because the educational system and the universities adopted curricula of the kind you prefer at the expense of technology and utilitarian educational interests?

STEADMAN: On the arts?

GROTH: Yes, concentrating on the arts rather than economic interests.

STEADMAN: No. I think what they did more than anything was try to process people through schools; they didn’t try to educate them. I think we should simply look upon schools as places to educate people, not process them for a job, because when they come out for a job often that kind of job isn’t around any more, things are moving as fast as they are. I just think there’s no balance. They’ve processed people to fit a job. Most of the jobs they were fitting them for were either rather obsolete engineering jobs — ‘50s and ‘60s — horribly trying to catch up with something that technology was starting to take over, and then process people through a little place and say, “You learn that much as fast as you can.” I think specialization killed it. I think education isn’t specialization at all. Education is a rounded, civilizing force. I didn’t get one. I’m pissed off I didn’t get an education. I’m an example of that. I think that’s why I try to use something when I learn it, and that’s how I make my work into work, and from what I learn I try to create my own work. So much work today is based on speculation and making nothing out of nothing, just bullshit. [Pause]

What I’m trying to get at is a revival of spirit that gives back to education some kind of aspiration so that teachers would want to be teachers and students would want to be students because there was a joy in the learning process; not because they were going to become smart executives, but because it was setting them up for a life of inquiry.

GROTH: A few years ago, I read a quote — I think it was from the president of Yale. He said they were turning out highly-skilled barbarians.

STEADMAN: [Laughter] Like a generation of swine. And they are.

GROTH: Let me ask you this: do you have much faith in democracy? The reason I ask you that is because in your essay “Past, President, and Future,” you basically characterize the masses as a bunch of self-deluding ignoramuses.

STEADMAN: Do I say that?

GROTH: That’s my summation. You wrote, “The less the public know, the better, and in fact the public generally doesn’t know what to do with the time of day if you give it to them, right or wrong. But they will ask for it and then say, ‘Oh,’ blankly. They just need to know. Knowing things makes them feel self-righteous; they suddenly become moral authorities and barrack-room lawyers. They suddenly have opinions they have never thought of before.”

STEADMAN: Yeah. I agree with all that. What have I got to do? Reiterate all that?

GROTH: Well, do you mean in a sense

STEADMAN: Well, democracy: what is it? I don’t believe in tyranny. I do believe in strong leadership if there is any, but there isn’t any. Maybe we’re going through an age of weak leaders. It may be just an age.

GROTH: What you’re describing as a democracy is a tyranny of ignorance.

STEADMAN: Yes. Well, that’s because it’s not really a democracy, is it? I mean, Nixon’s lot, they got in on a landside; it was based on delusion. So it’s hardly democracy; it’s hardly a democratic way of going about it. The democratic thing was snuffed out in Chile with Allende. That was a new democracy. The fact that a government like America’s has got an arm like the CIA or the FBI, and even overlapping and not certain which side is supposed to be doing what any more — they’re all covert and weird. It’s a testament to a government structure’s dishonesty. The structure is dishonest right from bottom up.


GROTH: Let me ask you a few more questions about English politics. Aren’t there effectively three parties: the SDP [Social Democrats], the Labor party, and the Conservative party?

STEADMAN: Yes. But the SDP, the liberal party, at this point [September 1988] is in a state of terrible flux. ]

GROTH: The SDP itself is merging with the Liberal Party, isn’t it?

STEADMAN: Yes. It’s the Social Democrats and the Liberals, and the liberals were, at the beginning of the century, the strong party, believe it or not. Anthony Asquith was the great leader and then they had another very good leader called Joe Grimond who is now, sadly, an old man. But in a way, lots of left people and lots of right people would vote Liberal if they felt they had a chance — but they don’t feel they do. At the moment there’s a leadership struggle going on for leadership of the Liberal party, and the SDP and the Liberals who were together as an alliance — they called it “The Alliance” — have broken up really, and I think the problem is they still want their own separate leaders and Dr. David Owen is the stronger contender for the Alliance party, which is now breaking away. [Steadman notes: The Alliance candidate turned out to be Paddy Ashdown; David Owen is now out in the political wilderness: a good place to be at the moment.]

GROTH: I understand that the two people vying for control of the liberal party are Paddy Ashdown and Alan Bate?

STEADMAN: Yes. Paddy Ashdown is the one who seems to have the most strength at the moment for a possible contender. Do you care one way or the other? No, I don’t, because the party has no real credibility right now.

GROTH: Were you at all impressed by David Steel’s helmsmanship?

