Oliff’s Life

Richard has been impressed by the WI, portrayed here in the BBC drama Jam and Jerusalem
Richard has been impressed by the WI, portrayed here in the BBC drama Jam and Jerusalem

It’s always a pleasure and somewhat humbling to be invited to speak in front of any audience prepared to listen.

The Women’s Institute is a remarkable national organisation that brings together thousands of ladies every week in hundreds of village, town and city locations across the country.

In my view their ‘image’ is sometimes very much maligned largely out of ignorance.

From my own experience of attending many a local meeting over the years as a guest speaker they are extremely well organised, very well attended, fun and, surprise surprise, very 21st century.

These are women prepared to turn out in all weathers to pay a subscription to a local treasurer for the experience of togetherness.

There are rules and the odd rituals that are unique to the WI.

For example, they begin each meeting with the singing of the first two verses of William Blake’s poem, sung to the music of Hubert Parry: Jerusalem.

However, I have to confess that this brief moment of unaccompanied singing still takes me by surprise, tragically rummaging around in my head for the words.

I often remind myself of a once Welsh secretary of state, John Redwood, occasionally miming in the vain hope that no-one would notice: not easy when one is in control of the only male voice in the building.

The minutes from the previous meeting are read, their financial situation outlined, then it’s on with their agenda for the evening.

Last week I’d been asked to speak to the ladies of the Great Easton WI and on a cold winter’s night was greeted by some of my favorite words: ‘Cup of tea Richard?’

These are women of all ages and backgrounds who can have a great night out with not one drop of alcohol or music in sight or sound.

The agenda is not all jam making or bus trips, though the white-water rafting opportunity did take me by surprise. Perhaps it’s time for men to get organised.