I left school at 16 because my Mum, by then a single parent, simply could not afford for me to stay on to do A-levels. I needed to go out to work and earn a living.
It was 1969, and back then in the UK you could choose more or less what you wanted to do if you had any qualifications. I had 5 O-levels, which was enough for most jobs. You really only needed more if you wanted to do A-levels and go on to University. That wasn’t then an option for me. Or even a vague idea.
So I went to work for ICI Pharmaceuticals Ltd in Alderley Edge, Cheshire. I moved from my council house in the industrial working-class town of Barrow-in-Furness to the one of the most wealthy, leafy, areas of Britain. It was a shock.
On a personal level the first shock was that I had to look after myself. You know, buy food and cook it to eat, do my washing and cleaning, pay my rent – that sort of basic living stuff. Who knew it was all so hard?
I was lucky in that ICI – a benevolent employer – found me a rented room in a house in Alderley Edge. I was even more lucky in sharing it with three post-graduates who were all working at Jodrell Bank – the University of Manchester’s famous observatory. These experienced guys, reluctantly, helped their neophyte house mate through the pains of independence (but not without a few flare-ups).
ICI Alderley was a revelation. I was taken on as a trainee Lab Technician in the toxicology department of one of the world’s leading pharma research stations. For a science geek – I’d been reading the New Scientist – this was heaven, initially.
The Alderley site was amazing. It was a large park that had been a ‘stately home’ – the old manor house had long been demolished and replaced with some rather brutal modernist facilities. But they were set on rolling park lands with a couple of lakes, swans, and even our own Pub in the grounds. It was like going to work in a holiday camp for a boy from Barrow.
My main work to start with was routine taking of samples from animals – mainly rats – “sacrificed” (in the jargon to disguise the fact we were killing them) as part of toxicity tests for various drugs and other compounds like artificial sweeteners. I’d grown up partly on a farm, so the idea of killing animals wasn’t in itself new or horrific.
I was actually pretty good at dissection and taking samples, although I was slightly worried about the glee which some of my work-mates who seemed to derive pleasure from our work in a somewhat unhealthy way?
So what did I learn from this first job that affected my later life? Three things – how arbitrary Government regulations can be utterly ridiculous; how corporate organizations can be positive and involving; how humans can be callous and uncaring about animals.
Back then – I don’t know if it still applies – the Home Office had a requirement that went by the name of “LD50” tests. As euphemisms go this is a doozy. It stands for “Lethal Dose 50”. The idea was (is?) brutally simple. Any new pharmaceutical compound had to be subjected to a test which was how much do you have to give to a group of rats so that 50% of them die?
The idea was to establish a toxicity ‘base-line’ but of course it was an absurd bureaucratic irrelevance.
One of the compounds we were testing was a new artificial sweetener which you have probably all used. The doses we were administering to the poor rats, by injection, to kill 50% of them would be the equivalent of you consuming dozens and dozens of gallons of artificially sweetened soft drinks a day. It was all utterly pointless, and unscientific, but required by the Home Office bureaucrats. The lesson was Government can be bad, sometimes with the best of intentions.
ICI was an unusual company because it valued its employees. Since the 1930s it has used an approach called ‘Mondism’ which rejected the antagonistic owners/managers versus workers so common in British industry in favour of a more ‘corporatist’ approach. It didn’t allow Trade Unions, but it did create Staff Associations and a much more involving environment.
At Alderley Park this manifested itself in several ways. The first daily example was the dining arrangements. The canteen had two sections – one was self-service and the other a slightly more expensive waitress service. But anyone could use either. There was no ‘them and us’ division except by if you were willing to pay for extra service. And in practice it worked. And if you didn’t like that, you could always go to our Pub.
The second thing that stuck in my mind was the quarterly briefings. Every three months the leaders of the main pharmaceutical research projects would gather everyone involved – scientists, lab techs like me, manual staff, administrators, even the cleaners, into a lecture theatre and tell us what we were, collectively, doing. It was only when I went into other, more traditionally hierarchical, jobs that I realised just how revolutionary this was.
It was monkeys that made me leave ICI.
Monkeys were frequently used in pharmaceutical research – sometimes with good reason and many times not. Mostly big monkeys were used but ICI decided to try something new – Marmosets. They imported about 40 wild Marmosets and set up a breeding colony. They wanted to breed ‘clean’ off-spring, free of any diseases they would have picked up in the wild.
I’d grown up partly on a farm, so I was given a lot of responsibility looking after the new arrivals and the breeding programme.
They were understandably mad as hell at being caged and I took the brunt of their anger.
For months my hands were permanently full of small puncture wounds from their small, needle-like, teeth.
Then they started breeding and something rather miraculous happened – the babies were tame. I was always around and they got used to me. I could let them out of their cages into the large colony room. I would often wander around with two or three babies clinging to my 1970s long hair. I loved these little guys – they were so much like miniature humans it was uncanny.
But then something happened which changed the course of my life – once ‘my babies’ became adults they started to be used for experiments. I couldn’t cope with that and I left.
Even though I knew some of the experiments were justified, I simply couldn’t do it anymore. I was too emotionally invested in the little guys. And I knew enough about the science to know some of the experiments were clearly not necessary, but a combination of indifferent bureaucracy and callous disregard for these creatures meant they went ahead anyway.
My dream of a science career was over, so I threw myself into politics which I’d recently discovered. I worked in jobs just to earn money and my real interest was now outside my working life. It would be more than a decade before I worked at something I actually liked doing as a job. And two decades before I found what I really wanted to do – be an academic.
I have always retained an interest in science, especially physics and of course monkeys. I even wrote a book called “The Paradoxical Primate” about one species of great ape. (Us, in case you hadn’t guessed). ICIs ‘Mondism’ also sparked my interest in human organizations and how they work, which turned into a life-long interest. And finally, the vagaries of Home Office bureaucracy started up a fascination with Government – so I ended up as a professor of government.
So my first job shaped my life – but via some very peculiar twists and turns. But that’s another story ….