STEADMAN: In a way. Unfortunately — but it’s like Jimmy Carter: a bit too nice a guy. It’s funny: you need a combination of venality and good sense — the Harry Truman variety — a wiliness. I know that this is probably going against my whole idea of becoming very moral upstanding and honest, but there we are. I still think you can be those things and still be wily.

At the moment, Neil Kinnock, whilst he’s a marvelous speaker, is still something — he hasn’t cut a figure of stature for himself yet. He hasn’t really come across as being a particularly able person as a leader when it comes to the nitty-gritty. But he does make speeches. You had one of your people—I can’t remember his name now. He copied some of Kinnock’s turns-of-phrase. That was Joe Biden. There’s a real divisive-ness between the Labor party and the SDP, right? They’re different sorts of people, really. The Labor party is — was — basically made up of working class salts-of-the-earth, intellectuals, and artists. It’s almost like a traditional thing over here. That’s the Labor Party, or Socialist Party. The Tory Party, or the conservative party, is made up of rather comfortable people who believe that society should run like clockwork and everybody should know their place, and making money is good, providing it’s for yourself — you have a pious outlook on life, and you shut your gate and everything else outside can go to hell, and you talk about blacks as the problem.

GROTH: They’re your Republicans.

STEADMAN: That’s right. Absolutely. It’s a peculiar outlook, and these people think the sun shines out of Maggie’s asshole. That’s the other thing.

GROTH: One thing I’d like to ask you about — and this puzzled me about Reagan’s election — why would blue-collar workers vote for Thatcher?

STEADMAN: Because they’re aspiring middle class. They’re trying to break away from the mold: of being working class, of being lower middle class, to put it lightly. See, we’re very class-conscious over here and you’re not over there; you’re a meritocracy in many ways. You believe somebody’s got an idea, they go for it, and they win: “That’s great.” They don’t say, “What family are you from; what school did he go to?” even though you’ve got your Harvards and so forth. In that way, you’re far more democratic. I like lots of things about America, and that’s one of them. We’re class-ridden over here — we’re even accent-ridden; we worry about how we speak. Beyond a certain border line in the country, if you’ve got a Northern accent, if you come down south — people may try to say, “No, that’s not the case; we don’t mind.” But something jumps up in the mind like a red light against fully accepting that person into the fold of upper-middle-classiness, or respectability. As Hunter said to me, “I know what you’re thinking, Ralph: ‘Why me and why now, just when I’m getting respectable.’ Well, look, Ralph, anybody can be respectable, especially in England.” [Laughter] It’s a good place to come and be respectable.

GROTH: Well, as the capitalist impulse becomes more firmly entrenched in England, don’t you think the class barriers, in the sense you’re talking about them, will collapse?

STEADMAN: I think that’s the idea. Now we’re developing a whole new generation of those people called “yuppies” who are really defined by how much money they make or how many status symbols they accumulate around themselves. I suppose they’re not so aware of what it was like to be, I don’t know, to be making do with things and being working class. But the people like Arthur Scargill, the miners’ leader, and Mick McGahey, a Scot miner, are really dyed-in-the-wool working class; they’re the leaders of the old guard who believe in class war. They’re as guilty as the Right for keeping this class thing going, whereas the new yuppie is really not that interested; their idea of life right now is simply to enjoy what they can, take what they can. While they can, it’s a good time for them; they’re young and there seems to be a lot of opportunity around if you don’t give a damn how you get there — and that seems to be their way, and I don’t find it a very attractive way.

The good is still in people, but it’s been suppressed; right now, it comes out in a very peculiar way. Just at this very moment there’s a thing going on English television now called the telethon — 26 hours of non-stop television where all sorts of variety people, show-biz people, even cartoonists and the like, are contributing various things, the activities that they can contribute, to raising money. So far, overnight, in the last 13 hours, they’ve raised six million pounds, for not just the poor, but for things like new equipment for hospitals, hospices, and places for old-age pensioners. But what is happening — what you realize — is that it shouldn’t be there; we shouldn’t have to be trying to raise money for these things. This is part of Maggie’s Britain. The money should be there for that, but she’s overspending on defense and every other aspect of public surveillance. She’s created an animosity in our society to make it more important to have a police force, more surveillance generally; the forces have got to be kept in the Falklands — all this money being spent in the wrong areas when it should be spent on the nurses, on hospitals, on education. Education — the schools are closing down. This is Maggie’s Britain. What she’s doing is using her maxim of self-help to its fullest advantage; she’s wallowing in this, because she’s getting the people to do what the government is supposed to do [Laughter] by organizing its policies in order to gain the right amount of money to do these things, to channel the money where it’s meant, where it should go. And instead people have to scrub about doing these various telethons and Band-Aids and all that sort of thing to get money together for all the areas where the government has failed.

