Monday, 17 November 2014

In praise of the WI

Battleaxe is feeling especially warm towards the WI sisterhood because our Hastings Ore WI Winter Bazaar was so successful - we raised over £1,300.
     Such events are massive feats of enterprise and organisation for everyone concerned.  We are better off than most WIs because we have 70 members - a big enough pool to find volunteers willing to help with all the background and front-line tasks.
    We had to publicise the event, make things, donate things, collect things, price and display things, carry stuff about, be places on time, make and serve teas, wash up, sell on stalls, clear up again, and deal with the money.... and what amazes me is how willingly, cheerfully and effectively we all do it, and how well people work together.
Busy Bazaar
    It was the same with the jumble sale we had back in August. One minute the hall was like a chaotic battleground, absolutely full of stuff, within 30 minutes the place was empty, all cleared up, as if we'd never been there.
    A few years ago, Battleaxe would never have dreamed of joining the WI. There were no WI groups near us in Birmingham, and I only had vague perceptions about jam, cakes, knitting, elderly tweed-clad country ladies, with a bit of Calender Girls thrown in.
    It has only just occurred to me what a protected life we lived then.  Even though we were slap in the middle of one of the most ethnically, culturally and economically diverse cities in the UK, we inhabited an enclave of educated, professional, left-wing, Guardian-reading types who worked in education, academia, public service or the arts. Although we left the enclave to work and travel, our social circle was people just like ourselves.
    Life in Hastings is very different. It is much smaller, and there are no such enclaves, just a random mix of all sorts of people living in our off-the-wall, slightly isolated town by the sea.  When Philosopher and I arrived here, we knew nobody, and I set out to find ways to meet others. There are three WI groups here, and I thought I'd give it a go. I chose Hastings Ore as the middle ground between what I perceived as the radical and the traditional. In addition, it is the nearest, meeting in Christ Church Hall just up the road in Ore Village.
    There is a bit of jam making, some knitting and far too much cake eating, but lots of other things too, and I really enjoy it.
    I was going to say we are a very diverse bunch, but then I'd have to qualify that. We are not diverse ethnically, as Hastings is very 'white' compared with Birmingham, nor do we have women from the big council estates. However, compared with what I am used to, in terms of background, interests, family and living circumstances, education, politics, age, job history, we are pretty varied. What unites us, apart from our gender, is a desire to enjoy ourselves and to widen our horizons.
     I've made some excellent friends. Our WI is quite new, and informal and friendly in style. We are growing rapidly, and have just had to put a cap on membership numbers to stop ourselves ballooning out of control.
Womanly arts.....
    Battleaxe does not really do the womanly arts of cooking, knitting and sewing, but that doesn't seem to matter much - there are plenty of other things. I walk, I belong to the book group, we go on outings, and I've tried to help boost our profile by entering a couple of WI competitions with bits of writing. One was a total failure - I think it was too rude and dirty for the Sussex judges, and my entry was described as 'weak' and 'unconvincing', but the other, a poem about 'What My WI means to me', went so far in the other direction it left everyone, including me, stunned. First, the poem won the East Sussex heat of the Lady Denman Cup competition. This cup is awarded to one woman nationally each year in a particular field of creativity. Then I heard I had won the whole thing. I have to go and collect the cup next year at the WI Centenary AGM at the Royal Albert Hall.
Walking at Rye Harbour 
Garden visit
  
     I was fingered for the Committee quite soon after joining - honestly, I didn't Battleaxe my way forward or anything. Then it happened that Jan, our founder President became ill, and I became Acting President in her place. Fortunately the jobs I've done in the past involved plenty of speaking to groups, and the biggest job of the President is to manage the monthly meetings where nearly 60 excitable and talkative women get together, and I can manage that OK.
     At our AGM earlier this week Jan stood down (she'll be back on the Committee after Christmas), and I have become President in her place.
Busy meetings....
     I hope I'll manage OK. I'm quite a new WI person, and as yet, I find the national and regional WI set up a bit hard to understand. Nationally, the WI is enormous, with around 212,00 members. Our 'local' office is in Hailsham, which is a long way for anyone to travel, particularly if you don't have a car, and a large percentage of our subscription money goes to maintain this set-up. They arrange courses, which few of us can go to, and outings, some of which are very expensive, for example the Christmas trip to Leeds Castle, at £29.00 per head. I can't see many women from the Ore Downs Farm estate signing up for that.
     So far, I see central WI as pretty much white middle class, with perhaps more needing to be done to encourage women from different ethnic and social backgrounds. We don't even collect monitoring information on our membership forms. However, I have a lot to learn, and there is clearly something in the culture and ethos of the WI which is incredibly powerful. I can't see our group of women doing so well without the WI banner.
     Battleaxe was never identified as having leadership potential. At school, I was quietly rebellious, and was never even blackboard monitor, let alone form captain or prefect.  Sure, as an adult I ran a company, but didn't enjoy that too much - but maybe only a complete masochist would enjoy leading not only staff but a team of management consultants, which is what I had to do. They were either barking mad, maverick and uncontrollable, convinced they could do my job much better than me or, in some cases, all three at once. (I'm pretty sure none of them are reading this....)
     With the WI, it feels very different. The others are supportive rather than trying to saw your legs off the whole time. My fellow committee members work very hard, and lots of others muck in to make things happen. I know they'll be there for me.
     Indeed, Battleaxe herself has to go into hospital next week for an operation - not life-threatening, but not what you want. In a future blog, I'll be able to give the insiders view of the Conquest Hospital. So far, I've been impressed.  Hopefully, I should recover quite quickly, and it will only briefly affect my new role as Leader of Women..........