“Meeting the Dull Men of Great Britain – The Beer Can Collector”
14 minute read
Do you remember the early designs of Lynx deodorant cans?
I’m talking about the 80’s and 90’s here, back when the designs were clean and simple. The cans were black with a rounded cap, and three silver lines cut through the coloured emblems that distinguished each individual scent in the Lynx range; Amber, Spice, Musk, Oriental, Java, Inca, Alaska, Marine.
We used to refer to them as flavours, which is pretty ridiculous when you stop and think about it. Nobody that I knew actually drank the stuff and it was generally only used for one of two reasons. Firstly, of course, for spraying into your arm pits to prevent smelly outbreaks of B.O. during strenuous activity (i.e. the standard use for deodorant), and secondly, for combining with a lit match so as to create your very own flamethrower. What can I say? We grew up during the golden age of the action hero.
I’m sure Arnold Schwarzenegger would’ve been proud.
I was obsessed with Lynx deodorant, and as the range of products grew I found myself trying to collect every single can in the range. Unfortunately this resulted in spending almost every penny that I earned on my paper-round, but on the flipside I’d never smelt so good!
And so when I began looking into who my next candidate for the Meeting the Dull Men of Great Britain series could be, there was something about Nick West that I could easily relate to.
“So how did you get involved with this place?” I asked.
Nick had invited me to Oakham Treasures; a family-run museum in Portbury, near Bristol, with a theme centred around retail and farming history.
Whatever household items you can remember from days gone by, there’s a good chance that Oakham Treasures has them; and what they’ve also got is a huge collection of British beer cans, thanks to Nick West.
“I came here for my birthday one year.” Nick replied. “There was a section that had been made up to look like an old off-licence, and as I looked through the beer cans I saw a rare flat-top can from the 1950’s that I didn’t have in my collection. In fact there were two of them.”
Nick had approached the owner, Keith, about purchasing one of the beer cans but was flat out refused. Keith had already heard about Nick, otherwise known as the ‘beer can bloke’, but no matter what Nick proposed, Keith wasn’t interested in selling.
“Keith told me that everything had been donated to him and so he couldn’t sell anything. It made sense, but I was totally gutted and was really annoyed. I kept trying to think of different ways I could get my hands on that can!”
All of a sudden I had images flash through my mind of Nick breaking into Oakham Treasures after hours, and lowering himself from the ceiling on wires, Mission Impossible style.
“I kept on at Keith for another two years until eventually he made me an offer. He said that if I could find him an old white five pound note then he’d let me exchange that for one of the cans.”
“So you managed to get one?”
“It took a little while to track one down, but yes, I got the note. Keith kept his promise and allowed me to pick out which of the two cans I wanted. That was 7 or 8 years ago. We developed a good relationship and I’ve been involved with Oakham Treasures ever since.”
As we began our tour of the museum, I asked Nick when he first started collecting beer cans.
“It was the 13th of July 1975.”
Wow, that was specific.
“I first met my wife, Deborah, when I was 16. One year for my birthday she bought me a book on beer can collecting and it all began from there. I’d been doing a little bit of collecting before that; coins, cigarette cards, old tins, beer bottle labels. I also collected stamps for a while.”
My ears suddenly pricked. “Really? I’ve done a bit of stamp collecting myself.“ I said proudly.
“Yeah, but I found stamp collecting to be a bit boring…”
“…so I began collecting the post marks instead.”
I laughed. “You’re such a rebel. Dare to be different eh!”
“Nothing was really keeping me interested, but I was 16 and at that age where I was starting to get interested in beer. I saw an episode of Frank Bough’s Nationwide television show and there was a feature about a guy named Richard Dolphin from Taunton. He exported empty beer cans to collectors in America and that really got my interest. The book that Deborah bought me was written by Richard himself, so it all began from there.”
“Well that makes sense. So you mentioned exporting beer cans to America. Is beer can collecting a thing over there then?”
Nick replied enthusiastically. “Oh yes, it’s huge in America.”
It turns out that Nick wasn’t exaggerating about this. In fact the Beer Can Collectors of America (the BCCA) have a 3 day ‘can-vention’ every year. During his early days as a collector, Nick travelled over to America and completed a 400 mile road trip to the 10th annual can-vention in Pennsylvania.
At this point, there’d never been any visitors to the can-vention from outside of the US, and so when Nick turned up as the first ever beer can collector from the UK, his beer cans were in extremely high demand. Everybody wanted to trade with him.
He was like a beer can rock star!
By this point Nick’s collection had reached a modest fifteen hundred, but the lessons of the BCCA can-vention soon hit. If Nick were to continue collecting beer cans from around the world, his collection would soon become so huge that it would become unfeasible to continue. It was at this point that he decided to narrow his attention to British beer cans only.
