We were sitting in a bar in Aspen, Colorado, almost 20 years ago, I remind Ralph Steadman, when he first told me that he’d become a cartoonist because he wanted to change the world. It wasn’t the first time he’d made this declaration and it wouldn’t be the last. But it’s a mission statement that seems horribly apposite this afternoon, as we sit in the living room of his house near Maidstone, Kent, watching live news coverage from the print warehouse where Said and Cherif Kouachi, the killers of the Charlie Hebdo artists, are making their last stand.
“It is interesting that you should mention that remark today,” says Steadman, “because, looking at what has been happening in Paris, I now feel that I have succeeded. I did manage to change the world, and it is a worse place than it was when I started. Far worse – an achievement I had always assumed would be impossible.”
With the exception of a brief radio interview on the day of the shootings, Steadman had declined to join the throng of commentators jostling to share their opinions on the tragedy. Just as I arrived, he had spurned an invitation from a radio station in Lincoln, Nebraska. “As soon as this thing happened,” he says, “the phone started ringing. I don’t know why.”
“Probably,” I tell him, “because people perceive you as precisely the sort of . . .”
“. . . bastard who might draw something that would severely displease somebody because they could not see the joke?” the 78-year-old interrupts.