There are few spectacles more pitiable than the sight of desperate people clambering aboard the tailgate of a bandwagon that is about to run out of steam. (I am assuming for the sake of argument that the bandwagon is steam-driven, though in deference to readers of a green persuasion I am prepared to concede that an eco-friendly bandwagon might be powered by solar batteries. Even so, it would eventually run down, so the principle remains valid.)
The spectacle is made more poignant still when the clamberers are of a certain age, the bird of youth having long since flown, and hope so easily turns to despair. So, it is with no pleasure that I dwell on the maladroitness and misfortune of others, but rather with regret that I point to the damaging effects of marketing pizazz on people who, though ripe in years, are in some other respects callow.
More sadly still, the subjects of this sorrowful story are members of what, in a more chivalrous age, was called the fair sex or, quite often in literature of that period, simply The Sex. Today, of course, that usage would be impossible, since “sex” is probably the most commonly used word in the language, second only to “innit”. And for once I do not digress; for in this instance sex and the bandwagon to which I formerly alluded are one and the same.
The Women’s Institute, the very backbone of Middle England, or, if you prefer, the unyielding rock against which the storms of foolish fashion break and fall away, has produced a sex video for housewives. It is presented by Janice Langley, 66, who is filmed reclining on a bed in her home in West Grinstead with a variety of sex aids, magazines and DVDs spread decorously about her. Her dissertation comprises hints and tips on how to get the best from geriatric fumblings and tumblings including exhorting the female partner to dress in a French maid’s outfit.
I suppose we should have seen this in the offing. The straw in the wind came in 2000 when members of Rylstone and District WI in North Yorkshire posed for a calendar wearing nothing but pearl necklaces, hats and strategically positioned flowers and saucepans. It was all rather silly and jolly and millennial and caught the mood of a nation luxuriating in the illusion of wealth and success created by a borrowing spree and a property boom.
But, as the Americans say, that was then and this is now. The boom has turned to bust and landslides from the debt mountain daily engulf individuals and businesses. We are entering a new age of austerity the like of which we have not seen since the grey post-war years of the Forties and early Fifties. In short, this is no time for members of the WI to take their knickers off. If ever their traditional skills of making do and mending, of knocking up a wholesome meal from scrag-end and potato peelings were needed, it is now.
Economists talk of lagging indicators, meaning changes occurring after the overall economy has changed. The WI’s sex video is just such an indicator, lagging way behind events. But what does it indicate? It points to a belated adoption of the follies and obsessions of marketing. Ours is a society saturated in and obsessed by sex. Ever since restraint and responsibility became deeply uncool, and self-absorption and celebrity became the dominant ethos, sexual imagery has become part of the currency of marketing. It is cliché that sex sells and, as with all clichés, it is both true and tiresome at the same time.
One of the few benefits of economic recession is a diminution of noise. The clamour of the marketplace is replaced by an uneasy silence. With luck, sex and celebrity will fall into perspective. And just as that is about to happen, the WI spreads out its sex toys, pulls on its French Maid’s outfit, bites hard on its dentures and prepares to let rip.
Too late, girls. The charabanc has moved on. Now is the time for the WI to teach a lost generation the arts of jam and cake making, flower arranging and fashioning: in the words of the late Joyce Grenfell, useful and acceptable gifts. There is, however, a problem. The current stalwarts of the institute are baby-boomers, women who burnt their bras, turned their backs on domesticity, and, liberated by the Pill, discarded modesty like an old glove.
Could it be that all they know is 101 ways to get your leg over? Surely not. These, after all, were the stalwart women who slow-hand clapped the vain and posturing Tony Blair. Now more than ever we need them.