Adopting an age-old stance

Clever marketing plug it may be, but Help the Aged’s adopt a granny campaign falls short in failing to clarify just which type of granny donors will be supporting.

SBHD: Clever marketing plug it may be, but Help the Aged’s adopt a granny campaign falls short in failing to clarify just which type of granny donors will be supporting.

Among the many interesting items in my mail this week was a letter from Help the Aged inviting me to adopt a granny.

Not wishing to be uncharitable, I gave the matter serious thought. But the more I pondered the possibilities, the more fraught became the decision. After all, the granny population (or should I say community?) is not homogeneous. True, its members are all a certain age, but that is about the only thing they can be said with an certainty to have in common.

Should I consent to the adoption process, what sort of granny would I get? I wouldn’t like to have one of the new breed that wear a tape across their mouths bearing the legend “Sod off”. For although a granny with a bit of spark in her is possibly preferable to one of a more torpid disposition, I know a troublemaker when I see one. At my time of life I do not want to adopt a problem granny.

There are grannies who are formidable in a quite different way. They exude a contemptuous superiority that never fails to unnerve the younger male. In this respect, they are not unlike Bertie Wooster’s aunts. “Many a fellow,” wrote PG Wodehouse, “who looks like the dominant male and has himself photographed smoking a pipe curls up like carbon paper when confronted by an aunt.” Substitute granny for aunt and you have the picture.

Well, perhaps not “granny”, rather “grandmother” or even “grandmama”. The emphasis is firmly on the “grand” and the deference it commands. These are the matriarchs of Middle England – you cross them at your peril. To adopt one would be to befriend a brontosaurus with a grievance.

It so happens that I live in uncomfortably close proximity to a covey of mildewed females whom you could classify under the general heading of grannies, though I became aware of this disturbing truth only the other day when a copy of the local “non-profitmaking community publication” was pushed through my door.

Along with the usual items such as invitations to theatre club outings, wine tastings and games of tennis, there was a report headed “X-rated Xmas at the Women’s Institute”. It told of a mystery entertainment organised as a special seasonal treat, but without full consultation with the committee.

“The tone of the evening was set by the late arrival of the two performers – a man well past his sell-by date for this sort of thing and his much younger female partner. The WI was obliged to conduct its business against the background of the pair erecting a sad little stage, draped with tired crepe paper and bunting and drooping Union Jack flags,” it said.

Worse was to follow. The performers explained that their theme was Britain at war, at play and in love. It declared that their show had been rapturously received by WIs the length and breadth of the land.

“For the next hour,” says the report, “we were subjected to a barrage of dirty jokes and recitations, dubious songs and pathetic monologues. The audience, squirming with embarrassment, was expected to sing along to World War I tunes and laugh at Max Miller-style lewd stories, more suitable to a meeting of a rugby club.

“An ancient projector magnified vulgar seaside postcards for our titillation. Intermittently, the pair donned cardboard cut-out costumes and various items of headgear in an unsuccessful attempt to create atmosphere.

“By the end of the performance the audience – more accustomed to hearing lectures on the history of the River Thames or readings from Dickens – was in deep shock and the customary vote of thanks was abandoned.”

Now, given the choice, which kind of granny would you elect to keep in Steradent and surgical stockings? The sort that cheerfully joins in the chorus of “Pack up your troubles in your old kitbag” and laughs immoderately at anatomical jokes. Or the sort that squirms with embarrassment and sits poker-faced wishing she was hearing a recitation of the death of Little Nell?

Like so many things British, one’s preference in grannies is a matter of class. Historian, journalist and all round sage Paul Johnson deplores the proletarianisation of the middle classes, which in the latter part of this century has replaced the Victorian ideal of embourgeoisement of the lower orders. He says that reversal is responsible for our yob culture.

The nation’s WIs would seem to support the argument. While the great majority of members can barely restrain their bladders when shown the magnified works of Donald McGill, there are pockets of bourgeois resistance – and I live near just such a redoubt.

It is a disturbing thought. To bowdlerise Wodehouse again: “It is bad to be trapped in a den of slavering grannies, lashing their tails and glaring at you out of their red eyes.”

But I cannot say I would be entirely comfortable with a working class, salt-of-the-earth granny of the type the Krays would have killed for. One can only take so much gap-toothed, knees-up, chortling revelry. And when you’ve seen one granny juggling with Guinness bottles, you’ve seen them all.

Marketing is never as simple as it seems, and the slogan “Adopt a granny” conceals a multifarious complexity of options and possibilities, few of which are enticing.

It seems to me that the only granny you could take on with optimism in one’s heart is the Queen Mother. Impeccably bred, beautifully spoken and with gentle and gracious manners, she would be an asset to any household. And I dare say she would enter into a spirit of festive ribaldry with a forbearance and good humour that would put to shame the po-faced hauteur of my matronly neighbours.

But I don’t suppose the Queen Mother is up for adoption.

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