In the pub the other night, my friend Ray was grumbling about his students again. Every few months he employs a handful of students to harvest the latest crop in his cannabis factory. They steal more than they decently should, he says, and they donâ€™t work quickly enough. And when he turns up to see how things are going, they just fall about laughing at him. These students are the bane of his life, he says.
To divert him from his misery, I told him the story of my one and only attempt to grow cannabis.Â When I was 16, I told him, I germinated some cannabis seeds in my motherâ€™s airing cupboard then put the seedlings in trays in my fatherâ€™s greenhouse. The most vigorous of these I put into small pots, and from these I selected which plants I guessed would turn out to be female. (Males are spindlier.) These I decanted into large earthenware pots.Â It was a baking summer that year and the young shoots went like the clappers and within a few weeks had turned into astonishingly beautiful plants.
My father was highly amused by his layabout eldest sonâ€™s sudden interest in horticulture. As an ex-Army man, he probably assumed it a prelude to my coming out as a flamboyant homosexual.Â But he was also very impressed, in spite of himself, by my plantsâ€™ delicate, exotic beauty.Â I expect the majority ofÂ intoGardensÂ readers are familiar with this most striking aspect of the much malignedÂ Cannabis sativa. The green, five fingered leaves are supremely elegant.Â Add to this aesthetic appeal the extraordinary effect the leaves have on the human consciousness when smoked or eaten, and their extraordinary healing properties, and you have to start to wonder what Nature is playing at here.
As well as being beautiful, my flourishing cannabis plants had what I can only callÂ presence. Â I once knew a deeply sensitive professional gardener who grew about half an acre of cannabis in a walled garden beside the river at Henley-on- Thames. Â The very sight of this plantation was intoxicating. Â Unfortunately, his plantsâ€™ presence upset his mental equilibrium to the extent that he was unable to venture in amongst them. And then he suffered a psychotic breakdown and was sectioned: a tragic event for him and his young family, but fantastic news for the rest of us: his plants were ten feet high and more. After weâ€™d harvested his plantation, we sawed the trunks into small logs and burned them for fuel in the woodburner for two winters running.
Iâ€™d told my father that my exotic, rapidly spreading plants were a herb called Sweet Angelica. â€śMy word what beau-ti-ful plants,â€ť heâ€™d say, not without a touch of derision. And then heâ€™d sing it as a mantra in a silly falsetto voice. â€śBeautiful plants! Beautiful plants! Oh what beautiful plants!â€ť
In July they grew a foot a week. They filled my fatherâ€™s greenhouse and grew out through the roof, which he propped open to accommodate them.Â My father admired them so much he made them his hobby too, and he took on watering and feeding duties. Snails were a problem for a while. Word about my illegal plants spread like wildfire across the gastropod community and they travelled in great numbers — the snail equivalent of the Haj — to pay their respects. Â Snail and slug pellets soon put paid to their voracious appetites, however, and they shrivelled and died in heaps.
I held back from making any depredations of my own on their magnificence. Â I allowed myself to smoke only the pricked out buds and dropped leaves. Â If I remember rightly, the hit was cheerful, pleasantly light, and uncomplicated and IÂ looked forward to being cheerful, pleasantly light and uncomplicated for a good few months to come.Â Then, disaster.
The couple next door had an apartment attached to their home which they let to holidaymakers in the summer. One week, one of these happened to be a customs officer, who peeped over the fence one day and instantly recognised what he saw sprouting through my fatherâ€™s greenhouse roof. Perhaps because he was in a holiday mood, he leniently told my father that if they were gone the next time he looked over the fence, he would say no more about it.
When I came home from work that evening, my father was presiding over a bonfire.Â He had a sense of humour, though, did Dad. Maybe he had also inhaled. Because instead of giving me a some well-chosen words of abuse, or a clip round the ear, he greeted me with an uprooted seven foot tall cannabis plant in each hand, and singing an unaffectedly ecstatic rendition of his falsetto ditty, â€śBeautiful, beautiful plants!â€ť
Ray wasnâ€™t to be diverted so easily from his grousing. He is a hard-nosed businessman. As well as stoned students, he has to negotiate with violent criminals. Â The banks arenâ€™t lending. His electricity bills are astronomical. Â Even the price of five thousand small plastic bags has increased considerably lately. People donâ€™t realise how even cannabis farmers are being squeezed these days.Â Preoccupied with his own thoughts, he morosely studied the surface of his pint of Fosters.
â€śHow many stoned students does it take to change a light bulb?â€ť I said, adding, just in case, â€śA joke, Ray.â€ť He didnâ€™t answer. Â He continued to stare miserably into his pint. â€śWho cares, man! Itâ€™s too bright in here anyway!â€ť I said. HeÂ was so deep in despair,Â I donâ€™t know if he even heard me. Then without a word, he stood up and shambled away to the gents.
With two O levels, three convictions for smash and grab, two for drunk driving and one for possession of amphetamine sulphateÂ Jeremy ClarkeÂ was the perfect successor to Jeffrey Bernardâ€™s legendary Low Life column in The Spectator.Â For those who need to catch up on his literary genius we recommend hisÂ book.