GROTH: It’s free-enterprise socialism.

STEADMAN: Yes. That’s right. [Laughter] Maybe it’s a good thing, but it’s only what she’s brought upon us and it shouldn’t be like this. One’s appalled by the lack of spending in hospitals, and the health service being allowed to run down so that we are eventually forced to go back to a paid medical health scheme where those who’ve got the money get the treatment.

GROTH: It looks like you’re headed directly for that.

STEADMAN: Well, it seems like it, yeah. It’s appalling. And the whole generation — ”Maggie’s Children,” as I call them — are all in favor of it. The privileged who are making it get the money together and, “OK, we’ll look after those poor slobs who didn’t make it.” But it’s up to them. It’s like, “You bloody deserved it because you didn’t work hard enough,” or “You didn’t get the breaks.” So there we are: a marvelous little country that could have got itself organized and broken through to quite a high plateau of life, but we fucked it up. We’re small enough as a country to organize ourselves quite efficiently, so that we were almost like a Swiss clock—and there’s the Swiss, who’ve got it right; they have all the money come to them. They launder it all. They’re smart. But of course they’ve got no soul; that’s the problem. I wonder what you want, what you get out of life: if you get more suffering you have more soul, or what? I’m not sure about that.

Perhaps one of the big things that’s happening is that in 1992 we’re having a full union with Europe, where they’re getting rid of passports and all that stuff, and we’re having a Channel tunnel, and it’s going to just change this island; even if it only brings rabies in, it’s going to change it.

GROTH: Can you explain what’s going on? I’m not familiar with that.

STEADMAN: Falklands War, Collage with varnish, red ink and newsprint, 1982. Well, we’ve had this Common Market since 1971 or ‘72, you know, where the EEC countries — the European Economic Community, it’s called, which has its headquarters in Brussels — where all the members—I’m sorry, I don’t remember how many countries in all: 10 or 12 — but quite a few European countries as they would be with the United Nations, only an economic community, to do with what we produce. So we are bound by this sort of system of subsidy, government subsidy, to help keep prices equal all over Europe, which means giving farmers a lot more money than they deserve to produce stuff we don’t want and, in order to keep the price down, destroy it, right?

GROTH: Right.

STEADMAN: Apparently, that’s how it works. Terrible bloody system, but there we are. I mean, they spray apples so that you can’t eat them: butter mountains, wine lakes, all sorts of products produced that they have no use for, or they can’t make an economic go of because there are too many of them — because nature has an abundance and can actually feed everyone on this Earth quite easily; but because of the nature of this beast, this economic situation, our capitalism, making a buck takes precedence over anything, and if you can get something out of the government for destroying things — so what, as long as you get your money? There’s no sense in it at all. So, that’s what the EEC is. Now it’s going to become even more so, because they’ve found the competition is still there, within nations, doing various things to screw up each other’s particular products. There’s sort of an internecine war going on: economic war. So, they’re deciding, “Well, we’ve got to really make it a complete and totally European Europe; that is, we’ve got to have no passports, or, rather, we’ve got to have all the same passports.” So, they’re going to make it all the same passports — so they’re going to ultimately make us all the same people, in effect — and we can go from country to country without protection, for instance, of any kind for — I don’t know: drug smuggling, or whatever. It’s all going to have the same kind of European law. And that’s happening, and that will come more or less with the coming of the tunnel which joins us to Europe.

GROTH: This is the tunnel under the Channel?

STEADMAN: That’s what they’re trying to do next.

GROTH: Now, what do you think the result of that will be?

STEADMAN: I think that national identities run deep in people; it will always be there, and if you’re a Spaniard, you’re always a Spaniard, even though you’ve lived in France most of your life. Picasso was one. He didn’t go back until Franco died. I think that in spite of this easier passage through Europe, we’ll still have our national identities, and the English particularly, I think, will try harder than anyone to maintain what they consider to be “English” because they are an insular island race, and proud of it — and proud of the fact that they don’t know foreign languages, proud of the fact that they don’t give a shit what they’re doing “over there,” provided we’re up front somehow, being respected as a great little nation that at one time had an empire. It’s an unfortunate kind of chauvinistic outlook we still hold, and I think it’s going to take a lot to break that down. But in the long run, I think it’d probably be a better thing that we simply say, “OK. Well, are we together or are we not together.” So, either we keep the barriers up and be very particular about our national identity and proud of it, or we simply become European in the true sense of the word and adopt it: have your son marry an Italian daughter, just go like that — make one European language, of some form. But whether that’s a good thing ultimately, I don’t know. People are moving around far more than they ever did, so the natural, the logical, conclusion of that is that everyone eventually will be coffee-colored.