Despite this, Nick was fully committed to his collection; and this commitment spilled into all areas of his life.
“So talk me through how you typically found new beer cans. How did you go about growing your collection?” I asked, as we walked past a long row of vintage Royal Mail post boxes.
“Well whenever I went food shopping with my wife I’d dash straight off to the beer aisle, but if there was nothing new for me I’d quickly get bored and want to leave.”
“Yeah, because who needs things like bread and vegetables huh?” I smiled.
“And whenever we were heading home I’d always try to drive new routes so I could drop in on different off-licences.”
It turns out that Nick would regularly visit his local Victoria Wines to try to find new beer cans, but more often than not he’d end up leaving without buying anything. In fact he did this many, many times; which leads us to a bizarre little twist in his story.
“One time the manageress stopped me. She asked me why I kept coming in, staying for a minute, and then leaving without buying anything.” Nick said.
“She probably thought you were a bit shifty.” I suggested.
“Possibly, but when I explained about my collection and that I was visiting the store to find new cans, she offered me a job!”
I was bemused. “She did what?”
“She offered me a job.”
“Then what happened?”
“I accepted it, and I worked there for three years, part time. I got access to all the new beer cans before they went on sale to the public.”
I couldn’t control my laughter.
“And when I was on holiday with my family here in the UK, the kids would be asking things like, come on Dad, let’s go to the beach, or, let’s go to this theme park.”
“And you’d say?”
“I’d say, no, we’re off to visit a brewery today.”
Nick then told me about a time he went to a Morrisons supermarket and there were about thirteen different cans that he needed, but they were all in four packs, and so he’d spend an eternity going through them all to ensure they were in immaculate condition before buying them.
“Unfortunately though when I got them all to the checkout I then had to tell the check-out person to be extra careful and to make sure they didn’t dent any of the cans.”
“And what did they say to that?”
“Nothing. They didn’t need to. Their expression said it all.”
One of the big problems with collecting empty beer cans is that the majority of them didn’t come empty. In fact, they came full, and they needed drinking.
“I know this is probably a silly question, but I’m guessing you actually like drinking beer?” I asked.
Nick nodded in confirmation. “Oh yes, but I remember one time when I was concentrating on some new super-strength lagers for my collection. We’d been playing a game of Trivial Pursuit while drinking them, but when I got up from the table I was so pissed that I fell over and crushed all the cans.”
I cracked up in laughter.
“On top of that I had to work the next day. I was so ill, plus I had to re-buy all the super strength lager and drink them all over again.”
At his absolute peak, Nick had acquired a collection of 9,300 beer cans, and I was curious as to where these were all kept.
“Well we had to move house a few times. We’d gone from a two bed, to a three bed, and then we had kids so we had an extension done. When we’d outgrown that we moved into a 5 bed Victorian terrace, but the enormity of moving all those cans was just massive.”
“I can imagine.”
“I had to wrap every can individually, and there were 158 removal boxes in total. We had to drive all over trying to collect empty beer trays to help with the move. We even got chased out of some shops!”
Before Nick and the family moved house they went to the pub for a drink and to draw up a list of all the work that needed doing at the new property; the garden, kitchen, the bathroom.
“And the beer can room was put way down the list, at number 20 in fact.”
But after just six months of moving in, the beer can room had been finished. Unfortunately though, none of the other nineteen items had been ticked off the list.
“We used the largest 5m by 5m room for the beer cans, and we even removed one of the radiators to create more space.”
“I bet that looked amazing?”
“It was impressive, and it sparked a lot of media interest, particularly the story of the lengths we had to go to for moving all the cans.”
This led me on to a question that I’d been keen to ask. “So what kind of media interest has there been over the years, and has it always been a positive experience?”
“I’d say so. I’ve been on 4 or 5 collector’s television shows, and in 1983 Jenny Hanley came to interview me.”
I knew who Nick was talking about and could picture the pretty blonde TV presenter as he spoke.
“She turned up at my two bedroom terraced house in a Rolls Royce. After the interview we went down to my local pub for lunch, and all the locals saw us together.” Nick said, with a massive smile spread across his face.
I can only imagine the swagger Nick must have sported that day as he walked into the pub with Jenny Hanley in tow. If he’d have been wearing a hat I’m sure he’d have tipped the brim and winked at everybody.
“The National Lottery also got in touch.” Nick added. “They used to do this thing where they’d have a guest and make them a proposal. But whether it turned out good or bad for the guest would be determined by whether the bonus ball was odd or even.”
“So what offer did they make you?”
“Well they suggested that if the bonus ball was an even number they’d come to my house and build a new display area and shelving for my beer cans.”
“Okay, that’s pretty cool. But what if the number were odd?”
Nick laughed. “Well they said they’d take my entire collection of cans outside and crush them.”
