Friday, 11 March 2011

The WI

Some time back I wrote about wanting to find things to do that were closer to home and said I'd found something practically in my back garden.  What I found was the local meeting of the Women's Institute.  Now, before you start thinking Calendar Girls, I would like to point out that that was a very specific case and it was down in rural Yorkshire where there is hardly anything to do but milk the cows.

Funny enough, in some ways the WI almost ties in with my love of all things inter-war.  It began in 1915 with the aim of revitalising rural communities and encouraging women to become more involved in producing food during the first world war.    The focus has recently moved to an 'urban version' apparently, but I know the WI to be about homemaking / crafting skills and that's what attracted me.

I was intrigued when I read that this was a 'Young WI', though I did wonder if that would disqualify me, being 55 this year; I didn't want to ruin the youngsters' fun.  I was interested enough to ask the running club committee to move their meetings to the second week of the month, but then it took me several months to get up the nerve to visit.  I finally rang the Northumberland office and asked what was meant by 'Young WI'.  It turns out that the WI meetings have been stereotyped as having an average age of about 70, with members all having known everyone for about 50 years.  It can be hard to break into and feel a part of a group that well entrenched.  (That said, it pretty much describes my sewing ladies' group and I've always felt welcomed and embraced there, but then they would mostly describe themselves as 'working class' and a friend commented that she was surprised I would join the WI, it being so very 'middle class'.)  I was much encouraged to go along and visit the meeting and so I did.

I've been to one other WI meeting, back when I worked up in Morpeth.  The very cheerful, practical woman who was my secretary was a long term member of her WI meeting, having served in every administrative office at least several times.  The average age was older and my first sense of being foreign came when everyone stood and sang 'Jerusalem'...  I still remember the speaker:  he was a middle aged man recently retired from Northumbria police.  He talked about his career, where at the beginning as the new kid it was customary for him to make the tea.  He told funny stories about his first beat and sad stories about his work in the drug unit.  One had a sense that he had progressed well and had a successful career.  However about the time he retired, his wife finally got her wish:  to open a tea shoppe in Whitley Bay.  The address was (is) 129 Park View and at various points in his talk he would stop and have us all chant that address.  He ended his talk by saying he was back at making the tea again.  The meeting ended with the results of some floral arrangement competition.  I never went back, Ulgham being a fair distance from where I lived.

So, what was the meeting like that I attended?  Mostly full of 30-somethings, but there were nearly a dozen visitors, many closer to my age.  The speaker was a woman about 70 years old, from Riding Mill.   The title of her talk was 'My Year Behind the Veil'.  She immediately informed us that she hadn't ever been a nun - nor a belly dancer.  She had been married to a man from Iraq during the late 60s and she told us - for more than an hour - about the difficult circumstances she found herself in.  Her father was understandably upset with her for marrying 'the only poor Arab in all of Arabia'.  She'd no idea she would end up living as one of a household of 13 in three rooms over a shop.  The vast cultural and religious differences, her mother-in-law's superstitious nature, the grinding poverty and her great love for her husband all served to keep us spellbound for the whole evening.  She managed to escape Baghdad and return to England when her infant daughter became very ill and it turned out that an airplane ticket back to the NHS was more affordable than medical care; fortunately her husband valued his daughter more than his mother did.  It was altogether an amazing story and well worth the £2.50 I paid for tea and cake as a visitor.

The President of our meeting informed us that future plans include a visit from the local chocolatier and Sadie the Bra Lady.  I plan to return with my £30 membership fee and by the time you read this, will likely have experienced my first taste of 'zumba'.   I mentioned to her that folks at my running club seemed to think 'Calendar Girls' when I said 'WI', but that I was keeping my clothes on.  She said, "Don't be so sure about that!" 


FB @ said...


That's all I can focus on now.

Pauline Wiles said...

The WI is indeed a very special British icon... I actually think you're very brave for going!
I'm with FB: the Chocolatier sounds absolutely unmissable. Please report back!

Jo said...

Sounds interesting. The chocolatier would have me going back.