Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Why Jam and Jerusalem is not for me.

Ever since the film “Calendar Girls” came out, The Women's Institute is surely known all over the English-speaking world and needs no further introduction.

Having left London and the world of paid employment for the rural delights of the Home Counties, joining the WI seemed a natural progression. I had heard that they had more or less given up handing out prizes for the prettiest, flower-filled thimble and the tastiest slice of fruitcake and have turned their attention to weightier matters.

I duly turned up at the village hall and was made very welcome.

Picture the scene: an old-fashioned, plain village hall, a row of chairs neatly lined up and facing a large table behind which stood more chairs for use by ‘the committee’, and an old upright piano along one wall. On the table were small items of a decorative nature, floral and handicraft.

The ladies sat down; I noticed that one had gone to the old piano. She lifted the lid. The top table gave a signal, everybody stood up again, the piano roared into life and the ladies sang! Sang  Jerusalem ! Lustily, loudly and with great enthusiasm. Somebody kindly handed me a song sheet, inviting me to join in.

In for a penny, in for a pound.

I was just exhorting the powers who have such treasures within their gift to

Bring me my bow of burning gold,
Bring me my arrows of desire;
Bring me my spear: o cloud unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire,

when my necklace broke and pretty beads clattered all over the wooden floor.  The ladies either side of me abandoned their stations and scrabbled about to hunt them down, while I stood, petrified, burning with shame, clutching the few beads remaining on the broken string. The song came to an end, the ladies handed me the beads they had gathered up;  I dumped the lot in my bag. From the top table came a voice expressing regret at the unfortunate disturbance to the solemn start of the meeting. I wanted to sink through the floorboards and vanish without trace. I stayed.

Next a pair of ladies from another group were introduced who had had great success with initiating play-acting during meetings and were willing to share their success with our little band.

We were duly lined up, in pairs, and asked to perform a series of activities which included greeting each other, bowing, raising an imaginary hat, conversing and moving on to the next group, there to repeat the performance.

This was to release inhibitions and prepare us for more demanding work.

I grew desperate. I could feel myself seizing up and a rictus grin settling on my face.  One of the instructresses noticed my discomfort and asked sweetly:  “Don’t you like the theatre?”

The rest of the meeting became a blur; I know there was some kind of round dance with more bowing and scraping, during which, and long before tea and biscuits, I made my excuses and fled.

When I got home I was almost in shock, it took a large glass of wine to restore me to equanimity. Utterly ridiculous, I know.

I never went back. 


  1. Wow - quelle surprise! A whole new look! Beautiful tree, full of fresh Spring promise.

    Dear god - what an experience. I admire your guts for staying until the end, as I would have muttered some lame excuse about sudden onset gastroenteritis and fled. (Jerusalem! My mother wanted that sung at her funeral, and it was, but I hadn't realized until then how nationalistic it was.)

    When I got to the 'releasing inhibitions' I cringed. Raising imaginary hats? I can hardly imagine you there. Delightful women with their hearts in the right place I'm sure, but I don't blame you in the least for not going back.

  2. Ridiculous? Hilarious!!! - But I'm sure it was not hilarious while you were stuck there. You had me giggling from the start ... You were brave and so polite to stick it out! I would have needed to imbibe upon my return too.

    Isn't it wonderful when we know where we 'fit' and where we don't, and can make our choice?

    I can't help wondering what you would have done if there was to be a reprise of Calendar Girls? ;0)

  3. Our village was the subject of an ITV documentary a while back. We settled down to watch what turned out to be the most unrepresentative twaddle imaginable. Everything centred around the great and the good - mostly church and parish council - no interviews with housing association tenants or mention of the 'lower orders'. Quite sad really.

    True, there are enthusiastic pleas to support local activities, but the clique is so suffocating that newcomers would probably feel just as you did Friko. We love this part of the world, and even though, in my case, I can trace family, here, back to the 1700s, I can still feel like a stranger in my own back yard.

  4. Thank you for the giggle! That was hilarious. Good you made your escape, with all your beads. Did you have, perhaps, just a tiny flicker of hope that you could participate in a calendar, as Ms Mirren did?

  5. No - I wouldn't have gone back either.

  6. Dear Lord ! What makes improvisation so loved by uptight Northern folk ? ( It's a great favourite here in Friesland . Any workshop opens with the invitation to make a prat of oneself ). It certainly doesn't loosen anybody up and quite definitely doesn't prepare one for anything but flight .
    By the sounds of it , I'd have preferred the flower arranging era . You were very brave to give it a go .

  7. Oh my, I could feel your discomfort. What a bizarre leftover from a bygone era. Your description reminded me of a church service I made the mistake of going to once that involved gathering in a circle, hand-holding and other annoying acrobatics.

  8. I don't think I owuld ever set foot in a place like that ever again, either. Do these people not realise what cliches they have made of themselves?

  9. Ah, we are kindred spirits as I already knew. Your prescient comment at my blog a welcome reiteration of this pleasant friendship!

