I reckon it was Christmas 1976, when my cousin sneaked the Watney’s Party Seven (a purchasable vessel containing seven pints of beer) up into his bedroom for us to have our own party. This had been purely Roberto’s idea, of course. He was a bit of a rascal, the Artful Dodger to my straight-laced Oliver Twist. I’d been driven up for the day from leafy Surrey to Christmas dinner with the Italian side of the family in Wood Green, North London, which I found neither green nor woody but ruthlessly urban in which Roberto had developed an alley cat leanness to which I was pure mouse. We had little in common, but a mutual preference to be in someone else’s company at family gatherings.
The Evel Knievel toy and Ker Plunk I had opened that morning had been left at home with their wrappings. I longed to play with them, but they were safe there: Roberto broke stuff. The Buckeroo he had received mere hours before had already had its spring tensed beyond returning point and his Tonka toys were looking haggard.
Dinner had been a crowded table of Italian feasting and excitable gesturing as usual. Great-uncle Lorenzo had performed his normal magic in the kitchen. This year, our traditional starters of ravioli had been preceded by ‘the feesh’, ie baby octopus, all suckers and tentacles and left well alone by Roberto and myself. Dark now, in those flabby hours of Christmas evening, the number of empty wine bottles had grown as Auntie Fran found Dad’s jokes funnier and funnier, and Uncle Carlos had started playing Puccini arias on his trumpet early, in a pointless attempt to keep Mum entertained and awake.
The whereabouts of us boys was of no concern as I shut the bedroom door behind Roberto as he brought through the booty. As a 13-year old, I’d had no experience of alcohol beyond being allowed a shandy in a cut glass, in front of Starsky and Hutch on Saturday evenings. Sometimes I was even allowed to watch the first game on Match of the Day – the most grown-up it was possible to be. But that was Surrey.
Now, we both sat on the bed admiring the impressive scarlet and gold Pandora’s cylinder of temptation lying in front of us. It gleamed like something from the Tutankahmun exhibition I’d seen on a school trip to the British Museum. Just as Howard Carter had opened the tomb, we were about to break into the mighty drum and imbibe the proceeds of Roberto’s crime: all seven pints of it – a feat that I could take me across a line I was not certain I wanted, or was able, to pass. The alternative was worse – lose face in front of my cousin: and I had the English side of the family name to stand up for.
We examined the shiny canister for a ring-pull. There was none…
Watney had developed the world’s first keg beer in 1931, using pasteurisation and filtration to render the yeast inactive thus allowing more benign storage and transportation than had been possible before with traditional ales. By then it was considered such a premium product that it was sold at the East Sheen Lawn Tennis Club, then later on BEA flights and even aboard the luxury liner, QE2.
Keg beer allowed for a consistency of quality of bitter in pubs undeterred by the quality of the landlord’s cellar or indeed, the landlord. It always tasted bland and fizzy and with a froth on top. This also meant you couldn’t get a ‘wrong-un’, that is an eggy pint that wasthe kryptonite of cask ale aficionados, who had seen the sale of keg beers grew from 1% of total beer sales in 1960 to 18% by 1971. Of course, Watney didn’t have a monopoly, and faced completion from other keg brews such as Whitbread Tankard, Ind Coope Double Diamond, Younger’s Tartan (Scottish and Newcastle), Worthington ‘E’ (Bass Charrington) and Courage Tavern. Watney aimed to keep their market share with an astute advertising campaign aimed at the young drinker.
The Liverpool group, The Scaffold, famous for drinking to “Lily the Pink” drank to Watney’s Pale Ale while their Red Barrel was promoted with a television campaign which suggested that drinking it would promote “good fellowship, friendliness and happiness associated with beer drinking”. Try telling that to the cask ale men, who in 1971 fought back against the infiltration of filtrated, gassy, usually chilled beer by launching the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). Watney countered by changing the change the name of Red Barrel, and that year billboards across the UK depicted Khrushchev, Mao and Castro all enjoying a pint of Watney’s Red!
Though beer canning had been around since the 1930’s, There were two major problems – The welded seams which held cans shut couldn’t stand the pressure of the beer, and perhaps more troubling was that the drink tended to react with the tinplate of the cans. Keg beer solved the first of these issues more successfully than the second, and Watney launched its Party Four (four pints of beer in a can) in the early 1960’s, with the bigger Party Seven (seven pints) coming in 1968, initially at a price of 15 shillings, aimed at the less temperate home drinker.
It became a staple at parties through the 1970’s until disappearing from production in the 198o’s with the arrival of plastic bottles and ring-pull six-packs.
It was this design inadequacy that immediately became apparent to Roberto and I as we sat on the bed examining the giant can. It had no entry point. We weren’t to know, but at Christmas parties across the land, thirsty revellers would be struggling to break into their sealed units of gassy beer. Frantic men would be searching for hammers, screwdrivers, bread knives and hand drills to pierce the unyielding metal. A&E departments would be working throughout the festive period to stitch the wounds of failed attempters. For 59 shillings 9d, the initial run of Party Sevens had come with the option to buy a Sparklets Beertap to access the beer without the probability of personal injury, or gouging the kitchen table, but most men, being men, knew better, or had lost this piece of kit having consumed their previous Party Seven.
Of course, Roberto had no such device or indeed any robust tools in his bed room, and a trip out past the parents to the garage for tools was far too risky. But in an inspired move, I opened his bedroom window and suggested the action that inadvertently revealed the second issue faced by consumers of the Party Seven.
We lifted the great beast and hit it against the window ledge, where the metal peg stood proud to engage with the drilled hole in the window arm I had just opened to secure it in the shut position.
There was a metallic ‘clang’ and the sound of swishing. Inspection revealed the peg had caused a significant denting, but insufficient to penetrate the metal side. The second strike resulted in a similar depression adjacent to the first. The third blow, a full-bloodied whack, did the job.
The can instantly came alive and went berserk, the two of us struggling to hold it down as it delivered a jet of carbonated beer against the ceiling above us at 400psi. The bloody thing was pretty much uncontrollable as its spray blasted the against the pictures of Ducati motorbikes and the tennis girl scratching her arse, on Roberto’s wall. The hissing noise was deafening and we feared for our safety even more than discovery and retribution, so powerful was its force. We just about managed to fight the angry can to a position where the furious jet was aimed out of the window, its range disappearing into the dark, probably hitting the flower bed alongside the back fence some 100 feet away.
The wretched thing showed no sign of calming, so we pushed it out of the first floor window into the garden below. We stood at the window and watched it buck and spin around like a Catherine Wheel on the grass for another 30 seconds or so, before it ran out of venom.
Roberto and I looked at the beer spume in our hair and running down our faces, and laughed. Anglo-Italian relations had never been better, and a respect shared, that remains in our family today,more than 40 years later.