An occasional series in which I share some significant events from my past.
We tend to think of the 1960s as a time of almost revolutionary change. The decade did not start that way – not for me anyway. There may have been all manner of exciting developments in the arts in the great metropolises of the world; there may have been radical changes happening in technology with the development of jet powered passenger aircraft and men circling the planet above the atmosphere. But in the rural backwater where I lived it seemed as though little had changed since before the war that ended 16 years earlier.
Most of those who could afford to own a car owned one that was, if not actually constructed before the war, based on prewar technology; few of the advanced systems developed during the war had not yet had time to filter through to automobile design and construction.
Very few homes had a telephone or washing machine. Television was black and white and offered just two channels, both of which operated only from mid-afternoon until around 11 pm. Receivers were usually rented.
Despite all of this my generation believed we were living in modern times. We looked forward to the possibility of space travel, saw recently introduced innovative automobiles like the Mini as evidence that the ingenuity of scientists and engineers would make the world a much better place as we entered adulthood. Medical science, too, was making advances. Vaccination programmes had virtually eliminated polio, dyptheria, smallpox and tuberculosis.
The social revolution that the 1960s is often associated with, even blamed for, had yet to materialise.
There was, for me, another factor that limited my own social life. Apart, that is, from my shyness, my tendency to introversion. I did not attend secondary school with the other children of the district. Sent away to boarding school before my 11th birthday, I returned to live in the district six years later and had to get to know young people I’d not seen since. People who almost certainly viewed me as some kind of snob. Working as an apprentice 12 miles away, any friends I made were those I met at work or on the bus.
The standard working week for factory workers back then was 44 hours. Overtime, when available, was in addition. We did get a day off for college. That consisted of three three hour sessions with 90 minute breaks between. As the first did not commence until 9:30 we had to clock on at 8am as usual which made that a very long day. Add the time spent traveling, home study and helping my mother’s second husband with numerous home improvement projects and there was little time left for socialising.
At the beginning of 1961, shortly after my 19th birthday, I was assigned to the drawing office which meant a reduction to 39 hours and a later start time. That summer I started going to Saturday night dances in village halls within comparatively easy reach of my home. Such events had, by law, to end at midnight. They did not have a drinks licence. Pubs closed at 10:30. So we’d meet in the pub, then pile into somebody’s prewar car and ride out to wherever that week’s dance was happening. It was the best opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex.
On one such occasion, probably late in June, I found myself dancing with a tall dark haired girl who allowed me to walk her home. Actually not home, because she was spending the weekend with a friend who lived in the next village to me, which was where the dance was held. So I walked her to the end of the lane leading to her friend’s house. She kissed me. I floated home about a foot above the road surface. A five kilometer walk in moonlight. Not only had she kissed me, she accepted my invitation to meet up ‘in town’ the following Saturday afternoon.
This is where we come up against another fact inhibiting my social life – and that of most of my peers, of course. The town was, as I’ve indicated, 12 miles away. The last bus ran at 9:20pm. So even a trip to the cinema meant attending an afternoon showing. Or we could – and did – walk in the town’s park. Either way we had to part company at what would today be regarded as a ridiculously early hour. We spent, I think, three Saturday afternoons like that.
I can see how that, coupled with the shyness I’ve already mentioned, would have made me seem very boring.
Never mind, August bank holiday was looming (back then August bank holiday in the UK was, as it still is Ireland, the first Monday in the month). That meant the village ‘show and sports’ with a dance afterwards that, because the next day was not Sunday, would continue until 1am! And, yes! In answer to my query, this dark haired beauty said that she would be coming to stay with her friend for the long weekend and would attend the show and the dance.
In my recollection, our village show was not the kind of agricultural show that includes the display of animals. Rather it was various horse riding competitions that occupied the arena. There were races for children over various distances as well as things like sack race, three-legged race, egg and spoon. An important feature was a one mile race for all ages. There was clay pigeon shooting, bowling for a pig, coconut shies, target shooting, hoop-la, a beer tent and, in the big marquee, a produce show where local gardeners and cooks showed off their wares.
I met my dark haired beauty with her friend and another. A mousey blond who seemed to be as shy as me. I recall mixed feelings as we walked together around the field, making several circuits. I was accompanied by three young women. Surely an ego boost for any young lad! But I wanted to be with just one. Nothing I tried would encourage the black haired beauty to separate from the protection of the other two. I suppose these days my behaviour that afternoon would be seen as stalking!
Eventually we parted company, heading for our separate homes to change into appropriate wear for the dance which was scheduled to begin at 8pm. Nobody wanted to be there at the start so I think we probably agreed to meet at 9pm. I wanted to meet ‘my girl’ at the entrance and pay for her ticket. I arrived to find the mousey one also just arriving, on her bicycle. Had she seen ‘my girl’? She had – down by the church gate talking to a couple of boys.
I wandered in that direction but there was no chance for me to muscle in to the conversation. Back at the hall I danced with the mousey one. Eventually the tall girl appeared with one of the two she’d been talking with earlier. I persuaded her to have one dance with me but it was an embarrassing affair and it was not long before she left. According to her friend she was ‘unwell’. I continued dancing with the mousey one.
After the dance there was a thunder storm. I was soaked, despite running the half kilometer home. The mousey girl must have been soaked, too, cycling three miles to her home.
Tuesday lunch time I phoned the tall girl from a call box in the town centre. I wanted to be sure that what I suspected was true – our brief courtship was over.
A couple of weeks later I attended a Saturday night dance where the mousey girl was also present. We danced every dance. I said I might cycle in the general direction of her home on Sunday evening. She said she might go for a bike ride, too. Perhaps we’d bump into each other.
The world has seen dramatic changes since 1961, some for good, some not. The mousey girl and I have lived through all of them. We moved to the town in 1963. Of course we had to get married to do that, the idea of people living together before marriage was still anathema then. Later we moved further away from home. We even spent a year and a half in South Africa. Since 2006 we have been settled in rural Ireland. I suppose that shows that rural life is still very much to our liking, despite the disadvantages – which are, of course, nothing like they were back then.