It is the last day of summer and Ceri Levy, a writer and documentary filmmaker, is driving photographer Elliot Kennedy and I through the countryside to his home in Rutland, east Midlands. As the sun glares through the windshield, I get a sense of Levy’s views on current politics.
“Andy Burnham needs a punch in the face,” he says. “His hair and eyebrows fucking bother me.”
A world with no birds? It would be terrible
After discussing the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister, I ask Levy about his new book Nextinction, a book about birds at risk of extinction, created in collaboration with the illustrator Ralph Steadman.
“What we’re trying to do is engage people’s humour,” says Levy about the book. “At least at first, it gives you all the facts about these nearly extinct birds, communicated in a way that makes you laugh, and then you go, ‘Shit, did you read what he just said?’ ”
Nextinction follows Extinct Boids, Levy and Steadman’s first book, which was released in 2012. Extinct Boids was initiated in 2011, after Levy contacted Steadman to paint an extinct bird for an exhibition he was co-curating called Ghost of Gone Birds. Following this, Steadman’s creativity was awakened and he drew 100 more extinct birds, the basis of the book.
After Extinct Boids, Levy and Steadman realised that they had more to offer on the subject; they created Nextinction, a series of drawings, anecdotes and inconvenient truths about nearly extinct birds. The book features the 192 critically endangered birds on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list – like the hen harrier, spoon-billed sandpiper and kakapo. It also includes some original creations by Steadman, such as the unsociable lapwing.
While we are driving, Steadman is waiting for us at Levy’s house. In the run up to my visit, I had been excited about meeting him. Once the partner to gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, Steadman became renowned for his brutal and erratic sketching style after his drawings were published alongside Thompson’s stories such as The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved (1970) and the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971).
After this, Steadman went on to illustrate versions of Lewis Carroll's novel Through the Looking-Glass (the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) and poem The Hunting of the Snark; Robert Louis Stephenson's Treasure Island and George Orwell's Animal Farm. As well as authoring books such as I Leonardo, a study of Leonardo Da Vinci.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Thompson’s suicide, so it might seem natural for me to discuss him in my interview with Steadman.
But, after meeting Levy, I decided not to mention anything about Thompson. Not because the subject of the anniversary might be touchy but, after reading Nextinction, I quickly appreciated Levy’s honest writing style. I thought it would be rude to talk about another writer in front of him.
There is one story in Levy’s book that has haunted me ever since I read it. It recounts how while he was attempting to save protected bird species in Malta – a subject included in his upcoming documentary The Bird Effect – Levy saw a group of hunters shoot a lesser spotted eagle.
“In that moment we knew the bird was dead,” writes Levy. “Shot emphatically. Car lights in the distance glowed as the hunters left the scene of the crime ...”
Nextinction is not an ordinary ornithological manual or case study. Through its colour and humour, the book not only touches on the politics of saving endangered species, but also reveals the importance of a close friendship shared between Ceri and Ralph.
The Lion and Albert
When we arrive at Levy’s house, Steadman is sunbathing in the garden, drinking tea with his family. He asks his wife Anna about the new Harper Lee book that has just come out.
“It’s called Go Set a Watchman,” she says.
“I thought it was Go Sack a Gentleman?”, he says.
“I put it in your bag Ralph,” she says. “You’re not going to read it in the car?”
“No, I’m not,” he says. “I think I’ll watch the country go by.”
When Steadman sees us arrive, he asks if we’ll begin the interview on Grossenheimer’s Laws of Adiabatic Masses, a mathematical formula with no search results on Google and one of many running jokes shared between Levy and Steadman.
“We might have to because I think nothing is explicable without them,” says Levy.
I think there’s something childlike about the
way we work together, it’s like a reversion
Steadman then recites Marriott Edgar’s The Lion and Albert – a monologue famously performed by the British actor Stanley Holloway. The story follows the Ramsbottoms and their son Albert at a zoo in Blackpool. Albert encounters a lion named Wallace and, seeing him asleep in his cage, pokes the animal in its ear with a stick.
“You could see that the lion didn’t like it," recites Steadman, "for giving a kind of a roll, he pulled Albert inside the cage with ‘im, and swallowed the little lad ‘ole.”
After five minutes with Levy and Steadman, I can already see the humour between them, something I had caught glimpses of in the book. These comedic, playful exchanges between the two of them seemed to provide a lot of energy.
“This is how most of my days usually are with Ralph,” says Levy, pretending to look sullen.
I fire a question at Steadman, asking if he thinks working on the book reminded him of being a child. The shot misses, and he goes further into the garden to show something to Kennedy – who prepares to take his photograph.
“Ralph isn’t going topless today,” says Levy, as we follow him into the garden.
“Up the gardener!” says Steadman, as he hides behind a flower bush, throwing his cup of tea in the air for the camera.
Like a Child
While Steadman is having his portrait taken, I take Levy aside and repeat the question about childhood.
“I think there’s something childlike about the way we work together, it’s like a reversion,” he says. “For this book, we’re both discovering and learning things that we’re not overtly knowledgeable about, so there’s a real innocence. And you’re most adept at learning when you’re a child because you’re more willing to immerse yourself.
There’s far more personality in the birds
Ralph creates than in today's politicians
“Ralph and I immersed ourselves in the subject of birds. Ok, I got far more involved in some of the stories of the birds, but at the same time, you look at something like Ralph’s depiction of the hen harrier being shot down in mid-flight and you can really feel the impact.”
