Jayne Dawson: The WI – tough as old boots and practically perfect

That calendar was just one success of many for the Women's Institute.

That calendar was just one success of many for the Women's Institute.

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Is there any organisation in the world more inspiring and successful than the Women’s Institute? I don’t think so.

Since this is the week of The Chelsea Flower Show let’s compare it to something in the gardening world - Japanese Knotweed, perhaps.

There are similarities: the Women’s Institute is just as tenacious and just as able to acclimatise to any prevailing conditions.

But who would want to compare it to such a predatory plant? The Women’s Institute is a fragrant asset, not something to be feared.

I would rather think of it as the perfect English cottage garden: pretty and sweet on the outside, but essentially tough as old boots.

For every time life goes quiet on the Women’s Institute front, it somehow manages to reinvent itself.

This week, comes news that the Duchess of Cambridge is thinking of joining her local branch, Anmer.

It isn’t any old branch. 
Members include the Duchess of Cornwall and the Queen, who pays an annual visit. I like the idea of that. I think our Queen will feel right at home drinking tea and discussing imaginative ways for the servants to use Sunday roast leftovers. Balmoral beef rissoles, anyone?

But the WI doesn’t really need a royal connection to be currently back in the nation’s thoughts because it is centre stage, on television right now.

Home Fires is a drama about one branch during World War Two, revealing the domestic dramas of its members.

It’s good viewing for those of us who would pine right away without a historical drama of some kind on Sunday nights - and as a complete bonus these women are all remarkably well dressed in a variety of fabulous 1940s outfits, despite the many trials of the times.

That’s just a dose of cosy old fiction, but the WI does have a way of changing with the times in real life.

There was that spectacular way. You know, THAT way. You can’t have forgotten. Shall I just say, “bath buns, anyone”?

The naked WI calendar, featuring middle-aged women covering their modesty in a variety of innovative ways, including making use of a couple of bath buns, was a thing of beauty. An idea that arrived fully formed with the members of the Rylstone and District branch in north Yorkshire and went on to become a cultural phenomenon.

But just a quick personal plea - please, please, other organisations, come up with a different fund-raising idea. The naked calendar idea is done. So very done. Has been for ages. If the naked calendar was a pair of big knickers, it’s elastic would have started to sag years ago.

But the WI doesn’t need to be naked to make us sit up and take notice. Former prime minister Tony Blair discovered that. He was one of our most successful post-war prime minister, winning three elections - though to be fair you wouldn’t think so now since his name is only ever mentioned to drag it through the mud - but he met his nemesis with the WI.

You could see the whites of that poor man’s eyes as he faced a hall full of jeering Women’s Institute members. He wilted like a tender plant in the eye of a storm and later described it as one of the most terrifying moments of his life.

I think they were mean to him, to be honest, but that doesn’t dim my admiration.

The WI is so... perfect. And it can’t even be accused of being an organisation that is all about nostalgia, since there are branches teeming with smart young women, including in Leeds which has the city centre branch Buns and 
Roses.

I’m not a member. Not of that or any other branch. I don’t feel worthy. But I love the WI all the same.

It has jam, Jerusalem, the Queen and now, very possibly, Kate. It has embraced everything from war to getting its kit off. It’s unbeatable.

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