Ralph Steadman & Ceri Levy: 'He has a childlike quality. He's always got a cowboy hat on'

The documentary maker and the cartoonist met in 2011 when they collaborated on Ghosts of Gone Birds

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The Independent Online

Ceri Levy, 54

A former music-video director, Levy (right in picture) made his first documentary in 2009 with 'Bananaz', examining Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's alt-rock virtual band Gorillaz. He co-curated the 2011 art exhibition Ghosts of Gone Birds, and is the author of 'Extinct Boids'. His documentary 'The Bird Effect' is out this year. He lives in Rutland with his wife

Ralph got me into alternative culture at an early age. I was reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas [Hunter S Thompson's novel, illustrated by Steadman] at boarding school under the bedclothes at 2am. And as the years went by, I keenly collected his books.

In 2011, I'd been approaching different artists to take part in Ghosts of Gone Birds, asking them to create a work based on an extinct bird species. I was given Ralph's email address and got in touch. After some time he sent me some amazing, unrelated imagery along with the message, "No idea what you want from me, but I'm intrigued."

Ten minutes later he phoned me at home and started chatting, saying, "I've just finished a story I've been working on." He began reading this story about a place he'd created called Toadstool Island. I lay on the couch, listening, for 40 minutes, as he put on voices for each of his characters. It was wonderful.

Eventually he said, "Let's discuss your idea." I explained how I'd love him to draw from scratch a representation of an extinct species of bird, and I sent him the list to choose one. He ended up doing 70.

Later, when we did our first book together [Extinct Boids], a key moment was when he went off-piste and started creating imaginary birds. He sent me one of a South Eastern Tellychat [with an aerial on its head]. I said, "I don't know how to use that," and he said, "Who knows if it existed anyway?" And I realised the book was not necessarily about specific birds, but the subject of extinction.

Now we chat on Skype a lot and I visit him regularly. We spend much of our time together laughing, making up rhymes and little poems and ditties. If we go three days without chatting, it feels odd; I can't imagine life without him.

When you see his work, a lot of it is angry, vicious and quite heavy: he cares about issues in the world; he's an activist. But he's one of the warmest, most caring people I've met.

He moans a lot – how he doesn't want to do this or that – but he also has a childlike quality. When we're out and about, he's always got a cowboy hat on, or a bonnet! The other day, down at the O2 [music venue] in London, we were walking along a paved area, and when I turned round, there was Ralph tiptoeing around behind me. "What are you doing?" I asked. He said, "I mustn't touch the cracks!"

I have a lot to thank Ralph for: Fear and Loathing changed my ethics. We now call ourselves "Gonzovationists"; if that goes on my tombstone – "Writer, documentary-maker and Gonzovationist" – I couldn't ask for more.

Ralph Steadman, 79

After making a name for himself as a political cartoonist for 'Punch' and 'Private Eye' in the 1960s, it was his creative partnership with American author Hunter S Thompson that gained Steadman notoriety , particularly his illustrations for their 1971 book 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'. Among his other work, he has illustrated editions of 'Alice in Wonderland', 'Treasure Island' and 'Animal Farm'. He lives in Kent with his wife

The first thing I heard Ceri say on the phone was, "Have you ever drawn any birds?" I said I don't do birds, but he told me he was looking for artists to draw extinct birds for an exhibition and I thought, OK, let's meet. As I got into it, I looked on my computer and found so many pictures of eagles and vultures that I'd drawn that it was a revelation. Now it's a running joke that I don't do birds.

Ceri came down from Rutland and we had lunch and some laughs, and after that there was a lot of Skypeing – about the exhibition, catching up, and also me asking for his help with electronics problems. He's a wizard!

Eventually I started making up imaginary extinct birds: one afternoon, when we were talking about vulgarity, he said, "I don't want any unnecessary rudeness," and I said, "You mean no needless smut?" And I had the name of a fictional bird – the Needless Smut. For the exhibition we filled a room with my drawings, hung up high: Ceri came up with the idea of handing visitors binoculars so they could bird-spot. That's how our two books came about.

He's a good friend now. We talk a lot about the state of the world. He calls me an activist, but I don't know how one can be an activist these days without direct action. Actually, he's the activist, as he goes out to places like Malta and tries to stop hunters shooting songbirds.

Though he's not as elegant a man as Hunter was, he's a good writing partner. Hunter had a myna bird called Edward that was always squawking, "I'm coming to kill you and eat you!" With Hunter, I often felt like Edward: that I was tormented, as Hunter put me in difficult positions. Ceri isn't like that: the torment of working with him is that he is bossy, always giving me lists of things to do.

Ceri has given me a reason for continuing to draw. And now I watch birds from my window: jackdaws, magpies, blackbirds – the way they walk appeals to me. Though I know more about squirrels than birds: I watch them out of the window as they get on the bird table.

Ceri loves his food. Last time he came round, he had most of the pudding! He can't bear the idea of anything left on a cheese board, either – he's tidy like that. Now we go on about an omelette his wife made for me; I'm visiting him soon and he is going to present it to me. It was made three months ago, though, so maybe I'll just look at it.

'Nextinction' (£35, Bloomsbury), by Ralph Steadman and Ceri Levy, is out now

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