17 December 2008

Not your Granny's W.I.

Joining the Barford W.I. was one the best decisions I’ve ever made.  When I joined in September, I had an image in my head that most people—particularly Americans—probably have of the Women’s Institute: Endearing and enduring, old, English matrons who represent and uphold—with very stiff upper lips, of course—all that is “middle England.” Oh, and of course, Calendar Girls. Lovely. And in many ways that is what it is, and is true. But, I also see that there is more to W.I. than just “jam & Jerusalem”.

First of all, these ladies know how to have a laugh.  Last night’s W.I. Christmas “do” at The Glebe Hotel was fantastic! Our gathering started around 7:30 PM (half 7, as we say here) in The Glebe’s lovely, art deco bar.  There, we were greeted by our Lady President for “welcoming drinks”. Social hour was followed by a full, festive Christmas dinner with all the trimmings: turkey, with stuffing and sausage, roast potatoes, veggies, gravy, and cranberry sauce. We were escorted to our seats by restaurant staff in formal attire. Each of the tables was named after an English Christmas Pantomime favo(u)rite: “Dick Whittington,” “Puss in Boots,” and etc.

I had chosen a place at the “Cinderella” table with my friend Diane. Diane and I decided that the Cinderella table was the “bad girl” table. Mind you, I think every table at this event was a “bad girl” table! Although many of the “Cinderellas” were being decidedly “cheeky” in their refusal to don the festive hats that had been placed at each of our places, along with a Christmas cracker. Being fond as I am of wearing character hats for no particular reason, I happily joined in the fun, and donned my pirates’ hat with pride.

I’ve always been utterly fascinated by the concept of the British “Christmas cracker” and do wonder how (and why) we come have to have lost this “old country” tradition in America. For me, the Christmas cracker epitomizes the British sense of Christmas as a time of magic, merriment and fun.

During our luscious meal, the Restaurant Manager went from table-to-table performing magic tricks for a highly skeptical and increasingly inebriated female audience. He didn’t stand a chance. But, he actually did quite well. After dessert, that was of course, Christmas pudding, it was our turn to perform. Time for toasts and jokes. I have to say that the zinger Auntie Dorothy had given me went down a treat. I got a rousing round of applause and laughter, and had several requests for email copies of the joke.

I got four-stars for my “performance” of the joke – which means a lot to me, as I was nervous as heck, and longed to overcome my well deserved reputation as a “duff” joke-teller. As my friends will concur, when telling a joke, I inevitably amuse myself, laugh uncontrollably, and end up hashing the joke altogether. So, just making it through with a straight face was a coup for me, and let me tell ya, the Barford W.I.  can be a tough crowd.

An example. At our December meeting, last week, the Guest Speaker was a London Music Hall historian, and his presentation went up like a lead balloon. Bless him. I thought he was super. He shared details of the careers of a number of notable stage sensations from 1920s London. Periodically, throughout his lecture, he would burst into song, suddenly performing one of the legendary tunes of time. Apparently, the tunes were not legendary enough. He belted out the old classic: “When’re ya takin’ me up th’ altar, Walter,” and when he reached the chorus, he stretched out his arms towards the assembled women, paused dramatically, and waited for us to join the rousing refrain. No one did. He was a trooper, and in true stage form, the show went on. And on.  The W.I. member sitting next to me, who’s at least 70, if she’s a day, leaned over and whispered in my ear: “How old does he think we all are? He needs an audience that’s at least 15 years older.”

After trying unsuccessfully to win the group over with old show tunes, he tried some old, classic, music hall jokes:

“A man takes his girlfriend out for a picnic in a park. They reach a quiet spot, and the man sits on the ground. He pats the ground next to him and says, ‘Some dew.’ His girlfriend exclaims: ‘Well, some don’t!’”

(I snickered softly in the back row, as the sound of tumbleweed drifting through the room could be heard.)

“A man takes his wife out for dinner at a posh hotel. As they walk through the double doors, a gorgeous blonde sashays past them. She flicked her hair, wiggled her hips and winked at the man as she went by. ‘Who was that woman?’ exclaimed the wife. ‘Oh, don’t you start,’ said the husband, ‘I’m going to have a tough enough time explaining who you are to her in the morning.’”

(I snorted loudly in the deadly silent room.)

 “Two men in a pub. One says: ‘What are you getting your wife for Christmas?’ The other says: ‘A violin.’ ‘Oh, really,’ asks the first man, ‘is she musical?’ ‘No,’ the man responds, ‘but she needs a chin rest.’”

(I howled with laughter, amid the sound of crickets in the distance.)

These gals were not cutting this poor guy any slack whatsoever, and THAT made it all the more funny! But, needless to so, after seeing this poor guy lose his shirt, I was more than a little concerned about my own “performance” at the W.I. Christmas “do”. But, it went down really well, and there is a bit of mercy and grace in being a newbie. I’m just glad I had the guts to do to it all. It’s made me a bit of celeb around Barford. I have people coming up to me in the local shop saying, “Oh, I hear you told a cracking joke the other night at the W.I. dinner.” There are worst ways to be known, for sure.

