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.