GROTH: Let me ask you something else about the current political fortunes of England. I understand that Thatcher is — if not on the run, at least losing an election or two.

STEADMAN: Yes. It’s mainly her attitude to Europe.

GROTH: Right. Now, do you see any cause for optimism there?

STEADMAN: If she’d spoken like this 20 years ago, we might have been an interesting little island, something quite unique. But since we’ve already adopted metric measurements, metric money, joined the Common Market, it’s a bit late in the day to be saying, “But we are really British and we should stay that way, and we’ll go in when we’re ready and we can actually call the tune.” Well, we can’t any more. We’re just a small island, and, unfortunately I think, she’s misread the country’s feelings about this. I think they’ve decided now, “Well, we might as well bloody go in; we can get rid of our passports, and we can get rid of our general controls, and we can really become a part of something.” I think a lot of people are hungry to move out: keep their little gardens in England, but actually get a bit adventurous. I think she missed it on this one; I think it’s probably the beginning of the end on this issue.

GROTH: Could you, for the sake of our readers, recap what happened with the recent Euro-elections. The Conservatives lost for the first time...

STEADMAN: Well, they lost a lot, but they lost a lot to the Green Party. That issue suddenly became very important. People suddenly realized that they weren’t so interested in the growth pattern of the nation so much as the survival pattern; it’s actually begun to mean something. I think the Green awareness has been getting through to people and, whilst they won’t give up their cars and won’t give up their various commodity-hungry —

GROTH: Appetites., they’ll still care about something. We got quite a large local vote for the Greens, and we’re really quite a Tory stronghold around here. So, I think generally the people who make sense now are those who are talking about conservation rather than expansion. It’s warning people because they can actually see or feel the effect of some of these things: the air we breathe — the strange change in the weather might have even changed people’s thoughts, because we’ve had such a hell of a summer so far. We worry that that’s the ozone layer. We feel our survival is at threat, and I think what means more to people, even at this late stage, is survival and some reasonably decent kind of life rather than the expansion and wasteful economy. Maggie has made it her creed to help small business whatever they do, whether they inject the rivers with poison or do something worthwhile, or whatever it is, so long as it’s called “expansion” and the small man growing big. As long as it’s that idea, it didn’t matter what she did. It’s only in recent months that she’s actually mentioned the fact that she might be concerned about the environment, and I think people have really seen through her at last: she has just gone for growth, and where can we grow, for Christ’s sake? It’s a finite world, isn’t it?

GROTH: She’s a bit of an economic isolationist on the EEC issue, isn’t she?

STEADMAN: She wants control, you know? She wants to be the one who says yes or no. She can’t deal with things if she’s not in control. Her problem from the beginning was that she must have people around her who say yes to her: “Yes, Prime Minister.” It’s not in her nature to take second place and, unfortunately, when it comes to the new European set-up that we’re going to have from 1992 onward, I think you’ll find that everyone is supposed to be equal. Things will supposedly pan out in a fair sort of way, and we really will be unified. I don’t know if we’ll actually ever get a unified Europe because the French hate the English and the English hate the French; nobody likes the Germans [Laughter]; the Italians just wave their arms in the air. It’s a funny sort of combination of people that are supposed to be unified. You’ve got to imagine them as being an army; it wouldn’t work, would it?

The Pen is Mightier than the Sickle, 1977.
The Pen is Mightier than the Sickle, 1977.

GROTH: Now, doesn’t Thatcher’s reluctance to join the EEC contradict her laissez-faire economic philosophy?

STEADMAN: But it’s really based on an obedient front, you know? Do what you like as long as you can get away with it, and you accept certain controls, the controls being things that require the filling in of forms and surveillance, all of those things that are very much a part of her capitalist society. I think she needs to know what’s going on everywhere, so, while she’s got free enterprise, she’s also got controls. I mean personal controls, physical restrictions. There’s more surveillance now than there ever was; we’re more of a police state now than we ever were. We’ve adopted communist-country tactics when it comes to our natural freedoms because I do think that people know more about it than they used to. To me, the symbol of the Maggie years is the wheel-clamp [a device attached to the hub of a cited car’s wheel to prevent its movement; a substitute for outright impoundment].

GROTH: [Laughter] Right.

STEADMAN: The little yellow wheel-clamps. Do you have them over there?

GROTH: Yeah, yeah.

