Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Star Guest Blog! Novelist Josa Young on being one of the last debs

When I was 17 I popped out of 10 years of single sex boarding school, and advanced bookwormhood, to find myself blinking in the light of the deb season. It was a huge shock, and I had no idea what I was doing. I cringe when I think how absurd were my views on how to behave.

Most of the other girls were younger than me as they were either not doing A Levels, or were doing the Season at the same time. Which struck me as plain bonkers. I had done my A Levels, got straight As, and was whiling away the time between working, backpacking in Italy looking at pictures, and going up to Cambridge to read English. Naturally enough, the 'debs' delights' - a range of young men chiefly distinguished by their belief that 1950s attitudes to women, society, work and what you will were the way to go - turned up their noses at me. Which led to disagreements, as I could not for the life of me agree that I was in some way inferior to a chap with no O levels. And anyway it wasn't difficult as I am not very tall and many of them, particularly the Guards officers, towered over me.

Having done nothing but read, I had little idea how to relate to the opposite sex anyway in that strange period between the cure for syphillis and the emergence of AIDS. If one of them made a crude pass at me (there was no finesse), I would kick them smartly in the shins. I was also not used to drink at all, and found even a couple of glasses a bit of a challenge. Having had so much single-sex education, I got on much better with the girls. Which led to another difficulty. Why did  they ignore my attempts at conversation as soon as a man - any man, however plain and dull - came into the room?

The good things were visiting, dancing and staying in beautiful houses all over the country. I have a persistent memory of a ravishing hall with open fires burning in white marble fire places on each side, of flowers and marquees, of four-poster beds and grand staircases. In those days people felt it was their social duty to give house parties for complete strangers, and provided dinner and a bed for local dances. I thought I disliked grouse until quite recently, because us young were always fed on nameless game birds hacked off the bottom of the freezer - old when they went in there no doubt. And our hosts could be tetchy - I remember once asking what kind of dog as strange, liver-coloured, squat creature might be, and feeling very embarrassed by the haughty answer: 'It's a labrador, of course!'

The Season forced me to be sociable and put on a good show wherever I went. I was brought up to understand that 'being shy' was extremely rude, and that I was always to try and talk to everyone. At dinner, I was to make conversation with the people on both sides of me and not turn my back and only talk to the interesting ones. But I had no idea what to talk about - I was interested in literature and history and hopeless at flirting. I am afraid I was a terrific wallflower - the tradition of young men in your party being obliged to dance with you had evaporated. I always rushing from room to room trying to look as if I was having fun - there was always sitting on a pile of coats reading a book if things got really uncomfortable. Once the coats squawked when I sat on them, as I had sat upon a semi-naked sleeping couple.

My husband, at 18 and in possession of a modest title, found himself in receipt of invitations from complete strangers at the same time - he put them in the bin having no concept of what was expected of him. I often wonder what would have happened if we had met then.

I definitely don't regret doing the Season - even a very watered down 1970s one. It was a kind of crucible where bits of me were burned away in the flames of embarrassment. And it has provided lots of material for my writing.

Josa Young's debut novel One Apple Tasted (E&T Books) is out now.

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