75. Maple Bank and the dustbin.

men with barrels

Last night’s dream carried a warning of sorts. I drove a vehicle from one area to another, along a connecting road. On the way back, the road had deteriorated, and was punctuated by two identical notices across the road, maybe 50 yards apart: ‘No Public Access’. I went around them and carried on.

Consequently, I have attempted some circumspection in this blog. And will caution that parts might seem horribly distasteful, to some eyes.

no access

Setting off a few days early for the new autumn term, in my second year at university, I sat on the coach from London Victoria to Birmingham with enormous pent-up energy. September 1976.

I had a room of my own at last, sharing a newly-built self-catering apartment with four other lads. Ray, Simon, and two unknown guys – John and Ian. Maple Bank, the collective name of the flats, was a stone’s throw from High Hall.


The excitement and anticipation were churning my guts. Paul (of course), Don, Johnny Price and Mark were next door, and our Geordie mates Shaun and Andy were in another block, nearby. Martin Dyer and Mark Armstrong opposite them. Ray’s geography female mates Jane, Allyson and Fiona and their friend Fran in a flat at right angles to ours, one floor up.

I was all shadow and light. No middle point equilibrium or calm. Every sense and instinct said the air balloon of drunken fun was poised to climb to towering new heights.

Andy and Shaun had introduced and talked up the concept of “sketching” in year one. This verb came to dominate conversations over the next two years. “What a sketch”, we would howl, either as the particular daft activity was taking place or as we sat around the next day, analysing every move the night before, like Lineker and Shearer on Match of the Day.

A natural leader emerged that autumn and winter, the one and only Neil, the Mancunian that we tagged Big Dad. A mature student of around 24, who shared with Shaun and Andy. Dad was our mentor, providing fathomless wells of stories and jokes, as well as a random series of disappearances lasting for several days. These added to his enigma, already hinted at by stories of a broken marriage.

Big Dad founded the ‘Four Pint Can Club’, a loose affiliation of idiots who wore a sack of blue rugby shirts dug up by Neil.

The club’s raison d’etre was epitomised one Sunday afternoon at a soccer match. We decided to go and watch Ray play in goal. His description of our arrival, over the brow of a hill, remains a classic. “First of all I could hear a load of singing in the distance, rugby songs and the like. Then you could see these cases of beer, which seemed to be moving towards the pitch under their own steam. In a second, you could see that the beer was being carried along on peoples’ heads, like the women do in Africa. Then there was this sea of blue rugby shirts rising towards us, over the brow of the hill, and you silly bastards wearing them and singing your filth.”

We stood and drank can after can of Breaker, or some equally potent lager. Then our Liverpudlian wild man, Keith, decided he needed a wee. He stood casually at the side of the pitch, splashing the legs of an unfortunate running down the wing. The day went on in this fashion, paid for by taxpayers and parents. The transgression stirred something in my soul, and was just a warm up for some fantastically mad and sordid behaviour in that first term.

The most royal tale, which was to spread far and wide in the following weeks, came on a cold Saturday night after Keith reported to us that he had crashed his car into a parked equivalent on the way home from Bournville Rugby Club. Undaunted, he staggered from Selly Oak over to Maple Bank, and suggested, on arrival, that it was time to nick a barrel of beer. Off we piled in a car, under cover of darkness. Like an SAS raid, we were in and out of the entrance to the back of the chosen target in less than 30 seconds, with the number plates covered in case anyone had seen our move.

We lugged the barrel into our flat, set it up next to the kitchen sink. Someone produced a blue dustbin as a temporary form of toilet for those deciding that the loo was too far. I was already in the land of uncontainable glee. I think most of us knew that this evening was legend in the making. There was an elated pride that nicking barrels was becoming our craft. (In fact when Keith was once questioned about the fallout from stocktaking, he boldly announced: “We’re taking the stock!”)

images (1)

The Geordie lads worked on getting the barrel open, while we drank whatever else was in the room. Punctuated by several lads having a slash in the empty dustbin, the evening accelerated away at breakneck speed, bringing faces old and new into the room and two girls who hid behind the curtain every time somebody whipped out a cock for a pee. The second element to the brew was inevitable. Keith offered a lead. He regurgitated a chicken madras in the sink and then proceeded to pull out the fleshy bits and re-eat them.

No sooner had he cleared away his second-hand poultry than we filled the sink with the un-imprisoned beer and filled our mugs again and again, ignoring the floating bits. The songs started. We played a drinking game, where the forfeit was an item of clothing. More flesh came into display. Bacchanalia was us.

men drinking over baRREL

As the dustbin gradually filled with piss and, increasingly, puke, events unravelled at a speed and in directions that nobody had anticipated. One minute a group of friends were chewing the fat on a Saturday evening. Within a short period we were all out of our heads, half-naked.

Somebody knocked into the dustbin, but the air was so thick with cameraderie and delight that few saw it topple. A wave of indescribable liquids cascaded out of the bin and engulfed the floor, covering our feet and swilling round the room. Like being in one of those family swimming pools where the tide machine simulates a minor sea storm. Lapping from wall to wall.

These Dionysian rites would not have suited all tastes. We piled out of the room, and fought shoulder-to-shoulder in the doorway, using brooms to hold back an ocean of bodily wastes.

images (2)

Alchemy was at work. Deliciously, wildly drunk and bonded, we floated on a plateau where nothing could defeat us.

Then somebody suggested a mass streak. Off came whatever clothes still adorned us. A group ran bollock-naked into the now sub-zero November night, halting cars, eventually performing a can-can on a hillock. A photographer for one of the official university magazines captured the sight for posterity.


Phenomenal social glue, lasting a lifetime. Even now the recollection brings tears of laughter. Nobody had ever intimated that such outrageously delightful behaviour was possible. A proper coming of age, throwing off past shackles.


PS. Maureen observed that this was Birmingham’s own version of Burning Man. She also had to read some of it with her eyes closed, she said. That’s clever.



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