In addition to my “zinger” I think the other top joke at the dinner was this one, told by my jam & preserve making hero, Hilary:

 “A couple goes along to the doctor’s. The doctor says he has some serious news for them, and wants to speak to the wife privately. The wife goes into the doctor’s office, and the doctor says: ‘I’m afraid your husband is in a truly bad way, very grave condition. But with your cooperation he could make it through this. Here is what we need you to do. Restructure his diet. Dutifully prepare for him three, solid, wholesome meals a day. The same time every day. All his favorite foods. Keep him comfortable. Let him have a drink when he wants to. No chores or extra tasks after work. Don’t make any demands, don’t complain, argue or badger him. And make love whenever he wants, as often as he wants. Do you understand?’ ‘Yes, Doctor.’ The wife says. The wife then leaves the doctor’s office. As the couple leave the surgery, the husband turns to the wife as says, ‘What did he say?’ The wife responds: ‘I’m sorry, dear. You’re going to die.’”


But, the W.I. isn’t just about jokes and lemon curd. At the W.I. dinner, I also heard about one of the Federation of Women’s Institute resolutions for 2009: a campaign to legalize prostitution in Britain. I was more than a little surprised. This seemed a rather a strong proposition for a jam-friendly organization that has “For Home & Country” as one if its mottoes. But, then, as this was discussed over “welcoming drinks,” it became clear to me that this stance isn’t at all discordant with W.I. values, but rather well within them.

My wise friend, Diane, explained: “The W.I. stands for women.  And is committed to the welfare and safety of all women. All women. Every woman is someone’s daughter, regardless to where life may find her. That street walker is someone’s daughter, and she deserves to be safe.” 

This resolution grew out of the concern expressed by a local W.I. (in Bedford, I believe) following the murder of five prostitutes in their city. But, the concern is also one that the W.I. believes registers much closer to home, a concern for “the countless, good British wives who are walking around with no idea that they have been infected with an STD/STI.” The thinking runs thus: prostitution has and will always exist, so by creating some sort of regulatory standard in legalizing prostitution will ensure the health and safety of the sex workers, the clientele, and their (the clientele’s) families. This ain’t your Granny’s W.I., sister. I mean no offense to my countrywomen, but I can’t even imagine a member of the “Junior League” or “Daughters of the American Revolution” even using the terms “prostitution” or “STI/STD” in a sentence, let alone as the basis for a resolution or nationwide campaign! (Please forgive me, if my perceptions of these two revered institutions of American womanhood are not as staid as I assume.)

Such progressive and forward thinking is at the heart of the modern British W.I. We’ve gone way passed the now-infamous calendar, girls. The modern W.I. is tackling all sorts of issues of importance to the modern woman. Chins dropped recently when the Times reported on a recent W.I. development: sex guides for the over-60s. Of course, snickering could be heard from one end of the country to the other, but, I have to say, yet, again, I am impressed and inspired by the sheer chutzpah of the women of W.I. The guides are cover a range of topics, such as age and mobility issues; martial aids/devices; intimacy and libido; masturbation; and STDs/STIs. The videos are presented by Mrs. Janice Langley, a 66 year-old, West Sussex W.I. member, who is also a registered Nurse and sex therapist.  Janice’s presentation is frank, friendly, and straightforward.

Tastefully done, and filmed in Janice’s home, you feel as if you’ve just stopped ‘round to hers for a cup of tea, and a quiet chat. Janice’s tone is warm, conversational and friendly. However, this stuff is far from laughable, though the press mill has had a field day making fun of it.  Janice’s presentation is frank and candid. And there were even a few points that made a closet conservative gal like me blush a little.

I think the media’s reaction to this series of W.I. sex guides says a great deal about our present-day attitudes about older people, especially older women, and sex: ‘It’s all well and good, as long as the old dears stick to baking cakes, making jam and knitting.’ Indeed. I would wager that these naysayers will feel quite differently about it when they are over 60.

I think these videos are a testament to a contemporary “Old Age” renaissance. A renaissance that is long overdue. A movement against the tide, defiantly declaring: How old is old? To me, these videos and the women behind them are beacons of hope. There are possibilities for life, pleasure and fulfillment after 60, after heart attacks, or a stroke. And it is never too late to for love.

And, that is no laughing matter.

p.s. Three clips of the Women’s Institute Sex Guides are available on YouTube.


Spike 1 said...

No court jester table with the bells and all...

Now that's a memory...
I am the fool!!!

Kelly said...

Prostitution was legalised some years ago here in NZ and has provided a much safer environment for women in the industry, although sadly at the moment police are investigating the murder of a Christchurch sex worker just before Chirstmas. Well done the WI for being so progressive as to champion this cause, I hope it is speedily adopted by the UK government.