Wednesday, February 07, 2007

"Singing Jerusalem In Saughall Village"

Helen Mirren and Julie Walters were the glam " Calendar Girls" in the fabulous film of that name. Their characters lived in a Yorkshire village and were stalwarts of their local W.I. They sang " Jerusalem". They baked cakes.They arranged flowers. They made jam. They sewed samplers and seeds, tapestries and turnips. They did tai chi on a hillside and bought fish and chips on the way home. And they sat in rows in a Village Hall on monthly Thursdays and giggled at the back of the hall like the teenage girls they once were.
BUT THEN someone's husband died. And so they took off their clothes ( M+S) and revealed their bodies ( ageing fast ) and they produced THAT calendar (artfully nude) for charity .
AND The World Became Their Oyster.

For a couple of years, some friends and I have been visiting various W.I's throughout Cheshire ; we read our own stories and poems and thoroughly enjoy ourselves. You could, I suppose, describe us as The Cabaret for the evening! Last night we were made welcome by a W.I in a village near home.
AND two highlights of my childhood Christmas were the Masonic Children's Party and ( even better) the W.I Christmas Party.
This was held in a Hall in the next village. I went with my mother, brother, pretty Auntie Jean, her daughter Penelope and my best friend, Jane-Elizabeth; J-E was Dead Ringer for "Little Friend Susan". Anyone under 45 won't have a clue what I'm talking about. Remember the wonderful " Milly Molly Mandy" stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley? L.F.S, who co-starred in these stories, was The Dream Best Friend. And so was my friend Jane-Elizabeth.

My mother drove our black Morris 10 ( DTD 411) through fog ( always fog) to a party that was Sheer Heaven On A Trestle Table. On the table, were jellies, jam tarts, chocolate drops, butterfly cakes, sausage rolls. And green soda pop, lots of it served in orange plastic mugs which tasted of swimming baths and the darkness of tunnels....
There was a Christmas tree smothered in tinsel. There were red and yellow paperchains criss-crossing the ceiling. They often fell down and lay like dead snakes in a corner.
A fat lady called Vera Cotgreave, with pekingnese dog growling beneath chair, played "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas" on the piano as we arrived. The music glittered and made the boys act silly; they fought in the middle of the hall, still with their coats on,and the girls ran round screaming and giggling, skidding on the floor in new shoes, hair ribbons untethered, cheeks ablaze. And the smell of burnt pastry lingered, along with the sound of women fussing in the kitchen; they clattered trays, clinked teacups as the kettle hissed merrily in a corner.
We sat on wooden chairs set round the room. My legs in white socks and Clarks sandals swung wildly and I looked down at my red taffeta party dress and believed I was a fairy. I smelt of Coty talcum powder and Euthymol toothpaste and my vest was itchy beneath the taffeta. My brother sucked a gobstopper and sucked it hard against his teeth and his cheeks were like two red balloons. His hair was damp and there were tendrils across his forehead. .
We played Musical Bumps and Musical Chairs and Musical Statues. The prize was usually a packet of Spangles or Smarties wrapped in Christmas paper. Jane-Elizabeth won often.
The floor had splinters in it. The walls were painted the green of Brussel sprouts and the windows were so high up that I only saw sky. And sometimes I saw clouds; they were the dark gathering gloom of " We Three Kings From Orient Are ".
And throughout the party, I prayed there'd be no more dark gathering gloom and when I looked up and saw the threat of snow, I shivered. I wished I had a pink fluffy bolero like Jane-Elizabeth's instead of a boring navy cardigan like mine.
My mother worried all winter about The Threat Of Heavy Snow. To her, it was as bad as The Threat Of The Finger On The New Clear Button.
The Threat Of Heavy Snow meant the journey home from the W.I party would be " 2 miles of treachery" . Mummy said this to pretty Aunty Jean who smiled like the Virgin Mary.
Aunty Jean was Glaswegian. Mr Jones (who lived next door to us) once said that Aunty Jean was a Corker as well as a pretty Glaswegian and that she looked more Tyrolean than Glaswegian. (This was probably because she wore a golden plait in a twist around her head and looked like someone out of " Heidi". )
Mr Jones went funny whenever he mentioned Aunty Jean; even I saw that. Mrs Jones bit her nails and got grumpy.
" Stop looking wistful, Jim." said Mrs Jones "EVERYONE knows you held a candle for That Woman ALL through the War.."
Why holding a candle SO long was SO necessary, I'd no idea....
The party was also Heaven Round A Piano; there was carol singing, plus pretty Auntie Jean trilling descants in her high thrilling voice. This was followed by the singing of " Magic Moments" and songs from "Oklahoma". And some years, Jane-Elizabeth would execute a stunning solo. And after much pop and countless chocolate fingers, we excelled at belting out: " When the wind comes right behind the rain...." and we spelt out the letters of O.K.L.A.H.O.M.A for a full five minutes...
AND my rendition of " Younger than Springtime" (sung going home in the car while the world STILL trembled in fog) moved every traveller to tears...

