My dark mistress (Ralph Steadman)

My dark mistress (Ralph Steadman)

The artist and former wild man Ralph Steadman enjoyed a 30 year old love affair with whisky. It was brilliant fun, and so good that it had to stop, he told Jane Slade

People | 16 Oct 1999 | Issue 6 | By Jane Slade

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Like the best affairs, Steadman's relationship with whisky has been turbulent, immensely pleasurable but dangerously addictive. So much so that two years ago, he turned his back on the seductive charms of the single malts that had come to rule his life. "I am now saving my old age to drink whisky again," he smiles, eyes twinkling in the full certainty that such a love is never lost forever. We are sitting in his artist's studio, down the bottom of his glorious garden, next to his vineyard in an idyllic corner of southern England. He looks extremely youthful. This, despite 63 years and a nightmarish vision of humanity that he pours out through the safety valve of his drawings and writing. I had expected someone altogether different; a haggard chap with a hardened drinker's nose. A cartoon character perhaps, rather like the grotesques that inhabit his drawings.But no. Ralph is almost disappointingly friendly – a balding, cheery grandfather whose devilish depictions have made him the leading illustrator of our times."It was Hunter who introduced me to whisky," he proclaims, rolling a cigarette and settling himself on one of those small wooden artist's stools. Hunter is of course the journalist Hunter S.Thompson, whose walks on the wild side launched Steadman on the Bourbon trail when they met in Kentucky nearly 30 years ago. "He used to drink it in a quart size glass," he added eyes wide at the memory. "Wild Turkey it was. We drank gallons of the stuff." So much in fact that Steadman was bestowed the title Colonel of Kentucky. He was then made an Admiral when he returned 15 years later, despite the fact the state is miles from the ocean. Still it's the kind of anomaly Steadman revels in and he's dead proud of his honours. "I have the certificates to prove it," he boasts. Of course the real reason for his awards are his illustrations of the Kentucky Derby which he modestly describes as “a high point in journalism”.Hunter wrote the articles and Steadman did the pictures. They became soulmates and workmates for the celebrated Rolling Stone magazine and even today pursue their perverse hobby of scraping the barrel
for insults ."I've just got a fax from Hunter describing my latest illustration for one of his articles as looking like something done by someone with Alzheimer's," Steadman protests, feigning shock. Hunter would probably reason that this is because Steadman isn't drinking whisky any more. “It is true I did some of my best work under the influence of whisky, " Steadman muses, taking a glug of ginger beer and tripping off the names of some of his whisky-inspired titles – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, America, Tales of the Wierrd."I listened to the whole of the Watergate hearings under the influence of whisky," he recalls. "Hunter says I even fell over Judge Irvine on one occasion I was so bad. The trouble was I could never have
one dram."And neither could Hunter it seemed. "Hunter believed the body was a chemical receiver," Steadman goes on. "He used to say, ‘I would never recommend drink and drugs to anyone but it works for me.’ “I didn't get on well with the drugs; they took me to places I didn't want to go and gouged my subconscious. But the whisky, well I could never mix it with water – not even Bourbon. I always drank it neat."Hunter's favourites are Chivas Regal and Wild Turkey, but I like Islay malts and Highland Park which is made in Orkney. I also like making my own blend." He describes how he would add a single malt to a Famous Grouse or even a Bell's to create his own special cocktail. "It is amazing how easily you can upgrade a blended whisky by 75 per cent." Steadman introduced Hunter to Glenfiddich in Zaire two years after they met in 1972. They were there to cover the George Foreman and Mohammed Ali fight which became known as the Rumble in the Jungle. "I got some bottles duty free," Steadman explains. It was to be Hunter's first experience of Scotch. The reaction was catastrophic. "He sold our tickets to the fight, bought a bag of 'weed', tipped it and himself into the hotel swimming pool and proceeded to swim about with a bottle of malt in one hand and a bucket of ice in the other." But then, as Steadman declares, Scotch whisky is made by dark, rough, northern people and its effects can be similarly brutal. His book, Still life with Bottle: Whisky According to Ralph Steadman published in 1994, is an irreverent distillation of the history of whisky and a less-than-flattering portrait of those who make it. But then flattery has never been Steadman's business. Unlike the folks in Kentucky, no Scottish laird has rushed to bestow any titles on him.Many would even say Steadman has turned cruelty into an art form. A criticism he
