This week I woke up shocked to find myself on the front page of the Daily Mail. Apparently I’m the first person in history to have gone on the record about taking drugs with a British prime minister. But it’s really no big deal is it? Had I thought so, I’d never have spilled the beans.
In fact, I think it’s one of those perfect non-scandal scandals in which all parties benefit. Dave acquires an extra bit of hinterland and is revealed to have been a normal young man. I get 100 more Twitter followers and a couple of columns. No one is hurt because, let’s face it, smoking drugs at university is a healthy expression of youthful curiosity. It’s all those freako, career-safe politicians who have never done drugs who should really worry us.
Not that Dave and our contemporaries were a particularly druggy Oxford generation. All that came a couple of years later, when rave culture kicked in and suddenly everyone was doing ecstasy and charlie. We were much more interested in reliving Brideshead Revisited. The series had been on TV not long before we came up, and they didn’t do drugs in Brideshead. They did champagne (Sebastian Flyte) and Brandy Alexanders (Anthony Blanche), so fizz and cocktails were what we did mainly too. If the TV series had never happened, Oxford in the early 1980s might have looked very different.
So when Dave and our mutual friend James and I repaired to my rooms in Christ Church for a cheeky smoke, we were being quite radical for our time. ‘Sure Oxford has a drugs problem. The problem is we can’t get hold of drugs for love nor money,’ said a Christ Church friend of mine to a BBC TV news crew, somewhat insensitively, given that they’d come to report on the death of poor Olivia Channon who’d overdosed on speedballs (heroin and cocaine) in a room belonging to Gottfried von Bismarck. (The King of Tunisia was another member of the House at the time. But we never saw him and I don’t think he ever did drugs.)
Judging by the reactions so far, people are far less shocked at the revelation that the young Dave Cameron smoked drugs at Oxford than that we did so while listening to the 1970s pomp-rock band Supertramp. Surely in the mid-1980s we should have been listening to something more credible?
As it happens, I did, and do, like the Smiths. So, I know, does Dave — he once named them as his favourite band, prompting their guitarist Johnny Marr to tweet: ‘Stop saying that you like the Smiths, no you don’t. I forbid you to like it.’ But if you recall the range of music you listened to when you were young, it was an extraordinary hotchpotch of stuff, some bleeding edge, some classic, some plain embarrassing.
Among the other, possibly cooler, things I was listening to in that era were: Kilimanjaro by The Teardrop Explodes; Dare by the Human League; Soul Mining by The The and Hounds of Love by Kate Bush, as well as, more shamefully, The Unforgettable Fire by U2 and Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits.
And then there was that trio of bands — groups, as we called them — you listened to all the time if you had attended an English public school on the cusp of the 1980s: Genesis, Supertramp and Pink Floyd.
Partly, possibly, it was down to subconscious solidarity with bands whose members had been privately educated (in the above cases Charterhouse, Stowe and the Perse); mainly because their pretentiousness, wistfulness and melancholy — the quiet desperation that is the English way — chimed so perfectly with being an adolescent exiled to boarding school with nothing but your fancy turntable, your spot cream and your pack of wank tissues for company.
I’m sure it was much the same for David Cameron, which is why, when we met at Oxford, Supertramp’s Crime of the Century (1974) was instant common ground. It had great intros (such as the eerie, plaintive harmonica at the beginning), strong melodies, Roger Hodgson’s distinctive high-pitched vocals, a catchy hit single (‘Dreamer’), pleasingly angsty lyrics about madness, alienation and school, an epic spaciousness which, like, really took you to another world, and also, of course, plenty of wondrous flams.
A flam is a drumbeat of two almost simultaneous strokes which gives your percussion a richer, more expansive feel. It sounds especially good when you’re stoned — or so Dave, our friend James and I decided one afternoon in my rooms above Peckwater Quad, where we’d gathered for a smoke and a nostalgic listen to the classic album of our adolescence. As to whether it has stood the test of time, I couldn’t say, not having played it in a while. But I hope this unexpected burst of publicity will encourage all those naysayers who’ve been dismissing it out of hand to give it a proper listen. Perhaps while using the correct drugs this time.
No hard feelings, I hope, Dave. We’ve had our ups and downs but I’ll always remember our Oxford days fondly and for all my harsh criticisms over the years I still wish you well. But one serious point I would like to raise about your misspent youth and mine is this: your cleaving to our current drugs laws is hypocritical and wrong.
Quite soon now our own kids will be up at university — Oxford, hopefully — dabbling with weed. Except it won’t be nice giggly stuff like we used to smoke. It will be that horrible, chemical-y, psychosis-inducing skunk. Strong smoke driving out mild smoke is one of the many unintended consequence of our illiberal drug laws. Make it legal, make it safe, say I: you owe it to your vanished youth.