The Worst of Times: I had to draw the things I feared: Gerald Scarfe talks to Danny Danziger

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Well, I was born with asthma. I didn't know anything except that way of life. And that way of life meant being completely breathless for a lot of the time, and not really being able to play with other children, because nobody wanted to play with a wheezy, incapacitated child.

It also meant a lot of the time I was in bed and hospital-ridden. It's probably where the drawing started, because the only way of expressing myself, not having friends, was to draw all these horrific things on paper, the things that I feared most.

Whenever I went into hospital, I was bunged in with adults. I remember, aged eight, seeing someone die. This old man got up in the middle of the night, gasping for breath; he shuffled over to the window, and the nurse came into the ward in a bit of a temper: 'Mr So-and-so, you must get back in your oxygen tent . . .' but he just died there and then.

We moved around a lot, and my parents would put me in whatever school was around the corner - each school was chosen according to how close it was. I'd literally be there for a day or two, and then I would get an attack and have to go back home or to hospital. When I went back to school, they'd have started algebra, and I wouldn't know what they were talking about, so my education was extremely scattered and confused.

My asthma always seemed particularly severe at night. I dreaded the nights, and I used to be propped up in bed, trying to breathe, to push out the air, with my chest aching, and I longed for that wonderful moment when the birds first started to sing outside - somehow daylight was like a message of hope to me.

My parents endlessly tried to find cures. As I was pigeon-chested and hunch-backed at that time, one specialist suggested a walking stick be placed behind my elbows to keep my shoulders back. And so one night I staggered through an appalling attack with this walking stick keeping me upright. Any asthmatic will know it is the worst thing that can be imagined, because it's the opposite of the posture you want to adopt: when you're having an attack you want to slouch forward.

My parents later told the doctor that they had done this, and he said: 'Oh, my God, not during an attack - when he's normal . . . ' He had meant this measure to be for my posture, but they had misunderstood.

There was a chap in the Gloucester Road, who thought the whole thing was to do with my vertebrae being out of position. I went there one day, and he laid me out on his consulting couch. 'Are you relaxed?' he asked. 'Relax, relax, relax . . .' and then he suddenly rabbit-punched me on the neck - completely knocked me out.

My father leapt out of his chair. 'What are you doing?' he shouted. 'Oh,' came the reply, 'I'm just putting the vertebrae back in position.' We never went back there again.

Next there was someone who thought I wasn't swallowing properly, and that I would have to wear a dental plate so the saliva would go down the right way.

I went to the mountains of Auvergne in France, to one of those spas that have arsenical qualities in the water, and I did everything you can possibly do with water - drank it, bathed in it, douched in it.

There was one doctor who said, 'Ring me the next time he has an attack.' So my father rang when I had the next attack, and he said, 'Right, put him in a taxi and bring him here immediately.' The consulting room in Harley Street was on the top floor, and he made me walk up the stairs, and when I got to the top I felt at death's door and could hardly breathe. He lay me down on his table, and just said to me: 'Now breathe regularly . . .' And I can't explain why, but within about two minutes, I was perfectly normal. Either he hypnotised me, or he gave me confidence. It's very strange - I still don't understand the illness; sometimes it seems that stress triggers it; but, on the other hand, I'm a bit of a workaholic, and the more under pressure I am, the more I enjoy myself.

At 19, I started to make my own living in the world, and because of lack of education about the only thing I could do was draw, and somehow with the necessity to keep going, the attacks got less and less frequent, although they're still there. In fact, I'm a little asthmatic today.

Since I've known my wife, which is the past 21 years, she hasn't seen a ferocious attack. I've been on these sophisticated modern drugs. I have not had a chronic, desperate attack such as I had in my youth.

Perhaps I never will again, but I always dread the thought of it coming back.

Gerald Scarfe's book of cartoons and caricatures 'Scarfe Face' is published by Sinclair-Stevenson.

(Photograph omitted)

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