strongly denies. “I am not malevolent. There is always humour. There is always a twinkle in the eye. I am not sure what the Scots thought of my book. But I do like upsetting people. I do it because they are hypocritical.”The Scots will have to don their hard hats for his next tome. "I plan to write a part two about the excesses of whisky, which would have to involve Hunter," he warns.It is the dark side of the whisky world that fascinates Steadman most and which inspired him to devote four years of his life to researching and writing Still Life with Bottle.It took him to the deepest recesses of all the major Scottish distilleries. He became intrigued with distillation and had a morbid fascination for those dark corners. "There is such a dark mystery surrounding whisky, which includes things like Prohibition and smuggling," he explains. "Whisky is something people feel afraid of. It is a hard, strong drink made by hard people from a hard, cold climate. It is about turbulence and violence. My temperament doesn't suit it because I am too impulsive. Whisky demands total commitment and I could not give it that. I could not give up my wine. Unfortunately the two are jealous opponents. But I do miss it. I would like to drink whisky every day .”For the moment, a limited edition of The Macallan is the only bottle of malt in his wine cellar, and that's because he designed the label. Nowadays he derives a perverse joy from seeing his odd-job man, Derek, drink whisky. “I like watching people drink,” he says a touch voyeuristically.He admits he has extricated himself, albeit temporarily, from his turbulent love affair with the golden nectar.“The trouble is I like whisky too much,” he muses. “But I had to stop before it became a terrible enemy. It was like a dangerous liaison. I became aggressive. I couldn't drink it to the exclusion of everything else. I liked to follow it with a beer chaser, so I got terrible hangovers. I will write about it in next book which will be a wild trip through the darker regions of the whisky world.' Steadman will write this next odyssey from the peace of his Kent mansion where guests are treated to a musical doorbell playing the theme tune from the British TV series Blackadder. When they step through the door, a cornucopia of objets d'art, from a huge set of rosary beads to a bare breasted female torso greets them. Steadman is a restless individual with fingers in a thousand and one pies. His newly-launched CD, The Plaguedemon and the Moonflower, for which he has written the libretto, tells the story of a creature which falls in love with a parasite. He is designing costumes for The Royal Ballet's production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible and my visit interrupts his drafting of an advertisement for a car music system. He is also in the throes of creating a sculpture for his garden out of old engine parts. And the basement of his cellar is full of various curios that would not look out of place in the London Dungeon. His next book, if not about whisky, will be about Nietzsche, the German philosopher. Like whisky, Nietzsche has a dark side Steadman wants to penetrate; but typically he will lace it with humour. “I will probably call it The Philosophy of French Plumbing,” he says.Then of course there is the Boughton Monchelsea Youth orchestra – average age 55 – of which he is a proud member of the wind section, making a mean sound on the teapot. He also plays a bugle, hunting horn and trumpet lest he should crave diversion. His hero is WC Fields because of his quote about drunkenness being so common but literacy so rare that they didn't even put a label on a bottle of booze. His heroines are Carry Nation, who tried to ban whisky in the US after her husbands died of drink, and another woman called Mrs Tooze who lobbied for Prohibition. "Can you imagine a woman called Tooze trying to ban booze. I think that is so funny." And of course you can't help laughing with him. As I leave it seems that Steadman's reunion with whisky may be sooner than he has led me
to believe. "I'm probably going to spend six months in Inverness, northern California, next year with my wife Anna," he declares suddenly. Then adds: “I've heard there is some good hooch there and bars where I can smoke – heaven!” And what’s the reckoning that Hunter will be heading his way with a welcoming quart of Wild Turkey?
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