Potholes, ashtrays and other things I’m glad my children don’t know about

An Irishwoman’s Diary on how a chance encounter lead to an unexpected question

“After I commented on the size of a pothole on a country lane recently, a small voice from the back seat wondered what a pothole was.“ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

“After I commented on the size of a pothole on a country lane recently, a small voice from the back seat wondered what a pothole was.“ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

It was lying in the grass when the eight-year-old spotted it. “What’s that thing?” she asked. I thought she was joking at first. The unfamiliar thing she was pointing at was a cigarette butt.

Could it be possible that an eight-year-old child really didn’t recognise a cigarette butt? It appeared so. When quizzed, we also discovered that she had never heard of an ash tray. Former minister for health Micheál Martin and his workplace smoking ban of 2004 can take credit for this happy gap in the child’s knowledge.

When I was a child in the late 1970s, I was occasionally dispatched to the town with instructions to buy a pack of 20 Players for the man who worked on the farm. The shopkeeper never asked for whom they were destined. I was more interested in the boxes of red-tipped candy cigarettes.

Today’s children will never have to run the gauntlet of the smoking carriage on the train, when searching for the dining car

We would try to smoke them in that sophisticated way we’d seen in the ads, but the taste was too tempting and the candy cigarettes were usually gobbled up in a few seconds.

The pretend cigarettes never tempted me to try the real thing but cigarette smoke still followed us around everywhere.

We emerged from hair salons with fancy new perms that reeked of the hairdresser’s second-hand smoke.

In the cinema, little orange glows lit up around the darkened auditorium as smokers puffed their way through Police Academy and Beverly Hills Cop. During the boring bits in a movie, we would watch the smoke snake around the light thrown out by the projector.

Today’s children will never have to run the gauntlet of the smoking carriage on the train, when searching for the dining car. You could hardly see in front of you with the fug of tobacco smoke so the best option was to take a deep breath and charge through, at a rate of knots.

And today’s children will never have to choose between smoking and non-smoking seats on an airplane. Because, of course, the smoke could read the non-smoking signs, and a neat wall of cigarette smoke would obediently form at the approach to the non-smoking section.

But it turns out that cigarette butts are not the only thing confusing some of today’s children.

After I commented on the size of a pothole on a country lane recently, a small voice from the back seat wondered what a pothole was.

Surely not? Have potholes also disappeared from our vocabulary?

Photographs of people standing knee-deep in murky potholes on rural roads were a mainstay of local newspapers when I was growing up.

Some canny campaigners plonked small children into the craters to make them look even more cavernous.

The woman behind the newsagent’s counter looked perplexed at my request and then handed me an A4 refill pad

The more artistic campaigners painted giant circles around potholes in a bid to embarrass the council into action.

It must have worked, if at least one Irish child has never heard of a pothole.

And most Irish children would definitely be unable to identify a roll of film for a camera.

We found one in its little plastic cylinder recently and the teenagers laughed like drains at the idea that we had to send our films away to be developed and wait for a week or more for our photographs to return.

They would probably burst a blood vessel if I told them about video shops and the thrill of renting a video player and three movies for the weekend.

And they probably would not believe that we also rented our television for many years. It sporadically returned to the shop for a little holiday if my father caught us hedonistically watching Anything Goes on a Saturday morning instead of being outside doing agricultural things. Oh, we were wild in those days.

Children may be excused for not recognising the staples of our childhood, but it was an adult who recently flummoxed me when I went to buy a writing pad.

The woman behind the newsagent’s counter looked perplexed at my request and then handed me an A4 refill pad.

“No, a writing pad,” I told her. “For writing a letter.” I may have even mimed writing a letter to jolt her memory.

“Ah,” she said, and handed me a reporter’s notebook. She continued to look blankly at me as I made my excuses and left. It took two more shops before I located a writing pad.

I should send off a strongly worded letter complaining about the limited availability of writing pads but I am saving my stationery. You never know, writing pads may follow the path of potholes and ashtrays and become an endangered species too.

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