“What? That doesn’t sound like a bet worth taking.”
“That’s exactly what I thought. I said, so you’re asking me to risk losing a lifetime of collecting just for some new shelving that I could do myself?”
Clearly The National Lottery hadn’t thought through their offer very well, and needless to say, their proposal was rejected.
But it was Nick’s final declaration of his media involvement that really caught my attention as he told me about the time he appeared on Page 3 of The Sun. Although we’re living in an ever-evolving world and topless Page 3 models are no longer an accepted institution, we cannot dismiss the context of what this would have meant at the time.
Around thirty years ago when I had my obsession with Lynx deodorant cans, I was also at the age in which I was developing a very healthy interest in the fairer sex, and in particular, the spectacular pair of assets that they all carried around with them.
But back in the 80’s and early 90’s, there was no internet, no social media, and nor could we buy magazines like FHM or Nuts. No, the only thing we could do was go to the local newsagents and buy a copy of The Sun newspaper, claiming we were buying it for our Dad. Then we’d rush around the corner and open it up to Page 3, hoping to see a spectacular pair of, well, you know.
I can only begin to imagine how Nick’s friends must have reacted when they opened their newspapers one rainy Tuesday morning to find Nick sharing the same page as the double-D’s of Bethany, 23, from Middlesex, who likes walks on the beach and believes in world peace.
“So what did your friends say when they found out?” I asked eagerly.
“Well I got to work the next day and they began poking fun, saying that there’d been three tits on yesterday’s page three!”
I chuckled. “I think that’s a great claim to fame. Although if that had been one of those days when I’d bought a copy and was praying for a glimpse of Samantha Fox or Linda Lusardi, I’d have been seriously disappointed to be greeted by your face. No offence or anything.”
We both laughed.
“So how did you get involved with the Dull Men’s Club?”
“I received an email from Leland who said he was writing the book and asked if I’d like to be a part of it. We went to London for the book launch and lots of members turned up for it, as did German television! We were also on morning TV and were introduced as the 40 dullest men in Britain.”
I smiled. “This is brilliant.”
“They also had a vote as to who was the dullest of the 40 men, and I won. So that officially makes me THE dullest man in Great Britain.”
There was a certain irony to this statement though because the hour that we’d spent chatting up to this point had been anything but dull. In fact, I found Nick to be funny, charismatic, and a wonderful storyteller. But I guess that’s what I’ve been saying all along; The Dull Men of Great Britain is massively ironic.
“I remember being on a train travelling back from London one time, and I ended up sat next to a group of young girls. They were all sat quietly with their faces glued to their smart phones; they were oblivious to the world.”
Nick told me that the journey had been quite boring up to that point and so he ended up talking to one of the girls.
“She explained to me that they’d been to a friend’s 21st birthday party and when our brief exchange of words was coming to an end, I said to her, the next time you speak to your friend you can tell her that you’ve been speaking with Britain’s dullest man. Anyway, the rest of the group overhead what I’d said and they all looked at each other confused. When they asked me what I meant by that I told them my story. Before I knew it they were all asking me questions and were really interested in what I had to say. The journey flew by.”
And this made complete sense to me, because despite the fact we were here today talking about Nick’s contribution to the world of dull men, the conversation had not been in the least bit dull. In fact the only time the conversation had risked becoming in any way boring was when we began talking about ‘normal’ things and day to day life.
The real fun was there when we were talking about Nick’s collection, but what soon became apparent was that what sparked the most passion and excitement wasn’t necessarily the cans themselves, but rather the stories that went with them; it was the journey that Nick had taken and the adventures that he’d had along the way.
I couldn’t help but be curious as to what his family thought about the lengths he’s gone to, and about the roles in which they’ve had to take, especially with the big house move.
“So have your family been supportive of your collecting?”
“Begrudgingly.” Nick laughed. “But I’ll never forget when I made my biggest purchase ever. I’d always wanted the first ever British beer can that was produced; a Felinfoel pale ale from Felinfoel brewery near Llanelli. One came up on eBay and so I discussed buying it with Deborah.”
“What did she say?”
“She asked me how much I thought it would go for and I said around £2,000. Anyway, I won the bid and managed to get it for £1,240.”
“Brilliant. So that was the end of that then?”
“Well, not quite. About six weeks later there was another rare beer can come up on eBay and the bidding ended at 2am. So I went into the spare room, began bidding, and I won it for £600. But then I was thinking, how I am going to tell my wife?”
I leant forward in interest. “So what did you do?”
“Well we worked in the same place and would travel to work together. It was the same company but we were based in different buildings, so I drove into work, parked up, and we walked together to her building.”
“And, what happened?”
“Well I just smiled, kissed her on the cheek and said, oh, by the way, I just bought another can for six hundred quid. Have a nice day, I’ll see you later.”
