Michael Fitzalan in Contemplation


Chapter One  – A Seven Taste 

1977 was a momentous year. We called it seventy-seven; the DJ on Capital called it Seveny-Seven. If you did not listen to Capital Radio, you were not worth knowing. To listen to ‘Radio One’ was heresy, even if it was the weekend top forty, both radio stations aired their singles chart on the same day at the same time. 

Radio One’ did not have adverts but we still listened to London’s radio station because we could pick it up even west of Reading and, for us, London was the centre of the universe. 

We tried to listen to Radio Caroline and other pirate stations broadcasting from the North Sea but most of them sunk in storms or the reception was so poor that even the coolest people would not put up with the annoying static hiss just to listen to a trendy station. We would not go that far. 

Some years contain defining moments in history; the Christmas on the Western Front, Kristal-Nacht, VE-Day, Kennedy’s assassination, the first man on the moon, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the abolition of apartheid, famine in Ethiopia, Live Aid, the atomization of the twin towers and the devastation of the Asian tsunami or the China earthquake.

Seventy-seven was a cause of great celebration, it was the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and you can still see plaques and go on a Jubilee walk to commemorate her twenty fifth year on the throne. Britain had changed in the years 1952 to 1977. In those two and half decades, children had grown up and Britain had turned from a world leader into ‘The Sick Man of Europe’.

The fifties were a time of hope for England’s resurgence after the war; the seventies was a time of despair, the ‘oil crisis’ and redundancies.  

Nineteen fifty-two saw the first commercial passenger jet airliner entering service and the completion of the first atomic bomb, it saw Great Britain struggling to recover from war.

Rationing was still in place; my mother was sent bacon in the post from the farm; her family had bought off the Duke of Wellington’s family. A packet of rashers, wrapped in greaseproof paper would be sent in the regular post from Bromley House, Kilpeddar; it would be put aboard the Dublin Liverpool steamer; and arrive the next morning for breakfast.   

Nineteen seventy-seven was a street party to celebrate the achievements of Elizabeth’s reign, full stop. I cannot think of any other milestone except of course my first novel being written; but that was not nationally publicised. 

Supposedly, these celebrations also masked the disintegration of the British economy; discontent with which was meant to be the basis of the Punk revolution. 

Allegedly, Punks were disaffected, unemployed modern teddy boys; society had turned its back on them and they had reacted by preaching anarchy. The Punks that I met were all in jobs and played in bands at night.

The people at the venues or at parties all seemed to be studying or working; perhaps I only met privileged Punks. To these ‘Middle Class’, ‘I want to be in a band’ Punks, anarchy was another word for rebellion, not the destruction of modern society, as we knew it. 

However anarchists and their reputation conjured up terrible pictures for the establishment. Why rebel when you can become and anarchist and sound that bit more threatening? Personally, seventy-seven defined me. 

Born in 1962, I finally considered myself an adult. Sadly the adults and the many other people did not agree. I took my first public examinations and wrote my first novel at fifteen. Only 1980 bettered 1977; and that was because I was the Head Boy; which made me very popular with the girls and I co-starred, co-wrote and directed the winning play in the Inter-House Drama competition.

Also, 1977 was brilliant because of the three ‘O’ level passes and the production of my book. I thought these were the pinnacles of my school life. 

The echo of that one-year still resonates audibly in my attitude and approach to life; work hard, play hard, get nowhere fast. 

“Where’s the party, Mike?”

 “It’s all around you, Mark!”  Jubilee 

Enough details of dates, you want the grubby details, I am sure. Not too grubby, I am afraid I was only fifteen at the time; and pre-Thatcherism Britain encouraged only drunken snogging and groping with clothes firmly tucked in; bare flesh was out of bounds. 

Our appetites, sexual or otherwise, had not developed to the egomania of the eighties. We were fed on Cadbury ‘Smash’, a reconstituted potato mix, and frozen fish fingers and frozen peas. Freeze dried or frigid food kept our passions at bay or cryogenically suspended. Our sexual experiences were mostly reconstituted stories of other people’s exploits; or stories of frigid girlfriends with locked together knees, and thighs frozen together like our beans and peas. Jubilee 

It was rare for the raconteur to find the defrost button. Even our most experienced hunters were unable to supply us with the necessary key to success.