Levy goes on to tell me how rare hen harriers have become in the UK because of driven grouse shooting. As they are assumed to be a threat to red grouse, which are reared by gamekeepers, the harriers have been nearly completely eradicated in the UK.
“People need to be made aware of these facts in a dynamic way,” says Levy. “What Ralph and I have done is turn these into stories that capture the imagination. And Ralph’s drawings are like no other artist’s. The hen harrier picture is what he would call an impact picture because he started with some black splats, then some red splats. He realised it was blood straight away.
“Birds have always been in his pictures. But they were in the background before. Now they’re in the foreground. I think he’s found them more exciting to draw than politicians, which is what he became known for. There’s far more personality in the birds Ralph creates than there are in today's politicians.”
I start thinking back to Steadman’s drawings of US president Richard Nixon in the 1973 book Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail ‘72 (written by Hunter S Thompson) and his earlier work for the magazines Private Eye and Punch in the 1960s.
Suddenly, I hear a noise from the garden and turn around to see Steadman hanging from the washing line.
“I’m Jesus and I’m hanging out to dry,” he says in a cockney accent.
“I’ll get the pegs on and we’ll spin you around!” says Levy.
The Politics of Birds
After Steadman removes himself from the washing line, he explains why he now prefers drawing birds.
“I just thought I was someone who drew politicians,” he says, “but I got sick of political figures so I started drawing their legs. Just the legs. Some of them were very bird-legged too.
Birds are as political as anything else
“I realised that I’ve been drawing birds since the 1970s. I liked drawing them. If you draw a little circular thing with a beak on the front and two little claws, it’s a bird immediately.”
I tell him I think that his and Levy’s books seem to have a political element.
“It’s because people are for and against birds now,” says Steadman. “Some people consider a lot of birds, like seagulls and pigeons, to be bloody horrible things. There was a time 25-years-ago when they decided to get rid of the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. They had them all eliminated with poison.”
“I like getting stuck into a subject that has meaning,” says Levy. “I’ve had cancer twice and a heart attack. People ask if that changed my values. I said, no. It just meant that I want to make sure I’m doing something of purpose and good everyday.
“With birds, it’s a subject you can get stuck into because it’s so unfair. It’s like the people of this country: they need someone sticking up for them. The Tories are not looking out for the people. We need someone to step forward and champion our cause.
“Birds are like this. They’re as political as anything else. If you look into it, birds have been used to indicate problems throughout the world. Like the canary in a coal mine. It would keel over and die and all the people would be safe.”
Make people laugh a bit; no po-faced sniffiness
As Levy is speaking, Steadman shows Kennedy a pendant on a necklace he is wearing. He tells him that it was made for him by Hunter S Thompson. While omitting any mention of the gonzo journalist in my interview, I could still feel his presence around Steadman.
“We’ve spent centuries now eradicating wildlife from our planet,” continues Levy. “If we took notice of what the birds are saying to us, we can probably enrich our lives and our world.
“But there’s no point telling everyone we’re all terrible bastards; we know that. All we can do is just show people what’s going on, and do it with a smile.”
Steadman turns away from Kennedy and continues with the conversation.
“With this book,” he says, “I just said to Ceri, make people laugh a bit. No po-faced sniffiness. If you treat it with a bit of humour, it’s amazing how people warm to it.”
Ceri goes to pick some plums from a tree, then returns offering them to each of us.
“I was just saying to not be sniffy,” says Steadman. “Like you were when you first came to me. I had to humanise you a bit. You had a bit of a beak.”
“He blunted my beak, then we were off,” says Levy.
After watching the 2013 documentary For No Good Reason, about Ralph Steadman, I felt the bird books formed a significant chapter in his career.
I think these will be the bird years for Ralph
There is a moment near the end of the film where Steadman says he’s feeling “down, apprehensive and anxious”. He explains how it’s to do with getting old and that you don’t know how long it (life) goes on for. That while taking a trip to the loo in the middle of the night, he felt “slightly meaningless".
“Why did I try to change the world?” he says in the film.
This quote is in my head as I met Steadman. I feel that, since working with Levy, he had found new energy. That, while previously down, apprehensive and anxious, he now has a new direction.
During our interview, I mentioned that section in For No Good Reason to Steadman. I said that, it appeared he was depressed by going through his history. Was Nextinction a way of detaching himself from that history?
“This is a new chapter,” he says. “Tackling natural life and nature generally.”
And that's all he says.
After Steadman leaves to go to his home in Kent, I ask Levy more about whether he thought the bird project was significant to Steadman.
“I can’t comment on his state of mind or how he feels about his past,” says Levy, “but I think there’s something about creative people where it’s kind of frustrating to be talking about your past; especially if there is a present.
“There are many artists who don’t have a present. They’ve done work in the past and that’s it. But Ralph has been constantly working. Even if he was in a quieter phase of his life when we met, he’s one of those artists who always needs a purpose.
“People are starting to see what he’s done with his drawings and what we’ve done together with the books. They’ve given him a new lease of life and that’s what we all need. I think these will be the bird years for Ralph.”
Before Steadman had left, I asked him what he thought the world would be like without birds.
“Bloody awful,” he says. “Think, if there was not a single tweet. If there was nothing to hear. An absolute blanket of soundlessness.
“Even in the Arctic you might get the whooshing of the wind. But a world with no birds? It would be terrible.”