Pictured from left to right - Watty, Damo, Horse, Viv & Gitta
Unfortunately, the link that used to live here no longer links to a picture of Watty, Damo, Horse, Viv & Gitta - the site doesn't have picture archives back up since their redesign. Still, I'll leave the description in place - you're just going to have to use your imagination. Picture glassy eyes and hats.
When you talk about the big events in rural Australia, particularly if you were to speak to someone under the age of 30 or so, Australia's Bachelor and Spinsters Balls (or B&S Ball) would be right up at the top of the list. Just ask Watty, Or Damo. Horse loves them too.
From their matchmaking beginnings, to their present incarnation as little more than a debaucherous party, B&S Balls have been part of the Australian rural calendar for many years, and although the spirit and aims of the event may have changed over the years, the importance of B&S Balls to rural communities remains as vital as ever.
A Brief History
It is not known when the first B&S Ball was held in Australia, however it is believed that the tradition stems from the Irish town of Lisdoonvarna. Some people in the area would make a career of matchmaking, and parents would go to these people so that they could find a match for their young son or daughter. Every year since 1871, in September or October, a matchmaking festival would take place, where the eligible bachelors and spinsters would meet, in the hopes of finding their match.
Australia's early B&S Balls were very much in this mould - a place for young country men and women to meet, and hopefully find love. Australia is a large country, with a widely dispersed population - particularly when you are looking outside of the major population centers. It can take literally hours of driving to visit your next door neighbour, or the nearest town - even then, it may be not much more than a petrol station, grocery store, and a pub. In a land such as this, it is very difficult to meet people. Australia's B&S Balls helped to bridge this distance.
Finding Love is Tough on The Land...
The distance factor mentioned above is a real problem, and it hasn't improved by such a great deal in modern times. So serious is this issue, that a major Australian women's magazine - the Australian Women's Weekly, ran a campaign to 'Find a Farmer a Wife'. 50 Australian men, living alone on farms, were featured, hoping to find some companionship. While these men were in general older - not your average B&S Ball attendee by any means - their plight does help to illustrate the difficulty that many men face living in rural Australia. Fewer and fewer young women are choosing to stay on the land, many relocating to major population centers to study, attending university, making a future of their own. This trend puts rural Australian men in an unenviable situation - there simply are not enough single women available in many areas.
The Modern B&S Ball
B&S Balls have changed a lot over the years. In fact, they are probably unrecognisable from their traditional roots. While matchmaking still does go on, it's more in the vein of getting completely shit-faced, and waking with a roaring hangover, and an unfamiliar face sharing your swag. Modern B&S Balls may not have a lot to do with long term partnerships these days, but they do still play a valuable part in the life of rural communities.
The dress code for a B&S Ball is Black Tie...of a sort. While the men will be expected to attend wearing black pants, and a shirt and tie, it's perfectly acceptable to wear boots, and a jacket is optional. The ladies will attend in a dress, or a skirt. Boots are perfectly acceptable with this dress also.
Although the dress code is fairly formal, it's not recommended that an attendee turn up in their best dinner suit, expecting a night of cultured entertainment, polite conversation, and splendid dancing. Chances are, by the end of the night, your suit will be covered in beer, rum and food. Your dress may well be trailing in the sticky remains of hundreds of people who don't really care where they drop food, drink, or vomit. An op-shop is definitely a place you would be well advised to visit for your clothing purchases before attending a B&S Ball.
What Goes On?
So what can you expect from a B&S Ball?
It's likely to be held in some form of marquee or shed, in the middle of a paddock somewhere out of town. The first things you'll probably notice are the utes. They'll be everywhere. Now, for those of you who are not familiar with the standard Australian Ute, they're probably a little different to what you may expect. Most Aussie utes aren't huge 4WD monsters - we never call them trucks. Imagine a fairly large family car - in Australia it'll probably be a Holden Commodore, or a Ford Falcon. Now take an angle grinder, and start cutting just behind the front seats. Cut down to around the height of the top of the doors, then cut horizontally to the back of the car. Replace everything that used to be behind the driver's seats with a tray. You've just constructed an Australian Ute! Now, if you add some spotlights, a bull bar, and some stickers, you're beginning to picture the sight that will greet you at a B&S Ball. There will be loads of the things. Lovingly cared for, engines tweaked, V8 motors rumbling. Particularly for the males attending, this is a chance to show off your Ute. And even though you may take loving care of your Ute, and get it running as well as is possible, you'll probably still want it to look as feral as possible. There's no way you want people to think that you're some city slicker, bringing your shiny new Ute from The Big Smoke, simply to show it off. They have a name for these type of people in Australia - wankers.
Now, no red blooded Aussie male is going to be content to simply sit on the tray of their Ute, maybe rev the engine every now and then. It's unlikely you'll find someone carefully polishing the fingerprints from the paintwork, bringing their pride and joy to a high sheen. No way - when you're at a B&S Ball, looking to impress, you've gotta get into some circle work. So just what is circle work? Well, it's pretty simple really. Hop in your Ute, find a nice wide section of paddock, and gun the thing. Paint circles on the ground with your tires, making them tighter all the time. A roaring Ute, dust, dirt and mud flying into the air, while you're screaming out the open window, your akubra firmly planted on your head all the while - this is circle work. How could it not impress the ladies?!