    Aloha from Waikiki

    Do look in tomorrow for something special

    Comfort Spiral

  10. You deserve a medal for staying as long as you did, Friko. I wouldn't have darkened the doors again there either.

  11. Your blog has been recommended to us as a interviewee's favorite blog!

    We would like to do an interview with you about your blog for Blog Interviewer. We'd like to give you the opportunity to give us some insight on the "person behind the blog."

    It would just take a few minutes of your time. The interview form can be submitted online here Submit your interview.

    Best regards,

    Mike Thomas

  12. oh friko - my grandma was in the women's institute and it was one of those "no go" zones when raised in family discussions . . . i didn;t know why until now!!! good for you to tough it out and then end the relationship. steven

  13. Fascinating! I knew of the WI from period novels (Thirkell comes to mind)and, of course, the spoofs on Monty Python, but had no idea it still went on. Oh brave Friko!

  14. Friko I had to do some research to understand your post. I have not seen Calendar Girls and did not know about the Women Institute, but I clicked on your link. This sounds so very bizarre to me – they seem well-meaning provincial ladies of a certain age? I don’t say this in a bad way really, it looks like they try hard. I think Anglo-Saxons like clubs a lot and that sort of thing – they have many in the US as well I think (I have never been to one though.) The one you went to sounds very cartoonish if there is such a word. But you kept you sense of humor and made a funny post out of it.

  15. I love readding, and thanks for your artical. ........................................

  16. Hmm...have to hold my hand up and admit to being a member. I somehow got inveigled into joining - interesting speakers and all that. I thought, being new to the area I could meet some new people and hear some talks - just sit at the back quietly. What I didn't reckon on was that the majority of the members were ancient and looking for a sucker like me to take on some of the admin. I find myself the secretary and at the same time looking for the escape route.

    On paper it's a fantastic organisation but somewhere, down at grass roots level it and I do not see eye to eye. The mountains of paperwork are infuriating - and try as it may to become computerised the demographic of its membership and their unwillingness to embrace 'new' technology makes this an uphill struggle.

    It reminds me of school and doing things properly - the former I disliked and the latter, well it's sometimes more interesting to take an alternative approach.

    Fortunately we don't sing Jerusalem and if we don't want to go to a County meeting or take part in something we don't. The world is not going to end is it? Speakers have, on the whole, been interesting if not challenging...last evening was a dmonstration of fish cookery. (I bet the village Hall smells fragrant this morning....)

    You may ask why don't I just walk away? I think our president, treasurer and myself believe this organistion is important to the older members and has played a significant part in their lives. We'll keep it ticking over for them and let it gradually fade away.

    I know where you are coming from. I find a glass of wine before I go is helpful.

  17. Oh, joy! I love the description of everyone scrabbling for your beads, and I felt your pain as I read it!

  18. Thanks for the good laugh! We don't have a WI here, but there are organisations that are similar.
    Your post reminded me of a night at the theater with our then-12 year old daughter. Now, theater here is SERIOUS. Lillypad was dressed up and sported a lovely string of beads from her auntie. At a quiet, crucial part of the play the string of beads broke and every last one of the 10,000 (or so it seemed) beads pinged to the floor and then rolled the sloping length of the theater to the stage. It took forever. We were mortified. We didn't look for the beads afterwards, just beat a hasty retreat.

  19. hahaha Our WI is the one of the new and young WI's just set up its NOTHING like that we meet in the evening when the olds are tucked up by their cauldrens, it's my turn to do the teas next week so we thought we'd do a glass of wine insted, were there for the crack if the right lady comes along.

  20. I had a good laugh over your unhappy WI experiences.

    Long ago I decided they were not for me, judging by the ladies I knew went there! But a few years later I was invited to give a talk on First Aid in the home (I was a qualified instructor and lecturer in the subject).

    I was faced with several rows of grey/blue/blonde haired ladies haired who looked as they'd be far more capable than me!

    I got going, but was very put out when I was asked when I would be finishing as the tea-urn had boiled!

    But they did have lovely cake afterwards!

  21. Deborah - but I DIDN'T manage to stay until the end. I knew I'd probably have a kind reminder of how to keep a necklace safe.

    Bonnie - Members of the WI are definitely 'salt of the earth' people, kind and capable, just not me. So now I know.

    Martin H - Supporting local organisations is a good thing, you simply choose the ones that come closest to your preferences. Unfortunately, you will probably find, that all organisations are run by the same 'committee members' because they are the ones that can be bothered to take part.

    Molly - Now you're talking!

    SBS - thanks for your support. just in case you were wondering, this wasn't here in C. There is a branch here which I have not sampled at all.

    S + S - I wouldn't have been any good at that either and I absolutely hate making a 'prat' of myself. Or coming anywhere near deliberate, toe-curling, teeth-aching prattishness.

  22. Mark - Bygone era? Not on your Nelly. The WI is flourishing.

    Argent - No, I don't think they do and I am not even sure that the WI is a cliche. It is just that there is such a difference between attitudes of members and non-members.

    Cloudia - Hi sister, Aloha!

    mollygolver - oh dear, not a member either, then?

