Book of the Week: In Search Of Captain Beefheart – Pt. 23 – A house of memories

A house of memories

After leaving college and heading off on our world tour I ended up back at the same college working as a laboratory technician and doing research. It kept me in the thick of things. The place was full of Freaks and there was music everywhere. I had my hair and lifestyle pretty much intact.

I got put in charge of the animal house which suited me down to the ground. I had four days of work. Two days were cleaning out the rabbits, rats, mice, guinea pigs and cats, sterilising and scrubbing. I was used to doing all that from my childhood and I could play music while I did it. That was OK! I loved animals. On the other two days it was a case of topping up the food and water and then getting my feet up and reading. I read a lot of books.

It also meant I could pop in at weekends and top up the water and food and get two half days of overtime for a couple of hours work.

But then I started getting into a bit of conflict. I didn’t like the way the animals were cooped up. It felt wrong. They were all fat and bored to tears. So I built a large run outside on a bit of waste grassland at the side of the animal house. I put the rabbits and guinea pigs out there.

I remember the big old rabbits sitting there blinking in the sun not quite sure what was going on. Then they started moving about. Before long they were bounding about kicking the air for joy, nibbling the grass and madly bonking each other. It was liberation.

I started drawing up plans for a big rat enclosure with runs and ladders. That was a bit more challenging.

After a few weeks the authorities came along and told me that they were lab animals under Home Office regulations and they had to be caged appropriately.

Then I turned my attention to the wild animals being used for dissection. We would get consignments of grass snakes and salamanders live caught on the continent and frogs from Ireland. They’d come in boxes, packed with moss, by train.

My job, as animal house tech, was to unpack them. Put them in aquaria and dole them out when needed. I was appalled that they were still using live caught animals particularly as salamanders were on the protected species list! Not only that, but over half the animals arriving in this way turned up dead! I ended up with a great pile of dead bodies when I’d unpacked. I started taking photos with a view to putting a case to the hierarchy. Seemingly photos were a major no-no. That came to a head when I went in and took photos of the cats that were being used in the psychology department. The cats were beautiful and tame and were used for vivisection. They drugged them, opened up their cranium and cut bits of the brain out to demonstrate the effects to groups of students. I was sure we had the technology to film this and so not have to kill all those cats. So I took a photo or two.

I was then visited by the College Principal and two Home Office men who informed me that under the Official Secrets act any disclosure of information concerning animals used in research projects, i.e. photographs of living cats with their skulls cut open, would result in prosecution and a likely lengthy prison sentence.

So I restricted my displeasure to naming the animals (I was well ahead of Dylan here!). When a technician came to get a couple of guinea pigs or a cat I gave them ‘Matilda’, ‘Emily’ and ‘Harry’. I was amazed at the huge effect this simple practice had. It reduced many of the technicians to tears. It made them think of the animals as having personalities. Before long I got another visit and a severe reprimand. Ho hum.

At the time I was living in this amazing house. We had a little flat, consisting of two rooms and a corridor kitchen, on the fourth floor. The place was a mass of small flats and bed-sits occupied by a spectrum of society.

On the ground floor there were two girls who were on the game. The landlord had the whole of the next floor. He was eighty four and absolutely brilliant but couldn’t work out why the two girls were so popular. He told me about their string of boyfriends. He thought they were very popular.

On the next floor was John in a bed-sit and the McDeed family who had come down from Scotland. John had a first-class degree and PhD in Literature from Cambridge. He was heavily into dope and seemed to spend all his time smoking dope and reading. He was a bit eccentric. He had a big square oak table and had put the roaches of all his joints on it. By this time there was big conical mountain of thousands of roaches. The McDeeds had moved in by stealth in stages. First Mr McDeed had moved in and then introduced his wife. Then the kids (all teenagers) started to arrive one by one. They had taken over two little flats and there were about six of them. Mt McDeed spent his days sitting on a park bench sipping whiskey out of a bottle in a brown paper bag. Every phone box for miles around was out of action because Mr McDeed would jemmy them open to steal the change to pay for his whiskey faster than they could be mended. It did not make him popular but he did not seem to care. The McDeeds were reputedly running from the Glasgow underworld. They were gangsters. Coinciding with their arrival all the giro cheques arriving for the unemployed regularly went missing. If you did not intercept the postman you did not get your cheque. Then the dry cleaners got raided. Somebody broke in and stole all the clothes as well as the money from the till. Incompetently someone had dropped a letter with the McDeeds address. They got raided and the clothes retrieved along with knives and guns that were hidden under a mattress. The McDeeds disappeared very quickly.

The garden was a revelation. Mr Rose, who was 84 years old, had created a masterpiece of psychedelic grandeur. It was a mass of bright paint, lights, tacky ornaments and vines, with swing boats, ponds and crazy designs. It was a place to come to trip to and we often found strange Freaks roaming around enunciating profound evocations of wonder such as: ‘Wow!!’


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