It’s a beautiful sunny afternoon in the summer of 1985 and three undergraduates are sitting cross-legged in an oak-panelled room high above one of Oxford’s grandest college quads stoned out of their brains on marijuana.
Two of us, both called James, are destined to become journalists; the other one of us, a guy called Dave, is going to become Prime Minister. But none of us is thinking about careers yet because the future is a long way away – and anyway, it’s much more fun getting wrecked on weed and listening to Supertramp’s Crime Of The Century.
“Check that out!” says Dave. His father’s a wealthy stockbroker; like the other James, he went to Eton; he’s very good at tennis, he’s got a gorgeous girlfriend called Fran and he speaks in the richy, fruity voice of one who knows he is born to rule.
“Check what out?” I say. Of the three, I’m the least posh. I only went to a ‘minor public school’ and I speak with a slight Birmingham accent.
“That amazing drum sound,” says Dave. “Where the beats all go close together and kind of merge into one.”
“Oh yeah. The flam” says James, who knows his music.
“Yeah the flam,” agrees Dave. “Maybe that’s what we should call ourselves: The Flam Club.”
“And what exactly is the purpose of the Flam Club, exactly?” I ask.
“We sit around getting stoned and listening out for the flams on Supertramp albums,” explains Dave.
“Excellent,” says James.
Thirty years on I still have to pinch myself sometimes when I remember that the charming, likeable, not very political bloke called Dave I used to smoke dope with is now the leader of one of the world’s most powerful nations.
But what I find even more surprising is that anyone should find it remotely odd that the Prime Minister of Great Britain should have dabbled in drugs in his youth.
Personally, I’d find it a lot more worrying if we had a Prime Minister of his generation who hadn’t smoked the odd spliff in his time. Politicians are so tame and career-safe, nowadays. We could do with a few with a bit of hinterland.
Noel Gallagher of Oasis was quite right a few years later when he said that taking drugs “like getting up and having a cup of tea in the morning.”
It certainly was for at least some of us at Oxford in the mid-Eighties.
Not all of us though, it must be said. If Dave and I had gone up to Oxford just a couple of years later, we would have found a university awash with class A drugs. By then Rave Culture had exploded and suddenly everyone was doing Ecstasy and Cocaine. But when we were there, drug-taking was still a minority pursuit.
In our day, the main intoxicant of choice was alcohol – champagne for preference or cocktails. That’s because Brideshead Revisited had only recently been on television and many of us – public schoolboys especially – liked to model ourselves on the decadent antics of Lord Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s novel about Oxford’s 1930s Gilded Generation.
We wanted to emulate scenes like the one in another Evelyn Waugh novel where a band of rioting drunken toffs smashes every pane of glass in Christ Church. This was based on a real life outrage perpetrated in the 19th century bythe Bullingdon Club – which, of course, David Cameron and another of my Oxford friends Boris Johnson would subsequently join.
“Yes, Oxford has a drugs problem,” I remember one of my friends telling a BBC news crew at the time. “The problem is that we can’t get hold of them for love nor money.”
This was largely true, though there were exceptions. The BBC news crew had come to my college, Christ Church, to cover the tragic story of Olivia Channon, a girl in the year above me – daughter of a prominent Tory MP – who had died taking a cocktail of heroin and cocaine called a speedball.
She died in the rooms of an even more aristocratic undergraduate, the German count Gottfried von Bismarck, who himself died eight years ago of a drugs overdose in his near-empty £5 million Chelsea flat.
But for those of us who moved in less rarefied circles – and that includes Dave who, Old Etonian though he may have been, was a regular bloke not an insane party animal – cannabis was the only illegal drug we knew.
It came in two forms – resin (aka hash – either Red Leb or Black Moroccan) or grass. Which one you smoked depended on what was available. There was only about one student dealer serving the entire university. That’s why dope smokers tended to stick together. We were a small, fairly exclusive club.
I met Dave in my second year through a mutual friend from his college Brasenose. People say now that he was talked of, even at the time, as a future prime minister. But I don’t remember this. He wasn’t – unlike Boris – an active member of the Oxford Union (the debating society where so many future politicians cut their teeth) nor was he even a regular at the university Conservative Association. He preferred hanging out in his college bar or watching Blackadder on TV with the lads. And yes, on occasion, coming to my rooms in Christ Church for a cheeky spliff with James and me.
Dave had obviously smoked drugs before. (I think he may have tried them first while still at Eton). But for him, as for me, they were a hobby rather than a habit: something a little different to while away an afternoon, prior to another evening’s hard drinking. The dope available in those days was much much milder than the evil skunk weed that the kids smoke today: it made you mellow, relaxed and giggly rather than edgy and psychotic.
I’d say the damage we did to ourselves with alcohol was far worse than the effects of any weed we smoked.
Sometimes, on the morning after, my hands would shake so badly that I’d have to drink a stiff Bloody Mary pick me up just so I’d be capable of writing my next essay. When my father came to visit me he was so shocked he said: “If that’s what alcohol is doing to you I’d rather you smoked dope.”
My memories of David Cameron are very happy. It’s a shame we’ve split since – because of political differences. About the last time I spoke to him was before he became Prime Minister at a Spectator party. “Dave, how come you’ve turned into such a ****ing lefty ****?” I said – and he laughed.
For years I kept quiet about the Flam Club because I don’t believe anyone’s career should be jeopardised by youthful indiscretions. Now that Dave is very comfortably ensconced in his second term as PM, though, I feel like I’m almost doing him a favour: it’ll give him a bit of much-needed street cred. But I do think his dope-smoking past ought to weigh more heavily on his conscience when it comes to our ridiculous drugs laws. Cameron says he doesn’t want to take a softer line on cannabis and I think he should. Any time soon now, our own kids are going to be at university, experimenting with weed. Is it really right that, as the law stands, they should be treated as criminals?