Catch them by the hind legs

It was contempt that led Ralph Steadman to give up politicians 10 years ago. He hated the bastards too much to draw them. Now he has started again because he likes them even less. He is itching to get rid of the Tories, but that doesn't mean he has to look them in the face. By Andrew Marr

Ralph Steadman is back. Britain's master of the leaping, politician- slicing ink line has returned to the political attack after a decade when he was too disgusted and depressed to watch Westminster at all. Now, he has begun a series of "Election '97" drawings for the New Statesman. But he has drawn a new line too - imposed a provocative condition. He refuses to draw any politicians' faces: instead, he is satirising their legs.

So why is he ending his political cartoonist's strike, and why legs? "In 1987, I decided this was a game we were playing. It was the time of the Big Bang in finance and it made me realise that our whole society was obsessed by the money motive, and it was bolstered by the Tory party. We needed to take the wind out of their sails by simply ignoring them. People kept writing about them, drawing them, photographing them, and they love it. I felt disillusioned by it."

Indeed, up to a point, he still does. On the train, Steadman had been reading Suzanne Moore's article in Friday's Independent when she accused the Commons of a fundamental staleness and greyness. He completely agreed. But?

But now it was important to vote, a last chance. "If we don't get them out this time, what do we do?" he asks. He could feel himself sliding away from it all again: "There's more to life than bloody politics ... I would never have any of them to dinner."

You will have gathered that Steadman is an unapologetic, unreconstructed socialist of the old school, an admirer of Michael Foot, Denis Healey and the welfare state. He is fuelled now, as he was when he savaged Nixon, by old-fashioned moral outrage, at the length of time it took to get the Bridgewater three out of their cells, at privatisations of water and rail, at politicians' lack of culture and hinterland, at the creation of "the underclass, which is totally in the cold, a new community in limbo".

In the New Statesman, he complained: "There's pornography in the madhouse, madness in the food chain, stupidity at the heart of government, intolerance in the streets, greed in our water supply and childhood is a dangerous option."

He found, he tells me, that Spitting Image and mainstream political satire was "paying lip service to the worse excesses of the government; they were making the unacceptable acceptable in our living rooms. It was a little too cosy. I wondered why I had ever started political cartooning in the first place." Hence, now, the refusal to do faces: however savage, however grotesque, his targets might be flattered.

Steadman first came to public attention through Private Eye, where Richard Ingrams used him widely, often asking him to create pastiches of other artists' work. After 10 years of that, and a marriage break-up, he decided it was time for a change and set out rather abruptly for America. It proved an inspired decision.

"Within a couple of days of arriving in New York, I got a phone call asking if I wanted to go to Kentucky to meet an ex-Hell's Angel who had shaved his head ... he wanted to go home and find his roots which were in Louisville."

The shaven one was, of course, Hunter Thompson: his partnership with Steadman, who was in a state of English shock at "the screaming lifestyle of America" was hugely fruitful to both. They careered around the US together, most famously following the 1972 Republican campaign from Miami. Thompson had never come across someone so genuinely horrified by American lifestyles and wanted to expose Steadman to more and more.

"We were a couple of mavericks, we hadn't got proper accreditation, we were pissed - we were forever in a terrible state. It was still part of the hangover of the Sixties."

For Steadman, Miami with Nixon was a spectacle of surreal horror, suffused by the imagery of the alligator swamps on which the city was built, and he eventually fled back to Britain, with a cheap plastic alligator in his pocket from an airport vending machine, which then became the dominant image for the American drawings. "I got butterflies in the stomach drawing Nixon," he says now. He and the original gonzo journalist remain in touch and still, from time to time, collaborate.

His art is still instantly recognisable, close in spirit to the satirical attacks that made him famous in the Seventies. The splattered, blobby lines of ink; the grotesque, ballooning bodies, the fascination with the internal anatomy and functions of powerful bodies. "Maybe a lot of drawing is anal - but not anal retentive. I go the other way." It is not hard to see what this gentle-seeming, gentle-voiced and profoundly ungentle artist means.

So the new drawings fuse the spirit of Gray's Anatomy with the surreal European tradition - there are livid flashes of Bosch in Steadman, as well as the lessons from Hogarth, and the German satirical tradition. He thinks that exposing the veins and muscles, the human carapace and processes, is the best way of debunking the arrogance of politics. "It shows that we are all flesh and blood and that no one has all the answers."

So the legs of John Major and Kenneth Clarke are to be followed by a "Three Graces" featuring the legs of Virginia Bottomley, Gillian Shephard and Ann Widdicombe: bad news for them, even though "you will never see a politician's face in my drawings again". He worries that "it might be hard to sustain politicians' legs as a good support system" and that he will end up "playing the game" again - become a cult, he jokes, for foot-fetishists.

I think not. These are drawings so furious it is difficult to speak of enjoying them. But there is a fury and freshness which comes as a necessary shock to the half-awake system. Steadman is back. Looking at his mournful smile and thick, hard-working fingers, I'm suddenly glad I am not a politician

Suggested Topics
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
football
Life and Style
Jack Cooksey goes for the grand unveiling - moments before dropping his new iPhone 6 on the floor
iphone launch
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Life and Style
Customers look at the new iPhones on display at the launch of the new Apple iPhone 6 and iphone 6 plus at the Apple IFC store in Hong Kong
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Sport
Andros Townsend is challenged by Vladimir Volkov
football
Arts and Entertainment
Rapper Jay Z performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2008
musicSinger sued over use of the single-syllable sample in 'Run This Town'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Marketing - London

£60000 - £85000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Interim Head of Marketing / Marketin...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Digital Project Manager

£25 - 30k: Guru Careers: A Digital Project Manager is needed to join an exciti...

Paid Search Analyst / PPC Analyst

£24 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Paid Search Analyst / PPC...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week