AND BACK TO THE FUTURE:
Just recently, on my visits to W.I's, I've been astonished at their variety, both in buildings, the women involved, their fascinating differences.
There are W.I's where elegant women in designer gear arrive in open top sports cars. There are W.I's where jolly-faced women in flowery dresses and homely cardigans greet us with freshly made cakes and interested questions. There are others where talk is serious, where environment matters, opinions are voiced and political issues are faced.

And last night at Saughall, I thought about my mother and I thought about pretty Aunty Jean trilling her descants and I thought about Vera Cotgreave playing " White Christmas" (dog beneath chair ) and I stood at Saughall W.I and I sang " Jerusalem" in my very best voice and I remembered....

10 Comments:

Blogger dinzie said...

I remember my mother attending the WI... Though she wasn't a regular. I also remember the trips they took that we kids sometimes got to go on as well .. .to Tatton park, and the slate mines I think (of all places) ...I remember the farm workers wives and farmers wives and postoffice owners .. and the good food that went with it ...:O)

11:37 pm  
Blogger Jan said...

And here you are now in NZ, I think!
And you're feasting on happy memories. Glad you enjoyed them!

11:16 am  
Blogger dinzie said...

Yes - Now living in new zealand this past 18 years ... My childhood was a very different world to that I live now :O)

9:31 pm  
Blogger Lee said...

I've been neglecting your blog - what a mistake!

9:39 am  
Blogger marlyat2 said...

However did you find me, I wonder? But my little girl with the long fair braid likes your itchy little girl in red taffeta! She'll be back for a visit.

Also like your various comments on children and school. I always feel the biggest fool of all when I catch myself reasoning with the small who have turned unreasonable...

1:16 pm  
Blogger Cailleach said...

just popped into your blog, Jan. I loved this post on the WI! And especially the part about your childhood memories. The bit about Aunty Jean made me laugh out loud. I'll be back for more!

8:03 pm  
Anonymous Susan B. said...

Pure joy reading this one, Jan!

5:36 am  
Blogger Jan said...

Lee: Thankyou for visiting and I shall repay your compliment.

Marly: Good to see you. THe red taffeta dress was bought when I was about 6; I had to present a bouquet of flowers to the local Lady Mayoress at my father's company's Sports Day..

Cailleach:Glad you enjoyed it and look forward to seeing you again.

Susan B: Hope this cheered you and made you feel better.

4:35 pm  
Blogger chiefbiscuit said...

This is so wonderful - all the detail! I was swept up into it and despite it being in England, could relate to 90% of it. I can't get over how similar it all is to what we called WD (Womens Division) concerts and Christmas functions. What a memory for detail you have - and used to great effect here. I loved reading this - thanks.

1:11 am  
Blogger Jan said...

CB:
Many folk who visit NZ remark on the many similarities between UK/NZ.
My son says Christchurch is particularly English.
Friends are in Wellington at present visiting a daughter.

5:29 pm  

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