Saturday, 6 July 2013
So, I Actually Met Ralph Steadman...
The travel tablets were a month out of date but I knocked one back at the Pendolino’s first roll. I’m not sure if anything that happened thereafter was real. It didn’t feel real. It felt like how I'd imagined my ideal visit to the Cartoon Museum would go, except in my imagination I wasn’t such a monumentally dull and mumbling arse.
The 8.20am train was only half full, testament to the ridiculously high prices they ask for these weekend trains to London. I’d been given the ticket but the £77 return price still made me wince and thankful that I hadn’t had to pay.
We arrived just after 11. Arriving at Euston always feels like a craven way of entering the city, as though you've crept under the floorboards. I emerged from the dark concrete basement into the heat and the madness.
As soon as I step out of Euston, I’m faced by a tall man crying biblical prophecy. I guess there’s no hour in London that isn’t enjoyed by the God freaks or the drugged madmen with wild eyes. At the first pelican crossing, two cars jumped the red light nearly taking pedestrians with them. I remind myself that I'm a long way from home. I pull down my baseball hat and start walking. A line of Boris bikes was the second thing that grabbed my eye. They are a brilliant idea on TV but seen at street level they are insanity given pedals. Soon all manner of human beings are lurching around me, indifferent to danger as they weave through the traffic. I imagine taxi drivers loathe them. As a cyclist, I loathe them. As a coward, I also choose to walk.
I intended to take my time before going to the Cartoon Museum but resting in Bloomsbury Square Gardens made me feel too perverted. The whole of the city seemed to be going without their damn clothes. Four shapely blondes lay out on the grass right in front of where I’d sat. They were wearing bikinis which they’d occasionally unstrap to help get an all over tan. ‘Don’t look, you dirty old bugger,’ I mumble to myself. ‘We’re here for higher things…’
Five minutes later, I walked into the Cartoon Museum and paid five pounds at the front desk to see those higher things.
‘Are you here for the exhibition or the signing?’ asked the pleasant girl handing me my change.
‘The Steadman exhibition,’ I said. ‘Why? Who’s signing?’
She gave me a puzzled look. ‘Steadman, of course.’
My first thought was “Hell! That’s ruined my day!”
‘Hell,’ I said, my nerves immediately betraying me. ‘That’s ruined my day.’
And, in a way, it was true. I’d travelled to London just to look at his pictures. I wanted to be studious, writing down keen-eyed observations. Now I couldn’t do that with the same intent because I'd already turned into a bumbling wreck, walking into walls like that little midget robot in Blade Runner. Obviously I couldn't turn down this opportunity. I would have to meet Steadman and, in my experience, that would mean making a complete arse of myself.
The museum lady gave me one of those smiles as if to say ‘clearly mad’ and waved me through.
In the next room, I saw a figure sitting on a bench. His back was towards me but his hair, the shape of his head, and his waistcoat were all immediately recognizable, as was the rumble of his voice, like an underground train passing through the bowels of hell. I snapped one picture (right) and then hid. The hallucination was too grand for my mind to comprehend. I’d expected to be in the company of pictures drawn by a great hand. I didn’t expect to be in the company of that great hand.
Steadman quickly disappeared into a room where he was apparently doing an interview, posing for photographs, signing books for staff…
Meanwhile, I became absorbed in the exhibition which was everything I hoped for and a little more.
If the museum itself was about as big as I’d expected (that is: quite small) it was immediately apparent that I was in the company of original work. A very few of the exhibits were prints but the majority were originals, patched with whiteout. That was the first thing I noticed. Steadman’s whiteout remains very white even when the paper has yellowed. The descriptions beside the images suggest that he uses white acrylic. First tip of the day and possibly a good one: try using white acrylic. He uses far more whiteout than I’d imagined, not so much fixing mistakes (though there are plenty of changes of direction) but sometimes just refining a line or adding highlights to a dense patch of crosshatching.
Despite my thinking his work at large scale would be quite coarse, I was very struck by how delicate even his strongest lines are. In fact, that was the one of the main discoveries I take away from the exhibit and the same thought carried over when I was later standing looking at Martin Rowson’s illustrations for his Gulliver book (the other highlight of my day). In fact, much as I’ve always been a Rowson fan, his couple of panels of original work have encouraged me to buy his books the next time I have money.
