THERE was, in Ballybunion, when I was a youth, a tall, slinky slow-foxtrotter who was frequently forced to fight off women whenever a ladies’ choice was announced. Remember that I speak of a time when good foxtrotters were as plentiful as pismires at a picnic, when the strains of Pat Crowley’s music brought out the best in otherwise uninspired terpsichoreans, when there were cups for quick-steps and waltzes and dance halls were really for dancing. Our slinky slow-foxtrotter did not stand out on the ballroom floor. There were no flourishes to his finishes and I never once saw him execute a really neat combination of steps.
He was a careless dresser. His shortcoat was never buttoned and his trousers were never pressed. Neither was his hair racked nor his shoes polished. When I was in my heyday a man never combed his hair. He racked it or, if you like, raked it. In country places in those days a comb was called a hair rake.
The rest of us went to great pains to polish our shoes and maintain knife-edge creases on our trousers. We plastered our hair with tuppenny bottles of superfine brilliantine and we always topped our cigarettes and buttoned our shortcoats before inviting a lady to dance.
Our friend was different. I had better put a name on him although readers who were part of the Ballybunion scene in those halcyon times will have him tagged from the opening line. He was known as Bonzo Malone. He was not strictly speaking a native of Ballybunion. He spent most of the summer there with an aunt and he came from the Tralee side which could mean anywhere between Tarbert and Ballinskelligs. He had a season ticket for the pavilion but little else by way of worldly matters. He is now deceased as is the aunt who provided his long summer holidays.
He was an easy going chap, no more than twenty but he had about him an air of quiet assurance which belied his tender years. We envied him. No woman ever refused him for a dance and as I have earlier pointed out he was besieged before the drums rolled for the start of a ladies choice. Sometimes a damsel with exceptional looks would appear at the pavilion. When she showed no inclination to accept the countless offers to dance made by aspiring foxtrotters like myself we looked to Bonzo to see if we could make any fist of her. There was no need to worry. After awhile he sidled in her direction and before he was halfway to her she would be on her feet waiting for him to sweep her into his arms.
What was it about him? We asked ourselves. He was nondescript enough. He never used superfine brilliantine as we did He never cracked jokes and the women he chose as partners never laughed during the period of the dance. He wasn’t good with quips but he was a consistent and slinky-slow foxtrotter and this was the only apparent asset which he could boast.
Oddly enough we didn’t envy him. He was never smug and never in the least boastful about his accomplishments in the female field. He never went home alone from a dance. There would be a rush for partners as Joe McGinty announced that the last dance of the night was at hand. The best looking girls were swept up quickly or rather they allowed themselves to be swept up by those they had earlier chosen to look after compacts or purses.
Bonzo moved late, Joe McGinty would be singing the opening lines of Goodnight Sweetheartwhen he would drift across the floor to the lady of his choice. She would have refused earlier invitations and gambled all that Bonzo would select her for the ultimate caper. We marvelled at the ease with which he charmed every make of woman. He never spoke during that drowsy last dance. He held her close but not too close. She would endeavour to look into his eyes as if searching for a secret truth which might reveal the inner thoughts of his heart. Then and only then would he permit himself the very faintest fraction of a smile. As the magical melody wore on and Joe McGinty’s sleep sonorousness drugged us into dreamland Bonzo would be seen to be dancing cheek to cheek.
When a lady consented to dance cheek to cheek it meant, without question, that she had allowed herself the luxury of an escort to her place of abode or mode of transport. Bonzo never asked. It just happened. With the rest of us it was different. Only on rare occasions could we indulge a lady to leave the hall with us. Occasionally a kind-hearted soul would answer in the affirmative when permission was requested to see her home but for the most part we would be given one of the standard answers such as “my sister is with me” or “my brother is waiting for me at the door.”
Another favourite rejection was for a girl to say she had a cold and was afraid to pass it on. Others had to leave immediately after the dance while more went home in bevvies having been forewarned by anxious mothers to spurn would-be escorts and to seek safety in numbers. Hard to blame the mothers for, beyond doubt, there were some unscrupulous rogues at large in Ballybunion at the time. It was so to speak, the confluence of all romantics, lawful and unlawful for the place and period.
All this, however, does not help us in our analysis of Bonzo Malone. Bonzo is, of course, a leas-anim, or nickname. His real Christian name was Beneficus or Benidicus or some such cumbersome attachment. His friends abbreviated this to Bonzo. There was none of us at the time who could explain Bonzo’s success with the fair sex. Some, the more impressionable, took to imitating his mannerisms few and all though they were. We gave up using superfine brilliantine and tried not to be raucous or noisy as had been our wont. We let the creases escape from our trousers and gave up buttoning our shortcoats before asking a girl to dance. It was all to no avail. If anything we were less successful than before. It was as if the girls knew we were imitators because they refused to take us seriously. With Bonzo it was the same as always. At the ends of their weeks of fortnights holidaying females would go home, heartbroken after Bonzo. He would promise to write but this alas was something he was incapable of doing having abandoned school at an early book.
Looking back now over the years it is not too difficult to understand Bonzo’s success with women. He never stood out like a sore thumb. He was never noisy. He never did anything brilliant while dancing yet he never did anything foolish. He stayed away from the centre of the ballroom. He was a headlands-dancer preferring to do his eurhythmics in the quieter areas. I’ll grant you there are women who love the limelight, who like to be in the thick of things whether these situations are embarrassing or not but the truth is that the vast majority of women are content to go through life with the Bonzoes of this world.
Bonzo succeeded because he was an average man. He never lost because he never gambled. He never made his partner look awkward on the dance floor. He took no chances.
He never bored her with idle talk. He let the music and the atmosphere do the work for him and was happy and which is more important was seen to be happy whenever his partner searched for the truth in his eyes. Bonzo wasn’t great but neither was he mediocre. Women sensed that here was a man who could go through life without rocking the boat and this basically is the chief requirement of a female in search of a suitable mate.
If he were in the cavalry Bonzo would never lead a charge. The chances were he’d live to tell the tale. He knew his limitations and was ashamed of them. He wore his clothes the way he did because he did not want to attract too much attention. He could not cope with it if it came his way. It was Shakespeare who said that the apparel oft proclaims the man. In Bonzo’s case it was true. He was, in short, a man who could be trusted by all women. He also knew himself.