This week I should like to raise a glass of something rich, full-bodied and of sound vintage to Saga, the organisation that acted while others merely nodded and went a different way. Of course, the over-50s are important, the mealy-mouthed would say; yes, they have large dollops of disposable income and no, they are not all ga-ga or decrepit. But, having spoken, they move on and concentrate their marketing effort on vibrant, exciting, modern youth.
But Saga kept faith and, in doing so, has won hundreds of thousands of loyal customers. Naturally, it became the butt of jokes – ageism is the one sin that political correctness forgives – but what wouldn’t its critics give for a fraction of its wealth and success? Saga is shortly to float on the Stock Exchange and it would be astonishing if the shares were not to be traded at a premium, heralding a new, grey dawn. What might Saga achieve with all that new money?
A hint may lie in the Low Countries. Last week, it was announced that the Dutch are to build a town for the over-50s. Motorcycles will be banned and there will be no schools, discos, or tattoo parlours. Which is all right as far as it goes, but it goes nothing like far enough. Saga could embark on a far more ambitious programme, creating havens for the over-50s that would acknowledge that they are not merely older than most “opinion-formers” but are so far removed from the tastes, preferences, mores and manners of modern Britain as to be classed as a separate species.
It is a well-kept secret that there is already a model village in England that Saga might choose as a prototype. Mellow-cum-Tetchy nestles in a sleepy hollow in the heart of Middle England and is known to only a few outsiders. Like Brigadoon, it is capable of disappearing altogether, a useful form of self-protection when, as happened recently, a middle-aged man wearing a pony-tail walked into the saloon bar of the Rampant Sexist and was dragged outside and tarred and feathered.
Mellow has no need of the modern forces of law and order, whose response to any crime is to pass on the victim’s details to a counsellor. The hamlet gets by with a village bobby who says things like “Evening all” or “Run along now”. He has a jolly, red face and big hands calloused from boxing children about the ears.
The village architecture is mixed: a blend of mock-Tudor, neo-Georgian, thatched cottages and Cotswold stone terraces. Many a picturesque home bears a discreet notice on the gate that reads: “No feminists, no joggers, no pollsters”. Villagers dress in tweeds, drive Volvos and own labradors. The village stocks bear an inscription attributed to the poet Wordsworth which reads: “See the happy moron in his FCUK shirt. He thinks he is a caution, but he’s just a little squirt”.
The Rampant Sexist is the heart of the village. It has flagstone floors and oak beams, and real ale is served by a blowsy barmaid called Doris. In the winter, a log fire blazes in the inglenook, and in the summer the scent of wild roses blows in through the open, leaded lights. All year round, the place echoes to laughter prompted by racist, sexist and homophobic jokes. The residents would vehemently deny the charge of bigotry, with one exception – they detest the New Puritan avatars of political correctness. The jokes are a form of defiance, an assertion of independence and free thought and an acknowledgement that humour knows no boundaries.
Tolerance, however, has its limits, which is why no one in Mellow wears sunglasses on the top of the head or shirt-tails outside their trousers. There are no tattooed women, no men with earrings and no baseball caps. Children are welcome, provided they are well-behaved, but there is a ban on kids and kiddies.
Free speech is, of course, sacrosanct – though there is a swear box on the bar of the pub for the use of people who say “no way”, “big time”, “fantastic”, “brilliant”, “cool” and “iconic”. A gibbet awaits the first person to say, “I’m so not going there”.
Swearing is not encouraged, so outsiders might be surprised to hear villagers talk of “effing”. This, however, is short for “burning in effigy”, a village custom in which a celebrity of the week is torched at the stake. Candidates are usually picked from the pages of the Daily Mail, and in recent weeks those to go up in smoke include Fay Weldon, Michael Winner, Cherie Blair (twice), Lord Brockett, Esther Ranzten, Lowri Turner and Alan Titchmarsh.
Apart from putting the Mail to the use described above, the villagers of Mellow have little time for the media, preferring to make their own entertainment. These include darts, dominoes, skittles and a weekly pub quiz, which omits any questions to do with television or football.
Mellow is a tidy village. There are hanging baskets, horse chestnut trees, a village duckpond (with a ducking stool reserved for Anne Robinson), and other natural hazards, none of which are barred by officialdom or bear warning signs. It is a blissfully contented spot, an oasis, an idyll, the kind of place to which life’s saga should lead.