You could have girls interested in you and you could snog girls endlessly but you could not ‘have’ girls. Jubilee 

One prime source of information could have been my middle brother. He was two years older than me; his resemblance to Bob Geldof meant that he had no shortage of girlfriends. However, we never discussed details of his relationship; he was the embodiment of discretion, he would never kiss and tell and I dared not challenge that noble sentiment; so I remained ignorant. Jubilee 

He had supplied me with a magazine called ‘Custom Car’; it had topless girls inside and that was the extent of my sexual education from him. Jubilee 

Otherwise, we had ink drawings of a cutaway section of female genitalia and reproductive organs; hardly a Michelin Guide to women and their bodies. We were hopelessly lost and the girls were equally confused; but maybe they were unwilling to help us find the key to their desires. 

If I had been a teenager in the eighties; nouvelle cuisine and kiss and tell would have been the norm and oral sex would have been obligatory for all. Jubilee 

It was when I was in my twenties. As far as I knew, in seventy-seven, female genitals had yet to be invented; much to my chagrin and the annoyance of my friends as well. They were dying to discover what they were for and how they functioned. Curiosity killed the cat but that particular pussy was keeping itself covered. 

Young women were looking for respect and friendship. They were not searching for the multiple orgasms; they were trying to avoid spotty, ropey, groping organisms; teenage boys – trying to divest them of their clothes, their dignity and their virginity. 

Frankly, no one could blame them; boys only wanted one thing. They did not want a wife, children or a companion; a soul mate or a shoulder to cry on, they wanted sex. Boys saw women as sexual playthings; the talking and charm offensives were a means to and end. Once that end had been achieved; the false charm and consideration, and even conversation, often disappeared. Jubilee 

I did not smoke or take drug.

I drank copious quantities of anything alcoholic that was going: tequila on night exercise in the CCF, port with cobnuts with my mother at home; Madeira in Richmond Park with a seventy-year old who was trying to seduce my twenty-two-year-old sister and anything else I was offered. Jubilee 

We were on night exercise at fourteen and a friend had smuggled miniatures of Jose Cuervo tequila for his squad in order to keep out the cold. Then, we sat in a barn and sucked the last drops from the receptacles. We were cold but our insides glowed with warmth. 

The following term, we walked confidently into a saloon bar in full ‘disruptive pattern’ camouflage combat jackets and trousers and highly polished army boots; before the landlord showed us into the public bar. Jubilee 

Even ‘squaddies’ might make the same mistake; going into the carpeted saloon bar instead of going into the wooden floored, spit and sawdust public bar.

We looked like well shaven soldiers; it was about ten at night and we had smeared our faces with brown camouflage cream. 

We’ve been treated with respect, left to our beers; we were to the customers on exercise. We’re the Home Front, the last defence; should the Russians launch a non-nuclear invasion on Europe; and we were not schoolboys dying to get drunk. 

My mother had a continental attitude to wines and spirits, if she had a brandy; you had a brandy albeit a small one. She believed in flying with a nip of brandy to bring down the blood pressure and I still order a brandy and ginger ale on every flight, it works. Jubilee 

When a family friend wanted to seduce my middle sister, he tried to commit the deed with the aid of Madeira. 

He drove us to Richmond Park, my sister insisting she had me along as her chaperone. 

Then, he plied us with good food, freshly made dressed crab sandwiches, which he had prepared before we left. 

He encouraged us to drink copious quantities of the amber fortified wine. Jubilee 

The Madeira knocked me out, it was very strong, and I came around to find the aged Casanova lying very close to my sister on a rug and whispering in her ear. Her laughter had kept him at bay until I had re-awoken. I was very rarely sick with any libation but I would often curl up in the corner from having taken too much.

Alcohol was a depressant, a little left me amusing and uninhibited, a lot made me curl up and sleep; he must have known that, the cunning lothario who had designs on my sister. 

