COLM O'REGAN: Opening Lines: Slacks... represent the beginning of the end of summer

You'll notice it as you go into the big clothes shops from now on: signs done in blackboard chalk-style, and a smell of thousands of sensible shoes, which are Fabrique en Vietnam or Laos or Myanmar. (Wherever labour laws are most lax).

In displays festooned with ‘special offer’ signs, forlorn child mannequins carry schoolbags, uncertain about what is happening next, as they take their first steps without their mammequins. One of the signs says ‘Slacks!’

Slacks: if ever there was a word that didn’t deserve an exclamation mark, it’s slacks. It represents the beginning of the end of summer.

A flat, deadening word. Pants implies a bit of energy. Trousers could be jaunty. But slacks just say ‘there won’t be any more gallivanting for you, now’.

A word that betokens mammies bumping into one another in Dunnes and exchanging anecdotes about THE COST OF THE SCHOOL UNIFORM.

How they tried to buy the crest separately, but the school were having none of it and how it is ALL A RACKET.

For years, slacks also meant getting back into long trousers. Nettled knees, shins, and ankles were ordered back inside.

Regardless of the weather, as soon as the last day of primary school was finished, you were put in short trousers.

It may have been purely a money-saving exercise. You don’t need to patch knees of a trouser if there are no knees. Cut skin regenerates itself, but I’ve never seen a slacks grow a scab. ‘Compulsory short trousers’ was probably done away with for insurance reasons. Maybe a seven-year-old sued their parents for the trauma of a cut knee.

But it wasn’t all about picking up the slacks. There were also the new school-books. Well, not new, if you could help it. Primary school-books didn’t change as often back in the 1980s. Such was the moribund state of the economy, there was simply no point in trying to generate cash by changing the syllabus.

Second-hand books shops had almost mythical status. The BookMart on Washington Street had queues for most of August. Outside, mothers clutched booklists.

Some books were scratched off, but others remained stubbornly ungot. Inside was a small, grey-haired lady, who held the fate of thousands in her hand, as she searched around the gloomy back of the shop for ‘Fun On The Farm’ or ‘Lean Ag Obair’ (assuming someone had only written in the workbook in pencil). But when you finally got the books in your hands, it was like looking at a flattened crystal ball of your future.

There were the strange symbols in ‘Busy At Maths’ that you knew would eventually become de rigeur. In the ‘English Reader’, after Ann and Barry had taught us all they could about jam, tea, ice-cream cake and the role of women in society, the game was upped.

Now, the training wheels were off and the Rainbow Series was going to guide us through the world, starting, naturally, by taking us ‘Away to Fairyland’ and finishing up with a ‘Crock Of Gold’.

The questions got harder, the writing got smaller, and the pictures became fewer. But some will stay with us forever, like a car driving under the Sequoia tree, the story of Grace Darling or Theseus, the Minotaur, and a ball of thread.

In Irish, it was all Mé-Mé-Mé with a variety of verbs: Tig Liom Siuil Liom, Suas Liom, Gluais Liom.

As time went by, other subjects were introduced. Through our history course, with its preponderance of pikes, pitch-capping and planters, we repeatedly found out “what the English were after doing to us” and how, once again, a spy betrayed the plucky, floppy-haired hero to the stern faced, bayonety Red-Coat.

Speaking of the English, this is the time of year when English cousins started arriving. They brought stories of free books, but also, horror of horrors, summer holidays that only started in the end of July. When do they find the time to buy their slacks?


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