I cracked up laughing.
“And what did she say to that?”
“I don’t know. I walked away really quickly and didn’t look back.”
I was almost crying with laughter. “So do you think your wife has ever regretted buying you that book?”
“Oh yes, she often says that the biggest mistake she’s ever made is buying me that book.”
“Yeah, I’m sure she probably wishes she’d just bought you the latest Stephen King novel instead.” I laughed. “So have your children followed in your footsteps? I mean, are they collectors too?”
Nick responded with a resounding no. “If anything I think it’s put them off collecting for life!”
“That’s brilliant.” I said. “So what comes next?”
“Well, I honestly thought I’d be collecting beer cans for life and I didn’t think I’d ever see the day when it all stopped.”
Hang on. Where did this bombshell just come from?
“Sorry, do you mean you’ve stopped collecting beer cans?”
I was confused.
“Oh yes. And I’m only just beginning to adjust to life beyond collecting now.”
I couldn’t quite believe it. “So what caused you to make that decision?”
“Well what with the explosion of craft beer these days, the number of British beer cans is growing and growing. I was starting to get really unhappy and stressed as I just couldn’t keep up. It was all running away from me.”
Nick’s tone was suddenly a little downbeat.
“Although the internet has made beer can collecting a lot easier, I was spending around three hours every night searching for new cans. I used to be collecting around 150 to 200 cans a year and that felt manageable, but in order to keep up I’d have to now be collecting around 650.”
“And that must have been expensive?” I asked.
“It was. Plus I was getting close to retirement and my poor missus had put up with it for 42 years. It was time to start giving some of that time back.”
“That’s understandable.” I said. “But still, it must have been hard to do?”
“Oh it was a super hard decision to quit, but it felt like the right time.”
Nick began making decisions of what to do with the beer cans, and the process took two years to conclude. In the end Nick kept 1500 of his most prized cans, he sold 6000 to a number of collectors from around the world, and finally, he donated 1900 to Keith at Oakham Treasures.
Nick’s story came to a conclusion as we stood before his collection, and as he looked over them with pride I got to thinking about the 42 year journey that he’d been on and the legacy that he’s been able to leave, deep within those four walls of Oakham Treasures.
But before I left Nick there was one question that I had to ask him.
“What do you think makes a happy and fulfilled life Nick?”
Without any hesitation, Nick’s answer came quickly.
As Nick turned away and looked proudly over his collection, adjusting a can here and there, the enormity of his answer hit me, because tolerance extends to all facets of life. Whether we’re talking about supporting another person’s dreams, or whether we’re extending it to the wider world; a little more tolerance would go a long way.
Because it feels like we’re in such a divided world right now and that everybody has an opinion; but sadly those opinions often come with the belief that they are exclusively right, and there seems to be very little patience in listening to the opinions of others; disagree with me and you’re wrong.
It’s left or right, black or white, up or down, right or wrong, and there seems to be so much opinion but very little discussion; it’s becoming increasingly difficult for people to meet halfway, to listen to each other, and to understand the things that make us who we are.
Without mutual respect and tolerance for one another, we’ll simply become a nation of individuals, and rather than accepting each other for our differences and being connected by our similarities, we’ll become divided because of them.
And don’t even get me started in the role that social media plays in all this.
I’d left Nick outside Oakham Treasures in the blazing sunshine of a late Bristol summer. Following a brief stop off in Portishead where I’d walked along the coastline enjoying some ice cream, I got back on the Prince of Wales Bridge and started driving north.
A little while later I stopped off at the Farm Shop at Gloucester Services and took a look around. I was instinctively drawn towards the fridges, or more precisely, to the beer. As I saw myriad cans of brightly labelled pale ales and lagers, I began thinking about my old Lynx deodorant cans.
“I never did get the Tempest flavour.” I muttered to myself.
The next “Meeting The Dull Men of Great Britain” road-trip adventure will be coming to Lossul.com at the very earliest opportunity. If you’d like to be the first to be notified when it’s published, and if you’d like to be kept up to date with all the latest DMC Adventure news then please sign up to the Lossul.com newsletter mailing list by following this link. You are free to unsubscribe at any time.
Are you a collector of beer cans? Or can you at least grasp the collecting of beer cans? Do you like to grasp beer cans, open the top, and drink them? In other words, do you like beer? Have you ever appeared on Page 3 of The Sun? Have you ever been chased out of a supermarket while hunting for beer trays? Or anything else for that matter? And do you really think that Nick deserves to be the dullest of the dull men? Do you now feel a little differently about the subject of boredom and dullness? Are you going to let your inner dull-person out a little more? And is there anything that you’d like to ask which either myself or the readers could help answer? Please feel free to leave your comments below so we can get a conversation started.
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