Possibly those hardened criminal days led me to construct thick, solid walls of rules as I got older and it felt safer that way. When I started out in the creative world I frantically layered on a few extra layers of bricks. It’s rife with naughtiness. When a figure in the public eye gets outed for leaked drug using photos it’s an irrational empathy aligned to the moment that I got caught – “But everyone else is doing it too!” I’m a panicker, stressed about what it is to be alive and what best to do with limited time in this strange, great place. Manic about not messing up, defined by my own labels and now with what I’d describe as a consuming strictness, the manifestation of which being that I drink far more than I should at a house party full of dabblers. The next day, they at the pub, eating a Sunday roast, feeling fine and rosy. Me, greeny-grey, in a long and intense embrace with the toilet bowl.
But now here’s the arrival of Kew Gardens’ ‘Intoxication Season’, at a time where I’m reassessing my approach (to the ‘softer’ drugs which are regularly up for debate as opposed to the more obviously life-wrecking and devastating ones. When it comes to those I’m fine with a Pass Go). We all want or intend to have a life free from the pain of dependancy but a long time of saying “no” without hesitation has gone too far the other way. It’s had more dangerous consequences than safe ones. I’ve felt suffocated thus on impulse behaved stupidly. I’ve been back at school and immature, stunted proper thought and the considering of my options as an adult. Even if the answer does end up being the same, isn’t it vital to manage and understand the journey in order to feel secure in the destination? The title ‘Intoxication Season’ was alluringly vague, its subheading on the programme being ‘From everyday to class A, mind-altering plants and fungi are here…’ Here for me, I deduced. ‘You’ll discover just how potent plants can be… step into a mind-blowing world’. All very exciting. And workshops too? How would they put interactivity in those without a bit of testing? Indeed media coverage confirmed just that. I was led by the promise of regulated experimentation and the surrounding controversy was my gavel – I was SOLD! Never had an online purchase been conducted with such speed and efficiency. This morning I went to Kew Gardens to explore mind-altering natural plants and my god, I was allowed!
It started to rain as I walked through the gardens but a wet dog afro would not quell my inner childish excitement, nor weigh down my skip. Noting that I should be calmer, more responsible and a little prepared for what lay ahead, I opened the programme. The unfunny irony of it! After delving into my past, after scraping out my behaviours and motivations, each of the four weekends had been allocated a drug – alcohol, cannabis, magic mushrooms or coffee. And of course, I had come to learn all about the intricacies of coffee. The world’s greatest morning pick-me-up could tuck me back into bed when it came to it as a talking point. Yes, if anyone tried to take one away from me they’d be wiping it off their face but this was a stimulant I was down with. Things were not going to plan, a feeling emphasised when I bought a mood-improving three quid cup, only to discover that around the corner they were giving the stuff out for free.
Alright, it was coffee. But what kind of coffee? The kind we’ve never heard of, from somewhere high in the South American mountains where a sniff would send me spinning? Bypassing food experimentalists Bombas and Parr’s guarana tasting (at an extra fiver on top on the £15 entrance fee, I decided to later raid Whole Foods for it instead, this surely wasn’t The Testing…), I headed to the first of the four daily talks. This was less a wild session of caffeine-injecting, more an informative talk titled ‘Coffeenomics’ by Head of Operations at the International Coffee Organisation, Mauricio Galindo. He talked about the coffee trade throughout history and the impact of climate change on production and the market. It was interesting and concise with big facts dotted throughout – the global coffee market is worth $174 billion?! Two billion cups are drunk daily and it’s the second most consumed beverage in the world (I wondered what the first was for quite some time, the shame). Now I was doubly resentful of the ‘Intoxication Season’, first for being inconveniently educational and second for making me feel silly, at the back of the class chewing gum and swinging on my chair, only to realise half-way through that the lesson was actually worth listening to. The class could have been separated into two groups – the Loopholers and the locals. At the end a few people enquired about roasting their own coffee. It was Kew, after all.
Onto the tasting, of the Robusta and Arabica blends. We heard about deforestation to meet demand and the impact of external influences on farmers’ livelihoods while we sipped. Both were pretty delicious and I was now less of a petulant child and thankfully more of an adult, nodding and questioning. Even when it comes to something as seemingly harmless as coffee, we still have our options, there’s a debate to be had and a responsibility to find out the impact of what we are consuming. Next to the tent was another, flaps down and zipped. Was this the mystery-shrouded tent of experimentation, darkened, quiet and herbs abound while a white coat with a scribbly clipboard was serious and encouraging? Of course not. Instead, with flaps as shelter from the pissing rain, two ladies in mackintoshes were hot under the collar about the mad world of fungi. I waited for them to make the first move in case it was indeed a front for something a little different. The closest it got to magic was the pun on the sign outside which read ‘Magical Mushrooms!’ I was unamused.
Last stop, the Princess of Wales Conservatory. It never was going to be a password and secret handshake kind of a place with a name like that. We were instructed not to touch, for here lived The Drugs. They grew in neat little bushes behind name plaques with accompanying notes on their hallucinatory properties. It was a strange experience, reading and looking up at the mischief-maker just behind. A bit like going to the zoo and not being able to stroke the flamingo or tickle the monkey. I wasn’t the only one who had gotten the wrong end of the pipe (sorry). My favourite messages in the Comments Book were “Not enough drugs. Refund please”, and “Cheaper in Brixton x”.
It wasn’t that I expected to be plied with Class As and left to go running around the flower beds and scaling trees but I expected a lick of a mushroom or a chew of a leaf in the name of science. My hopes were dashed but the trip was good and thought-provoking. It resonated that the impact of even the simplest of choices must not be underestimated, their vibrations being felt thousands of miles away in another world. What impressed the most though was the contrasting approaches of different societies and cultures towards the same subject. Alcohol is prohibited in many of the cultures in which the use of (many highly dangerous) plant substances is commonplace. Here we drink with relish and abandon, regardless of the three million alcohol-related deaths globally. Then there are the Dutch and their weed. I am now developing another risky consideration: I may get my first tattoo. Possibly, ‘Think carefully, for yourself’. But I haven’t decided yet.