Cider was a stunning libation, made all the more effective by drinking it through a straw. This was science at work, the carbon dioxide in the cider meant that absorption of alcohol was almost immediate. The alcohol by-passed the stomach and went straight to the brain; or that was what we believed, we certainly got very drunk very quickly with that method. 

It was wonderfully effective though, psychosomatically so perhaps. I can remember collapsing in a corner after only two cans, revived only by the horror that a platonic female friend had imbibed a similar amount in the same fashion and decided that she wanted to experiment with the one person in the room who she knew. 

I could not face her the next day if I allowed her to find out things about me that only a wife should know, nor allow her to allow me to find out about her things that only a husband should know. Jubilee 

We snogged drunkenly for ten minutes and then started to undress each other. I came to my senses as I undid her bra strap. Luckily, there was an episode of ‘MASH’ on the television and I led her from the dark room to the comforting safety of the cathode ray tube and comedy from the Korean War. 

After ‘MASH’, we were sober enough to re-join the party and dance the night away as friends. Jubilee 

It was strange dancing with three other couples pretending nothing had happened. The party was awful; the large rooms of the Kensington flat were occupied by only a handful of people when most parties had crowds sandwiched into all the rooms. It was easy to leave. There was no hope of anyone interesting turning up later, so we left and I walked her home, gave her a chaste kiss in Cadogan Gardens and walked from there to Clapham. I often walked home down Lower Sloane Street, past the barracks, over Chelsea Bridge and up Queenstown Road. 

I would never walk over the common but around it. It only took an hour if I walked fast. It was the worst party I had been to; one of the last of the year. There were very few people present and few girls, everyone had gone off on holidays, Punk was fading.

It was made worse by: ‘a’, grappling on the floor with the one girl with whom I had managed to have a mature non-sexual relationship; and ‘b’, seeing Nick the Punk squeeze his way through a whole tube of glue. His brain must have been frazzled by such massive intake. 

Punk was a flash in the pan in London and its star was waning, Nick and his ilk were fast losing favour towards the end of the summer. By the winter, everyone was looking forward to ski-ing or getting out of London to relatives abroad or in the country. 

The Punks were off most people’s party lists by the following spring, 1978 was a Punk-less Easter. We did not need more competition; it was bad enough coming from the Lycee and international schools around Kensington. Jubilee 

We did not mourn the disappearance of the Punks. Nick most probably reinvented himself in Brighton and lived the Punk life for another decade or more. Even in nineteen eighty-seven, you could find Punks in the provinces. They had missed the party by ten years but they dressed as Nick had. 

He and people like him, might well have remained a mentor for fledgling Punks and punkettes. It was surprisingly enduring in middle class areas where rebellion was customary and rivalled the ‘Mods’ for the wannabes it created. 

The ‘Vespa’ riding ‘Mods’ upset everyone by clogging up the roads with their convoys of scooters. Cider and beer caused problems; but it kept us off glue; and we were very firmly kept away from vodka and whiskey. 

Whiskey or the other whisky makes you frisky and brandy makes you randy, there is no such thing as a Virgin Mary when vodka is around. Spirits were generally off limits; they were not available at parties, and Scotch was locked away in drinks cabinets. 

Beer was always on offer; those were the days of ‘Party Seven’; and an enormous can that looked like it had been left behind by the Jolly Green Giant; and was impossible to get into or pour without spilling. 

The canned beer market was not very mature; there was Carling from Canada and Skol from Denmark or Sweden or Mackeson and Guinness, the ‘Party Seven’ promised to be a winner.  Jubilee 

Ring pulls were only just coming in and as this can had the circumference of a side plate, it needed careful handling. Can openers had a triangular end, which you dug into the top. Sorry about including even more science, perhaps you would like to revise vacuums, capillary action and air and water pressure after you have finished this book.

I am sure you know all about pouring fluids so I will curtail your revision session. The ‘PS’ can, or Party-Seven tin was twelve inches high and it was heavy, it needed two people to handle it properly and frequently there was just a lone pourer, leaving everyone poorer in the beer quantity department if not the beer quality department. 