Now, if you're a teetotaler, a B&S Ball is seriously not the place for you to be. There will be drinking. A lot of drinking. When you examine the foundation of a modern B&S Ball, you will find alcohol. You will find a lot of alcohol. Now, if you're thinking that you can turn up to a B&S Ball with a few Lemon Ruski's, or a nice bottle of red, you're sadly mistaken. You'd better like beer. And you'd better like Bundy Rum. The fact is, you'll probably be drinking a fair bit of both. You'll probably drink so much, that at some stage you lose any ability to remember much of anything. Chances are, you'll wake up in your swag some time the next morning, not really all that sure just how you got to be there.
Chances are, you won't be the only body in your swag.
Which brings us to another major difference between the B&S Balls of our grandparent's generation, and the modern incarnation. Sex. The days have long gone where the young gents and ladies would nervously meet, under the watchful eyes of their parents. Not touching, trying to make pleasant conversation. These days, the odds are if you see someone that takes your fancy at a B&S Ball, and they're keen, you'll wake with them the next morning. These days, you're given condoms when you arrive. Fueled by alcohol, many country men and women will end up sleeping together - casual sex is the norm.
The other major contributor to a successful B&S Ball is the music. You've got to get that right, or the atmosphere simply will not be there. And when you're throwing a party for the country, you really can't have anything apart from country music. If the event is large enough, there will be a live band playing. Either way, you'll likely hear some Slim Dusty and Lee Kernighan, B&S Ball staples both of them. None of your fancy city dance music, no airy-fairy art house tunes - this is the music of the land, pure and simple. Nothing else will do.
It's All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses a Life...
There are some serious issues to be addressed by the swing towards uninhibited partying that the modern B&S Ball has taken. Not least of which is the issue of drink driving. When you have a paddock full of utes, a bunch of boozed up people looking to impress, and the attitude of ten foot tall and bulletproof, you have a recipe for trouble. Circle work can be fun when sober - when drunk, it's a recipe for disaster. Over recent years, Police attending the event have needed to take a much more proactive role. Rather than simply being there as law enforcers, acting once the rules have been broken, they are taking on a role of not allowing people to get into trouble in the first place. The morning after, Police will offer breathalyzer tests to people before they drive - it's highly likely that the few hours of sleep that have been grabbed are not nearly enough to work the alcohol out of the system, and people are waking up still half drunk.
Another issue that is of relevance is that of sexual assault. This is an issue that you will not find too much information on - indeed, in my research for this writeup, I found no mention of sexual assault. However, it is something that is becoming more of a problem. A good friend of mine went to her first B&S Ball a while back, and she was perfectly alright. However the people who she went along with, experienced B&S attendees, made sure to keep a really good eye on her, ensuring nothing happened that she didn't want to happen. Thankfully, it's not a rampant problem, but it does exist.
The Benefits Go Further than a Good Time
While the matchmaking aspects of B&S Balls still live on in some form, the real benefit of these events is now for the communities that run them. B&S Balls have become a vital financial lifeline to rural townships, bringing in much needed cash. The average B&S Ball attendee will spend around $450 (Aus) all up, for their ticket, suit, food and drinks and fuel. The Wamboyne B&S Ball (a town in New South Wales raised over $53,000 (Aus) through their B&S Ball in 2000. The money that is raised by these events benefits the community in a multitude of ways. Local stores will benefit from the increase in business, charity organisations often receive large and important donations. The significant thing about these donations, is that they will be made to organisations who will provide services to the people in rural communities. Organisations such as The Royal Flying Doctor Service - an absolutely essential and lifesaving service for those living in extremely remote areas of Australia - would be far worse off without the cash raised by B&S Balls.
The Future of the B&S Ball
The Australian B&S Ball remains as popular as ever. People will travel from hundreds of kilometers away to attend these events - country people who find themselves in cities especially love these events as a way to keep in touch with their roots, to get a taste of the land once again. Unfortunately however, the greatest threat to the continued success of B&S Balls may be something that is beyond the control of any event organiser.
Public Liability Insurance possibly poses the greatest threat to the future of B&S Balls. It is becoming more and more difficult to secure insurance for this type of event, particularly as over recent years, insurance companies have either refused to cover risky events, or have increased their premiums by massive amounts. There are only a couple of insurance companies in Australia who will cover an event such as this, and the premiums are no longer cheap. On top of that, liquor licensing laws have become far more stringent, meaning that for every 100 people, there need be 1 security guard. For every 50 people, 2 bar staff are required. These higher insurance premiums, as well as the requirements of licensing laws, have meant that a B&S Ball is a far more expensive event to run - possibly out of the reach for smaller communities now.
Still, as long as there are the likes of Horse and Damo around, I believe the B&S Ball will live a long life in Australia. The young people of regional Australia need events like this - a chance to cut loose, let your hair down, write yourself off for a night, and have a whole heap of fun.
A chance to be young and free.