Ralph sends the attached picture [of a shark] — why? I’ve never known him to go scuba diving and the closest he’s come to a shark — so far as I’m aware — is a euphemism, namely a sharkskin suit that he wore when dancing at the Hot Club de Jazz with Josephine Baker in the 1920s (or was it Chet Baker in the 1950s? I forget). It makes you wonder what goes on in the Steadman imagination. Presumably, in the small hours of the night, the dread horn-honking of minor chords disturbs his repose the tempo quickening, Ralph thrashes in the sweat-damp duvet as if it were the salty sea itself.
“Humph-humph! Humph-humph! Humph-humph!” Ralph’s legs begin to bicycle frenetically, anticipating the slice of those double rows of razor-sharp teeth, and still the tempo quickens: “Hmph-hmph!! Hmphhmph!! Hmph-hmph!!!” As the dream-shark hits, the venerable artist shoots upright with a great moan, then slides, jerkily, out of the bed.
“What is it, dear?” asks Mrs S.
“Oh, nothing … nothing …” he mutters, putting on his dressing gown. Then he limps across to the studio, snaps on the lights, sits down at his drawing board, and commits his vision to paper. In the long, dark night of the soul, the relentless psyche is always being fed.
I, too, have never been anywhere near a shark — but I know a man who has: my old partner in grimy needlework, Sebastian Horsley, flaneur, painter, homme des hommes, and all-round eccentric. Sebastian’s peregrinations — which include going to the Philippines in order to be crucified in a local folk ritual — always start life as a quest for the hyper-realistic inspiration his big, oily canvases demand. So it was with the sharks. I quote here from his own memoir, Dandy in the Underworld, to be published this autumn: “The great white was one of my first muses along with sunflowers and Marc Bolan. It is what one yearns to be — it has such extraordinary charisma — the ability to persuade without the use of logic. It leads a life of imperious solitude. It is apart, feared, respected, untameable. Here is a force entirely indifferent to our desires. Fear made flesh. Where beauty and death merge.
“Here was a subject that obsessed me — something I could hang my feelings on — and yet I couldn’t paint it. I came to my conclusion. I had to meet this creature … ”
Um. Yeah, sure — if that’s what floats your boat, mate. Off Sebastian went to Adelaide in South Australia, where he took ship with a character called Rodney Fox, who was the shark advisor (advising about sharks, obviously, not consulting with them) on the film of Jaws. Fox himself had been attacked by a shark, and so badly masticated that only his wetsuit kept him intact. Naturally, when he recovered, he decided to dedicate his life to studying this elusive and mysterious creature. Wouldn’t you?
Survivor of 400 million years of evolution, the great white shark remains an enigma with a pronounced overbite. Almost nothing is known about it: where it goes, how it mates, whether it can read. It’s impossible to keep in captivity, because it has to move relentlessly forward. It never sleeps: it simply kills and eats (and possibly reads). It is top of the food chain, and never pays a bill.
Sebastian was going to be lowered in a cage into the sea, there to disport himself with the great whites, who were summoned by chucking chum (this is a puree of blood and offal, not the dog food, that’s capitalised, thus: Chum) into the water. The sharks are so creepily attuned that they can detect a heartbeat in the water from miles off, and smell the blood. Arguably, this is a kind of sensitivity, but these creatures are also so rapacious that they’ll devour their siblings in the womb.
The very place names on the fatal shore of the Southern Ocean bear the impress of shark-dread: Coffin Bay, Memory Cove, Cape Catastrophe, and the hunting ground where our man was headed, the reassuringly named Dangerous Reef. Needless to say, Sebastian got on rather well with the great whites, despite the fact that even after weeks in his cage he still couldn’t manage the mechanism required to winch it to the surface.
He was impressed by the enormous girth of the sharks, their surprisingly expressive eyes, and their habit of sneaking up on him from behind. All in all, they sound not dissimilar to some of the more louche denizens of Sebastian’s other thrashing ground: Soho. On his last day at Dangerous Reef, the painter went down in the gloom: “I felt giddy with desire to undo the hatch of the cage, to swim free and melt into that holy chasm. To float away and stop hurting.” You mean, start hurting, Sebastian â€“ even Ralph knows that sharks bite, and he’s never been near one.