The big can was a challenge especially when it was shaken in transit, or in the process of piercing.

Most of the contents would foam up over the paper tablecloth on the drinks-table; or miss the glass completely as the gargantuan tin was tilted towards the dwarfed receptacle; a pint glass. 

Pouring from that height into a glass when you cannot lift the can is not easy and resulted in lots of further spillage. That and the dubious quality of the contents saw the demise of this quirky drinks dispenser. 

A nostalgic tear might well be in the eye of some seventies partygoers, mourning the demise of the bravest attempt to introduce a beer barrel to the home. Jubilee 

Sorry, that should be reintroduce a beer barrel to the home; Elizabethan households were paid in beer and Victorian larders, of the wealthier families, might well contain a wooden pin of almost four and a half gallons, about thirty six pints. From the Tudors to the Victorians, people were paid in beer and not just pints, barrels of the stuff.  

Presumably, it was to keep them so drunk that they could not complain about their poor wages, too sozzled to write a letter if they could write a letter or too pie-eyed to find a scribe who would listen to their incoherent ranting. 

Imagine a scribe charging per word and people drunkenly rambling as much as they do in the average pub. A thousand words could well be the average length of a letter; drunks could not afford to write a letter at even the cheapest rates, surely. People actually drank more in the old days to help them cope with the drudgery of their lives; I’ve seen records that support this. We were teetotallers in comparison by seventy-seven. 

That reminds me that seventy-seven was the year that real ale reared its non-chemical head. Jubilee 

A relation of mine, my maverick elder brother, opened the first brewery in London in the twentieth century in seventy-seven, Godsons. Its slogans included ‘Some Beers hail from God knows where, Godson’s ales from Bow’; the product was called Anchor Beer. 

The name was destined to become abbreviated to GBH; an acronym on police charge sheets for grievous bodily harm. Through that association; it was deemed to be ultra strong when it was in fact 4.8 per cent alcohol. 5 per cent alcohol is the starting point for strong ale, 4.2 per cent is medium strength and 3.6 per cent is weak. 

What we called the older generation; the twenty to thirty year old crowd; had a firkin of beer delivered the day before a party, which was tapped and spiled immediately.

This would allow the sediment to settle, it was a live product. The barrel would have to sit on the kitchen table or the sideboard, racked by two or more wooden chocks to stop it rolling away. 

When the barrel arrived, it would have a small cork bung in the top and a larger cork on the side. The barrel would be rolled in and stood on its end; and then it would be tipped over, the small cork bung on the bottom and the large cork bung on the top, the bottom one for the tap, the top one for the spile.   

The tap would be hammered into the cork bung with a rubberised mallet while the barrel stood upright on the floor. The cork would be knocked into the barrel and the tap would seal the hole. That process was the tapping. 

Manhandled onto the table; it was laid on its side and wooden chocks would be wedged into place, on either side.

Once the barrel had been raised, to its resting place, and stopped by the chocks, it was time to attack the larger bung. That cork had a little plastic stopper, or ‘plug’, in the centre. The plastic plug would be tapped into the barrel using a hard spile, a small rounded wedge of wood. 

That was the first part of spilling. This hard spile would be replaced by a soft spile, a smaller cone of porous wood, so that the beer would settle for drinking the next day. The soft spile was made of soft wood to allow carbon dioxide to escape through the pores to prevent a build up of carbon dioxide pressure.

We cannot get away from science here. The hard spile was used as a stopper in the top when the beer was not being poured to keep the air out and keep the contents fresh. It was a huge effort for a live product. 

At the time, it seemed less of an effort than struggling with an over size tin and the quality of the beer made up for the struggle. It was like drinking beer in a proper country pub and how cool was that in London? What a palaver it all was. Now we can drink draught beer from a can, it all seems faintly ridiculous.

Although, I still maintain beer out of a barrel tastes better than beer out of a can and I buy expensive screw cap wine, I am not a traditionalist who needs to have a cork in my bottle but a live product tastes better. 

