Style: The Way I Was: The lavatory had to be black: Ralph Steadman tells Nicholas Roe how he coped with a visit from his first girlfriend

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Indy Lifestyle Online
This was taken almost 40 years ago, I think, by my friend Keith Hicks, who went to Canada. It's a weird one. I've dressed up a bit, I don't know why. I look a little idiotic, frankly, but I'm rather proud of it in a funny kind of way, because at least I had the balls to do that. Most people just stand there when they have their picture taken. I was trying to be theatrical.

I was about 17, a pretty awful time for me. My mother and father had little money and we lived in a council house on the third floor overlooking the sea at Pensarn, near Abergele in North Wales. It was a holiday resort for people from Manchester and Liverpool who would come and take a caravan in the hideous fields round about.

At that time we had teddy boys, but I was never one of those. I was kind of ordinary middle class but with aspirations to be somebody a little more classy, judging from this photograph.

My mother was a miner's daughter and my father was a commercial traveller who struggled to make a living selling ladies' knickers and women's coats and costumes - their bedroom was full of stock, like an old-fashioned drapery store.

I remember feeling acutely aware of our place not being like somebody else's might be. I'd go to someone's home and be conscious of their front room full of things. They were probably naff, looking back, but we actually had three ducks on our wall.

I took my first girlfriend home about this time - Doris Fogg, bless her heart - and I remember being terribly bashful about the whole thing. I realised that I had to bring her up three flights of stairs and on each floor there was a coal bunker, and the walls were only painted every God knows how long.

But the thing I was really embarrassed about was the lavatory seat. It was plain wood, you see. I mean, nowadays people have fashionable wood-effect seats, don't they? But I was embarrassed about bringing her back because if she wanted to go to the toilet - which I presumed she might, although I would never mention the fact that girls ever did that - well, that's what she'd see: our plain toilet seat. So I painted it shiny black to make it look posh, which mother and father never forgot. But it looked OK, actually.

I did terribly badly at school. I failed art. I couldn't wait to get away. But when I did, I got an apprenticeship with De Havilland Aircraft down in Chester, and couldn't stand factory life either.

My National Service was coming up, so I got a job in Woolworth's as a stockroom boy, sweeping and oiling the floors, taking in boxes of rock with 'Colwyn Bay' written through them.

I was told that at 24 I would be earning a thousand pounds a year, but I ended up having a terrible argument in the stockroom with the under-manager and he told me to leave. I think, looking at this photograph, that I was rather obnoxiously cocky, in fact.

Was I humiliated? Not really, no. I think I knew instinctively that what these jobs represented was nothing to do with my life - and yet I didn't know what else to do. I remember my father asked me: 'What do you want to do?' and I said: 'I don't know.'

Then I saw an advertisement saying: 'Learn to draw: 12 lessons for pounds 12', and for an extra pounds 6, how to be a cartoonist. So I took the course. Mother and father paid.

Now, when I walk past Woolworth's, I sometimes see one of those managers in those stores and they are in their shirt-sleeves in summer, taking stock. I think, God, that's what I would have been. Or maybe I'd even have been retired by now.

Ralph Steadman is an illustrator and cartoonist. His new book, 'The Grapes of Ralph', is published by Ebury Press ( pounds 19.99).

(Photograph omitted)

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