But back to Steadman… Only by seeing Steadman’s work at first hand do you understand some of the techniques. The size of the page is itself something to behold, with him drawing on A1 sheets. Up close, you see the marks of the craftsman. Sometimes it's as simple as the pin holes where he’s used a compass. Many places the crosshatching lines has obviously been drawn with a ruler. He uses quite a fine nib at times (not a croquill but not one I could recognize immediately, perhaps a Gillott). I do know that I’ll be ditching the heavy duty nib I’ve been using recently. My lines look clumsy in comparison. In other pictures, you can see where he’s used a felt tip pen to create the mesh of fencing.
I can’t say there was one stand-out part of the exhibit because it was all sublime. His modern work was as good as anything from the 1970s and earlier, and it was fascinating to see the sheer originality of his thought. I was particularly struck by some work he’d done with Polaroid film, manipulating the warm ink before it hardened to the finished image. Having worked using Photoshop to produce similar effects, it was humbling seeing how he'd been doing the same before Photoshop even existed.
I was also astonished to see how he’d used Gray’s Anatomy for the famous Hunter S. Thompson portrait and others. I’d heard him talking about it in countless documentaries but, seeing the finished result was surprising. Parts taken from Gray's Anatomy just seemed to naturally fit the portrait.
I’d walked around the exhibit about half a dozen times before I went back to front desk and shop. I’d been told Steadman would sign two pieces: one exhibition catalogue and one other item. Fans were already turning up with old copies of his books and more collectable items. Obviously, not knowing he’d be there, I hadn’t brought anything to sign so I had to go and buy something. I was tempted to pick Freud, one of my favourites, but it was far too pricey. A copy of Alice was second choice and affordable at only £12.
As I’m browsing in the shop, Ralph Steadman's wife arrives. I recognised her immediately. I smiled as she walked past but she too was soon gone to the room where all the important things were happening.
I buy my books, chat again to the pleasant girl at the counter and I ask if she could point out the curator. I thought I was asking for the curator who had emailed me a few weeks ago to inform me that the exhibition would eventually move to Halifax. I was directed to woman standing close by who looked at me as though she should know me. I thanked her for the email she sent. 'What email?' she asked. I explained I wrote a blog where I’d mentioned that I’d never be able to afford to attend the exhibition. She didn’t know me and quickly disappeared into a room. Auspicious beginning, I thought, feeling about an inch high. Suddenly I felt bad about what I could say to Steadman.
I wait the rest of my time looking at the second floor exhibit. Not so much there to get my attention. I’d hoped to see more single panel cartoons but the display was mostly (I think) comic strips. There was one Peanuts strip drawn by Charles Schultz that made me smile. Not the strip but the fact that he clearly just drew two horizontal lines, boxed them off, and then used tippex to produce gaps between the boxes. Simply, rough, and probably the way to go.
I spend much of my time on the second floor just looking at the Martin Rowson panels. I think there were two or three and they were stomach knottingly good. Had the floor below not been filled with original Steadman, it would have been the best part of the day and alone worth the 400 mile round journey.
Around 12.30 we were told to queue and I found myself sixth in line. Six. Bad number. My least favourite number. I never do anything involving the number six if I can help it. Never leave a book on a page with a six in the page number. It’s a strange habit I’ve got into…
At 1pm, we’re led in. Steadman is at the front of the room. I want a photo but the curator arrives and looks unhappy with one person snapping pics so I keep the camera in my pocket. Slowly Steadman starts work, signing something for the guy first in line. Then number two. Number three. Somebody had clearly gone into the shop and bought on the £400 prints to have it signed. I felt slightly ashamed holding the £12 Alice in my hands.
Number four. Number five.
Suddenly, I’m walking up to Ralph Steadman. I’m lost for words.
He asked my name. ‘David,’ I said. ‘For me.’
‘Oh, I know a David who used to send chemicals from up North.’
‘Ah,’ I mumbled. ‘I’m actually the David who once sent you a book’.
A mixture of my nervous mumbling and Lancashire accept probably got in the way. I tried to mention I wrote to him in my pseudonym of Stan Madeley and about my book of spoof letters but I was tripping over everything I wanted to say. I mention that I try to draw cartoons though I don’t get things published.
