In the Year of Three Trips, the last time I went by ferry from Margate to Zeebrugge, then drove through Belgium to Rotterdam. My girlfriend at the time discovered when we reached Margate that she'd forgotten her passport. We decided to wing it and she attempted to enter Europe using a British Library card - arguably a more impressive travel document. Belgian immigration wasn't impressed and deported her. The official sneered, "If only your Mr Major would ratify the EU Treaty these problems would, I think, not be happening!"
I felt so implicated in Britishness that I misguidedly phoned "our" consul. His answering machine barked, "Don't bother me with trivial problems like mislaid passports!" I left an 'umble message to the effect that we were having problems entering the country, but don't bother doing anything if it's a hassle - and to our surprise he called back three minutes later. "What the bloody hell do you mean bothering me with this!" he screamed down the phone. "I've been up all night scraping four of your fellow countrymen off the central reservation of a Belgian motorway!" I couldn't help but thrill to his flagrant lack of diplomacy.
In truth, this nether Netherlands visit was a bit of a cliche. I was writing a parody of a James Bond story and decided to set it among the dope-growing fraternity. The premise was simple: Bond falls for a lovely Dutch spy, but when he arrives in Holland to investigate the skunk business with her they share a joint and it triggers off his issues. He sees that his activities as a Lothario are simply the flip side of his misogyny. Packed off to boarding school at an early age he has never really understood women and, threatened by them, his priapic progress is nothing but his inability to deal with intimacy. Standing in the opulent Rotterdam hotel room, the gorgeous Dutch spy thrown naked across the silk counterpane in front of him, Bond experiences his first flop-on as his head whirls with disturbing images. I called the story "Rotten Smoke", from the lines in Shakespeare's sonnet 34: "To let base clouds o'ertake me in my way / Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke ..."
In the interests of verisimilitude I'd arranged through a Dutch friend to meet up with some skunky operatives and learn about the intricacies of the business. The wacky tobacconists lived in a vertiginous old terraced house in the district of Amsterdam known - rather suitably - as "De Pijp" (The Pipe). Naturally they turned out to be about as glamorous as a couple of c.1976 polytechnic students reciting Monty Python's Parrot Sketch. Yes, they'd got on the wrong end of their product. The house had as well - every nook and cranny stank of skunk and there were about 50 kilos stacked up in Geest banana boxes. In order not to arouse the suspicions of any Dutch narcs who happened to be passing downwind, a ventilation system had been rigged up which continually passed the air through a bucket of bleach.
The grower turned out to be a rather strait-laced young woman from Basingstoke, while the "taster" was an Austrian short-story writer manque. He wanted to talk Hemingway - most tedious. Before I left he handed me a bud the size of baby's fist. "Make sure you've got your head a few centimetres from the pillow before you toke on this," he warned me. "It's that strong." I did as I was told but all that happened was that my girlfriend's face was transmogrified into a hideous vegetative tangle. Rotten smoke indeed.
Ralph Steadman doesn't need to indulge in any artificial stimulants at all as you can see from his superb picture of "gunnera men" (reproduced above, and named after the giant rhubarb-like plant). He saw them at Leeds Castle the other week, high on Assam tea. I wonder sometimes if, like Obelix, Ralph was dropped in a vat of some potion when he was a child. It may explain the tortured elasticity of his vision. "Zwaar" as the Dutch would say. E