Whether it’s been due to a pregnancy or being gay, quitting education or having acquired a tattoo, abandoning a religion or needing help with an overdraft, we’ve all fessed up to our parents for something. In my case, it was drugs.
My very first such encounter was a vicarious one. It must’ve been around 1965 when I was fifteen. There was a girl I knew whose older brother, then about seventeen, went all the way down to London with one of his friends specifically so that they could buy some LSD. It would seem that there was nothing quite that sophisticated in West Yorkshire in those days.
When the pair returned they brought back two tiny squares of blotting-paper impregnated with LSD which had cost them a small fortune. The following weekend, about thirty of us turned up at a party at their family home in Bingley. The parents had gone out and, once we were all assembled, the two older lads each swallowed their pricy piece of blotting paper and we all waited to see what happened… nothing.
They’d gone all that way only to pay through the nose for blotting paper with nothing on it. Back then, even in a backwater like West Yorkshire, you could’ve bought a huge sheet of blotting paper for a few pence.
The next experience came after several of us had been reading up on drugs and had found out that you could get high by smoking dried banana skins… though not, as it turned out, when you used the oven in your parents’ kitchen to bake dry the skins of bananas your mum had bought from the greengrocer.
My first real drugs experience involved amphetamines. It came when the mum of one of my friends threw away a big bottle of her anti-depressants. We’d all read about purple hearts, which were neither purple nor heart-shaped. We knew they were in fact triangular and blue. We raided the dustbin and found a hoard of pills which were exactly that. We partied on them for weeks.
Soon after this, I discovered marijuana, actually hallucinating the very first time I smoked it. Ah, teenage self-indulgence! A subsequent experiment with smoking kitchen herbs and spices supposedly related to marijuana, taught me just how scary hallucinations can become when they lock you in and keep you there for hours.
On my first day as an Industrial Metallurgy student at Birmingham University I got settled into my digs on Station Road in Kings Heath and, that evening, got on a bus into the university. There was a second-year student on the bus. She sat down next to me and said ‘So you’re a fresher.’ When I asked how she knew that, she said ‘You’re wearing new clothes, all ironed by your mum.’ She took me down the union bar and introduced me to her friends, all second- and third-year students. One of them, Colin, plonked a big tub of weed in the middle of the table along with a pack of Rizla papers and told us all to help ourselves. Soon I became a connoisseur of all things dope and dopey… from lumps of Leb red and Afghan black through thick clumps of dried flower heads to dark brown treacly test-tubes of tincture of cannabis.
Now picture this. It’s the late sixties and I’m home from Uni. We’re watching black’n’white telly, me and my mum and my dad. She’s doing the ironing while he and I are sitting in adjoining armchairs. There are just the three TV channels: Beebs one and two and ITV. I’ve been plucking up the courage all evening to offer them my drug-fiend confession. I’m telling myself that I need to break it to them gently, knowing they’ll be shocked. Suddenly there’s an interlude between programmes. Now’s my chance.
‘I’ve got something to tell you.’ Dad gets up, walks over to the TV, turns down the volume, sits back down and turns to face me. Mum still stands in front of the ironing board. She’s paused, has put down the iron and is also looking my way. Panicked, I just blurt out my dramatic truth: ‘I smoke marijuana…’
They seem to absorb the shock more easily than I expected. I’m relieved. Encouraged by this, I add: ‘… and I’ve got some with me. Would you like to try it?’ Until recently, my dad used to smoke a pipe. My mum still smokes Churchman Olympic filter cigarettes, so I reckon they’ll go for it.
I’m wrong. ‘I don’t think so,’ says my mum. I turn to look at dad. ‘Your mum says we don’t think so.’ And that’s it. End of subject. We watch some more TV. After a suitable time-lapse, I get up and leave the room. My dad follows me.
Out in the hall he says ‘Hey!’ I turn to face him. ‘So you’ve smoked dope?’ I nod. ‘And how about opium? Ever tried that?’ I tell him I’ve had opiated dope, dark resin with white flecks of opium in it. ‘So what did you think of it?’ I say that it’s the best kind of dope, gives you this lazy sleepy high that lasts and lasts. He nods and then says ‘but you’ve never had pure opium?’ I shake my head.
‘I have,’ he tells me. I’m stunned. ‘YOU have?’ He nods again. ‘When?’ I ask, still amazed. ‘Back in the 1930s when your granddad took me and my two brothers down an opium den to show us what it was like to take drugs.’
There’s a long silence while I struggle to digest the idea of my dad and my granddad – a man who died before I was even born – smoking opium together. Then dad stabs an accusatory finger into my chest before adding: ‘So don’t go thinking that you invented anything… and, just for the record, don’t ever come telling us that you’ve had sex. Your mum and me both did that as well, long before you did!’
He’s back in front of the telly with mum before I have time to even take a breath. I just stand there, dumbstruck and very definitely more the dope than the dope-smoker.