‘I used to do lots for The New Yorker,’ he finally said, latching onto something he could talk about until this lumbering mess was out of his way. ‘I’d get tired of them asking me to make changes. It was impossible.’
‘At least it was work,’ I reply.
He nodded. ‘True,’ he said, though without much conviction. He was earning from cartoons when he was much younger than me. His bugbears are clearly of a higher realm.
‘Don’t give up’ he said. I said that I wouldn’t but the words rang false as I said them.
‘Rejected cartoons,’ he said. ‘Work them up. Improve them!’
More good advice which I’ll try.
‘Private Eye probably don’t look at them,’ I sighed. He shrugged.
‘Never pencil in first. Always ink!’ was more advice. I knew it already from hour upon hour of listening to his interviews. I’ve tried it but I usually just make a mess.
‘Try the internet,’ was his other advice. I tried to explain about my blog but I’m not doing well. He did his usual thing, drawing doodles on the page, signing his name, throwing ink at my books. (‘When I try that, it usually goes over the curtains,’ I quipped but I think he missed it). Soon it was over.
‘Make sure the ink doesn’t run,’ he advises as I turn to leave. ‘It can run but it can’t hide.’ I hear his laughter diminish behind me. Far too short a time to be in his presence. Like fate again tempting me with a vision of a better life filled with interesting people... It was probably what it feels like meeting the Pope only this meant more to me than meeting any representative of God on this earth.
The truth is: had I know he was signing, I wouldn’t have gone. There’s a horrible reality lurking behind any wish to stand in line to meet a person you admire. I’ve never done it before and, except for fate arranging this today, I wouldn’t do it again. I wanted to talk to him without feeling such a northern prat with aching feet, too little food on my stomach, holes in my five year old boots. I had so many questions about tricks, how he crosshatches, materials he uses, how he turns something his mind into something on the page, or, rather how he turns accidents on the page into something that is so satisfying to the mind. Standing like a gormless fool, cap in hand… I don’t know. It’s hard to explain but I guess it made my lack of success feel all the more acute.
I escaped balancing my two signed books and waited for the ink to dry. Downstairs, there were others like me trying to protect their scrawls and get them to dry quickly. I resorted to using a copy of the Beano to dry it, the symbolism of which was deep and mysterious. A child's comic drying a man's work...
As I waited, I started to talk to a pleasant and very knowledgeable guy who was working as the museum’s official greeter. He points to another cartoonist whose work I’ll now have to look up. He also mentioned the name of a publisher I would check out if I could remember the name. I thought he said ‘low down’ but I’m probably wrong. I tell him that I came all the way from outside Liverpool just to see the exhibit and hadn’t expected Steadman to be there. He imagines I live in the scenic countryside. I explain that north of Birmingham, almost the entire NW quarter of the UK is urban sprawl and chemical plants. We agree there are nice parts but that I don’t live near them. Yet leaving London, I realise that I do live in the countryside. Not great countryside but parts of it are green.
‘Get work for the local council,’ he advised. ‘Cartoonists can get lots of work turning local information into easy to follow cartoons.’
‘You mean like Bob comes to terms with bereavement?’
‘Yes,’ he chuckles.
I should probably have loitered in London longer but I wasn’t there to sightsee. And what could beat meeting Ralph Steadman, even for a minute or so? My legs were tired after three hours standing and walking, my back aching from my heavy rucksack. The heat was also that kind of heat that only seems to find in cities. It comes up from the ground as much as down from the sun. The crowds were everywhere. No escape from them.
The guy in charge of the Pendolino’s shop should have his own radio show. He couldn’t stop. I plug myself into music (Sparks Live in Europe, yet again). Then we're off. We pass through parts of the country I know by reputation but have never visited. The train crawls through Bletchley. The station looks like control bunkers from WW2. I wonder if this is where the codes were cracked. Somewhere in these sidings. Alan Turing probably conceived his death by poisoned apple.
I look out at the motorway and see somebody driving an open top red Ferrari with a blonde in the next seat. He looks like Tom Selleck. I, however, have two signed books by Ralph Steadman in my bag.
I'm not saying I wouldn't swap them for the Ferrari and blonde. However, for just a split second, it occurred to me that I might not.