STEADMAN: Somehow it seems to personify the Maggie idea: to have a police state running the general show to keep ordinary folk—who really don’t do much but go to work — in line, rather like 1984 and the proles. You have those who seem likely to get on and exploit others, getting the most freedom and the most opportunity to cheat, lie, and swindle. That, I think, is what she represents. Those are her people. You know them; you know a Maggie person: they have the most ugly owl’s look; they’re the sort of people you wouldn’t want to have around a dinner table; you wouldn’t invite them in your house. They’re like respectable folk, and that really is her type. That’s what she likes, because they’re the go-getters at the expense of others, at the expense of those that can’t help themselves.

When one finally looks at her legacy, it has to include those things that I’ve just gone over; they’re very much a public part of her characteristic nature, characteristic of her way of doing things. I think that’s a pretty hideous person. That’s why I don’t like Spitting Image any more, or those programs that jollify the nature of Maggie Thatcher; she’s far too ugly to start making fun of in a way that makes it just a jolly party because there’s rather a lot of people over here who are suffering because of her.

GROTH: What is Spitting Image?

STEADMAN: Spitting Image is that show of rubber politicians. They’re like Muppets, only political figures. It comes straight into the living room, and everybody sort of rushes to watch Spitting Image to see Maggie doing this and the Queen doing that and the Queen Mother and Prince Charles and all those people all careening about on the television in the most ridiculous but acceptable fashion. It’s an excusing method for Maggie to continue.

GROTH: Is it a popular show there?

STEADMAN: Oh, it’s very popular. I think they tried to do it in America and it didn’t work.

It just reinforces the status quo?

Yes. Yes absolutely, because it’s in your living room. It’s preventing a real, objective view of things. It’s preventing people from actually getting generally bitter about the nature of things. It just tries to be a fun show, and these guys, Maggie’s cabinet; they’re just a bunch of buffoons. “Isn’t it jolly? Isn’t it marvelous? Isn’t it fantastic that we’ve got a government of buffoons?” What a funny joke! [Groth laughs] I mean, that’s how it’s put over, and I find it a rather disturbing element in political comment. There’s no sense of discomfort.

GROTH: Sounds almost Reagan-esque.

STEADMAN: Well, exactly. They did weekly installments of “Looking for Reagan’s Brain.” That’s the way they deal with world politics; it’s all got to be sort of fanfare jolliness about the most serious matters so that there’s no incisive comments. There’s nothing that really makes you think; it actually helps you to forget.

GROTH: Right. It puts you to sleep.

STEADMAN: Yeah. You just realize, “Aw, it’s all right really, ‘cause they’re jokin’ about it.” Forget the homeless and forget the unemployed; forget the fact that there’s a world out there. I guess it’s a sort of opium.

GROTH: Opium for the masses.

STEADMAN: Yeah, but it’s very popular with the government as well because it’s enclosed in the coterie of what they consider to be the OK part of the state as we have it now. It’s a way of smothering things by closing it and — I don’t know: making it a part of its own machinery. I find that that’s the thing they always do: anything that might have started out with a certain amount of bite and discomfort in it they manage to use it to their own ends. I mean, she has bunches of advisors doing that, figuring out how to neutralize things. So they’ve done it with that. It’s on my mind because it was on last night, and my daughter Sadie wanted to see it because she likes Spitting Image. The young, growing up like it.

GROTH: Does that disturb you when your daughter looks at it and enjoys it?

STEADMAN: No. I realize she has to see it. It would be silly of me to stop her from seeing it if she wanted to see the thing. I have mentioned that I don’t like it, and she said, “Well, why don’t you like it?” “Well,” I say, “I don’t like it because it excuses everything that’s wrong.” It’s as simple as that. It’s the kind of license for continuing in the way we’re continuing, making jokes about things being all right.

I mean, it’s no Tiananmen Square. That’s probably why we prefer to jolly along and muddle through than have any kind of confrontation like they’ve tried in China. Maybe we’re not in that fearful state. The great Chinese revolution reached a time when it began to reassess itself and realize it didn’t like it, so the hardliners clamped down again, frightened of what might happen. Realizing that perhaps it seems a little too easy. I guess having fought so long for something, for a new ideology, a Maoist ideology, they were not going to give it up so readily. Certainly not the old school. I think that was the problem there, that the old guard said, “Wait a minute; this is get-ting out of hand.” Even the army is on the side of the students and, after all, they are the People’s Army. So they viciously — I mean, it’s quite an insidious idea, but they went to a northern state, and they brought, I think, Mongols down as the army: they reintroduced tribalism, because the various tribes in China hate the sight of each other. So tribalism was reintroduced and the unification was broken down for the time being while the state sorted out the students, and all the students were regarded as criminals, and when they were executed, they were calling them criminals.