No wonder the Party Seven disappeared; a firkin was nine gallons, which is seventy-two pints of beer. Compare that to only seven pints; which were often reduced to five, foaming onto the tablecloth or floor and then further loss when pouring from the can to the glass. 

Beer was messy; it was due to the consumers’ respect of the beverage that it survived at all outside a pub. It is a product that does not take kindly to being bottled or tinned. 

Later, the arrival of the ‘Polypin’ a plastic cube, which collapsed like the synthetic wine box bladders do now, revolutionised beer drinking at parties. 

They had plastic taps and the sediment sat under the dispenser, they were brilliant. Beer drinking had finally become clean and simple. A pin contained thirty-six pints, more than enough to keep beer drinkers happy. We never had the pleasure of a small brewery like Godson’s, Young’s or Fuller’s delivering their products to our parties. 

We were teenagers, and you had to be earning good money to set up your own bar, that was the preserve of the sophisticated older brothers and sisters. Some things never change. Rather, my contemporaries never had that; I did because a decade separated my eldest sister and I. I went to these older people’s parties.  

We are all familiar with the infuriating way life works, you need experience to get a job and you need a job to get experience, the whole thing is ghastly but we cope. The film of beer in the kitchen was all part of the party experience. 

Even as teenagers who could not afford a firkin, we knew that it was better to buy four cans and drink most of them than to buy a ‘Party Seven’ and only drink half of it. Smaller cans kept the kitchen floor drier too. 

Written by Michael Fitzalan

Michael Fitzalan’s first novel gained cult status and here are some others: Waterwitch was a hit with those who have ever sailed; two brothers battle storms and Spanish support for the Malvinas in an attempt to meet up with their girlfriends in Ibiza. They have to get from The Algarve to Ibiza, all very straightforward until engine failure and storms threaten to sink all their plans. The Taint Gallery tells the story of a modern Romeo and Juliet; the story is set in Cheslea and Fulham, not Verona, nevertheless, it is a doomed relationship. The book was shunned by big publishers for its highly charged and graphic sexual content and the small publisher who produced the book folded, copies are rare. A reprint is planned for its twentieth anniversary next year; it is still as pertinent and shocking today as it was back in 1996. Switch is an amazing mixture of Franz Kafka realism yet it reads like a Raymond Chandler thriller. Joe Ederer falls for a French girl but he is recovering from being dumped by his English girlfriend. A fish out of water in London, he chases her home only to be rejected. He hooks up with a suffocating drug addict and that is when his nightmares begin. Major Bruton’s Safari is the story of innocents abroad; a family invited to celebrate the coronation of the Kabaka of Buganda become indoctrinated into the ways of Africa. With an acerbic observer on hand, the family experience the warmth and ways of Uganda that help them to understand themselves a little better. IPG – Innocent Proven Guilty is about a teacher, Philip Hayward whose brother sold their shared flat and ran off to America with the proceeds. Philip bumps into his brother’s ex-girlfriend and she tells him his brother is back. Racing to the address she gave him, he arrives to find his brother with a knife in his back. As he leaves, his shoes leave bloody footprints and the police come looking for him. Carom – Finn McHugh and his team take on a swindler and smuggler, Didier, who is depraved in so many ways. They know he is smuggling art and drugs; he must be stopped before others take him out. The Cubans, want him dead, Finn wants to break the smuggling ring. Who will win? Remember the Fifth November – Guy Fawkes was innocent, Catesby was a broken man who brought his children up in the Anglican faith, yet Robert Cecil arranged for them to be portrayed as terrible villains. With a spy service second to none and with moles everywhere how could someone hatch a plot like this and fail to be discovered? The answer, they could not. Read the truth! One – Bullying does not go on anymore in schools. I would not bet on it. Weep as you read the terrible story of a school bully and the misery he dispenses to all the boys. Then, cheer as one of his victims takes revenge. Take a trip to a prep school in a time when kids built tree houses, danced and swung on Tarzan ropes!

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