    Mike - thanks for the invitation, Mike.

    steven - once and never again. to be fair, the WI definitely has a place in rural communities. where else would you go to meet your friends and 'learn' something.

    Vicki - Of course it goes on. Like I said earlier, it's flourishing. I too remember Thirkell's novels, I used to read some of them. She and various others like here gave me my first idea of what it was livke to live in England.

    Vagabonde - well, there you go, you learned something. Whether you can do anything with this knowledge is another question.
    I agree with you about the Anglo-Saxon preference to band together in clubs and societies. There are endless clubs and organisations here; you could go to a meeting every night of the week, if you were a member. I have never felt happy doing that and I don't think I ever will. These meetings are also the places where village life is determined and if you are not part of them you have no real say in anything.

  23. Zheng Peiyu - I hope that is right?
    Thank you for visiting and commenting.

    mountainear - I thought you might reply. I was thinking of you when I wrote this. I hope I kept the tone light and inoffensive.
    There is nothing wrong with the WI, it is the place to meet friends, have a comfy talk, a cup of tea and discuss common interests. I can't quite see you as the eager participant who waits anxiously for the next meeting and her dose of stimulation for the month.

    Fran - thanks Fran, it wasn't funny at all!

    Pondside - okay, so you forgive a 12-yr-old, but a several times 12-yr-old during the singing of the sacred anthem? Perhaps not.
    Did you know that Canadians founded the WI?

    Anonymous - Have fun and stay away from the cauldron. And if you don't have a subject for the next meeting, you could always have spelling bee. (btw, I assume that the spelling mistakes are deliberate?)

    Gilly - tea and cake come next in importance to Jerusalem, Jam and miniature crafts. How could you not know that? You are absolutely right, the WI ladies are very capable and common-sensical at all times. it's part of the credo.

  24. I'm always inclined to wonder how many of the good ladies who sing those great words so lustily realise what William Blake meant when he wrote them. Well, he'd have approved the adverb lustily, I think. A wonderful post which I thoroughly enjoyed. It brought to mind a similar experience I shared way back - though it was not I wearing the beads, I hasten to add.

  25. Never went back?! I wonder why???!!! LOL! I can laugh, as I've never even been tempted to go once!

  26. Thank you I always wondered what went on behind the walls of that village-hall after the singing had stopped. Have seen the film of course but it's just a film. I wondered whether the "Landfrauenbund" was anything like the WI but never met a member to ask. The image of you singing and your necklace bursting was priceless!

  27. My cousin set me straight on the endless politicking that goes on in the WI. She does participate in a nice little market, though.
    She also had to set me straight on 'Jerusalem' - I did not grow up with this and for the longest time only ever thought of Monty Python when I heard it!!

  28. That is just a hoot! You are well away from the old biddies. Betcha there isn't a blogger amongst them!

  29. Friko, thank you - you have destroyed my naive dream of joining the WI when I find a group (I've never managed to locate one in my part of the city).... I couldn't have stayed for a moment after that awful "expression of regret at the disturbance". An opportunity entirely missed to warmly welcome a new member.

    Nothing ridiculous about your need for a large glass of wine after making your escape!

  30. I have never been a 'joiner' but one time when I was very young the mother of my boyfriend asked me to attend (she hoped I would join) a ladies club. They had little paper flags and marched around in a circle. I felt like I was in Kindergarten again and had to fight to suppress a hysterical giggle.

    I never went back, either.

  31. You were VERY brave. Though I have lived her for more than 30 years, mostly in a rural English village, I never, ever attempted the WI.

  32. Ohdearohdearohdear!
    It sounds like the United Methodist Women (UMW) group that I joined years ago during my Church Lady phase. The acronym eventually led to my saying, "I'm off to a United Mine Workers meeting."

    Or perhaps it's more like the Daughters of the American Revolution.

    I just can't figure out the purpose of such groups beyond giving lonely women something to do!

  33. Dave King - Blake was quite a "lusty" fellow himself.
    You could have been wearing beads in the 60s, couldn't you?

    Jinksy - you don't know what you are missing. Your particular brand of humour and versifying would be received with pleasure. Provided you kept it clean.

    Ivy - I know nothing about the Landfrauenbund but I imagine the WI and the LFB provide similar services.

    VioletSky - The WI Markets are very popular, the ladies certainly know how to bake cakes and make jam.

    Jenn Jilks - I am not sure that the older ones even know how to use a computer.

    rachel - Oh, I don't know. If you find one, give them a try. You always need to know what is it one rejects.

    darlene - joining is not my cup of tea, either. In groups, people are quite unbearable. (Bloggers are different - of course.)

    duchess - some do, some don't, 'twas ever thus.

    June - your last sentence says it - giving lonely, excluded, women with no stimulation outside their homes a place to meet and feel part of something, that's what the WI does. What it professes to do is provide a forum for women to get together and learn something.

  34. Rocking with laughter [and empathy!] all over again!


Comments are good, I like to know what you think of my posts. I know you'll keep it civil.