Book of the Week: In Search Of Captain Beefheart – Pt. 17 – Times is hard when you’s down and out

Times is hard when you’s down and out

Back in 1969 I went back to college but could not find any digs. Pete and I went into the Student Union to get some help. There wasn’t enough accommodation. People were kipping in telephone boxes. They gave us an address of a squat to try. It was on Ilford High Road.

We were told that it was a disused shop on the High Street. We were to go round the back and do this elaborate knock on the side door then ask for the Colonel. It was like something out of the Goons.

So we went and performed our intricate battering. There was all this rattling and clanging the other side that went on for a minute or two. The door opened a slit and an eye scrutinised us.

‘We were told to ask for the Colonel,’ I ventured.

‘Oh aye?’ A voice with a strong Scottish brogue said suspiciously.

‘The Student Union sent us,’ Pete explained.

The door reluctantly edged open, we’d passed the test and we were allowed in. The mystery of the clanging became apparent. Half a ton of scrap metal was precariously balanced above the door. Anyone forcing their way in was likely to find themselves squashed.

The Colonel introduced himself. Seemingly he was a real Colonel from the Scottish Highlanders who had fallen on hard times. The reasons for his hard times were shortly to become apparent.

 Opher 1970 – At least we had a roof over our heads

We were shown up to our room. It was a large empty room with an exceedingly dirty floor. Seemingly somebody had kindly reconnected the water so the loo flushed and had rigged the electric so we had light but nobody had bothered to clean the place. Pete and I placed all our worldly possessions on the floor (I’d left my record collection and sound system back at home until I got settled somewhere). This consisted of a bag each and a sleeping bag. The floor was hard so I put my new long sheepskin coat under my sleeping bag to cushion it. My coat got so filthy I never got it properly clean again.

Pete and I met the other ‘guests’. There was a traumatised young couple with a baby in the other room. A few days before they had been squatting in another house but that had gone pear-shaped. It seems that he’d lost his job and they couldn’t pay the rent so despite having a baby they’d been kicked out on the street. They’d ended up in a squat while he tried to get another job so that they could get a flat. Ilford council had a new policy for dealing with squatters. They employed a guy called Peter Rackman. He was a developer. He had a deal where he could purchase the properties and do them up to sell or rent out at exorbitant rates to immigrant families. Rackman was a nasty piece of work. He was after making a fortune and didn’t care how he did it. All he had to do was entice the squatters and established tenants to leave so he could ship his other tenants in and charge more. I think the council denied using Rackman to do their dirty work. Whatever – it was a time when fascists walked the street.

The young couple had all their possessions in a room in the squat. According to them the guy had been out looking for a job when a bunch of Rackman’s heavies arrived. They’d waded in threatening everyone, shouting in their faces and waving clubs. They’d smashed all the windows out and chucked everything out of the window, including the baby’s cot, clothes and things. She’d been terrified. They then brought sledge-hammers and smashed the stairs to matchwood. Then they left after making it quite plain that if they came back and found any of them still here there would be some medicine dished out.

In desperation the couple had come here. It was basic but it was safer than anywhere else. They’d salvaged what they could but most of it had been smashed or ripped to pieces, including the baby’s things.

The Colonel received an army pension. On pension day he would, like an alchemist of old in reverse, transform the gold into alcohol. He happily returned to the squat with a carrier bag of scotch whiskey. He then dressed up in his kilt, drank the whiskey from an enamel mug and serenaded us with songs like ‘Wunderbar’. He had quite a talent. He managed to add a ne sound to the end of every single word. Wunderbar went like this:

Wunderbarne minene prettyne wunderbarne.

It was amazing to behold.

On Saturday mornings a very drunk Colonel would clamber out on to the top of the bay overlooking the High Street and serenade the shoppers below. A week or two after we left he got arrested for doing just that. Seemingly he was still wearing his kilt. The shoppers below got a good view and the Colonel got done for indecent exposure.

We’d been there a week when we got rudely awakened on Saturday morning with a great rumpus outside our shop. We peered out of the window to find we were the focus of a demonstration by the National Front. Seemingly they did not approve of squatters. There was a huge mob of them all shouting and waving fists at us. The only thing separating them from us was a small number of cops.

It was very scary. There looked to be hundreds of them with their skinhead bullet heads and bother boots. They looked as if they meant business and didn’t seem too keen on a couple of squatting hippies!

We did our best to defuse the situation by sitting on the window ledge and jeering at them. Strangely it did not seem to calm them down! Eventually they went away but it did somewhat justify the heavy metal booby trap over the door.

After a few weeks of squatting we found a flat and moved out.


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