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12 March 1999

Let us now praise the old crones

John-Paul Flintoff finds that young men can learn much from older women (no, not that)

By John-Paul Flintoff

All of a sudden, it’s impossible to open a newspaper without reading the opinions of a woman who is, well, getting on a bit.

Just last week, the Liverpool-born author Beryl Bainbridge used the occasion of her winning the WH Smith award to advise parents they should eliminate all traces of regional accents from their children. Did we care? Obviously, yes: the Telegraph reported the matter on its front page.

Then there’s Germaine Greer, who has written a book of such vast consequence that entire sections of the broadsheets have been devoted to her views, day after day, for what seems like weeks. She, too, had dotty, homespun insights to offer. “Have you any idea how expensive manure is?” she asked one journalist who came to visit her in East Anglia, before moving on to more serious feminist issues.

Another writer virtually guaranteed coverage is Fay Weldon. Not so long ago, the author of The Life and Loves of a She-Devil caused a mighty stink with some comments on rape. These were twisted this way, then that way, and only abandoned after a week or more so that we could all talk about something else for a change.

It makes a splendid change, after years of reading boring rubbish from old blokes. There’s something about these older women’s opinions that makes them really stand out. Their utterances tend not to be especially ingenious or clever-clever. Men, by and large, tend to tell us that we will be able to clone ourselves in the near future; that a certain tweak to interest rates will do this to exports; or that the Queen could be arrested if she goes abroad because of what happened to General Pinochet. These older women, by contrast – whether you agree with them or not – speak the idiom of old-fashioned common sense, based on the experience that comes from a relatively long life.

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Now, it’s entirely possible that these older women do talk to reporters about cloning, exports and diplomatic immunity, but that’s not what appears in the papers. We’re witnessing a censorship based on old-fashioned misogyny: don’t let them talk about anything serious, whisper the editors to the reporters, just stick to the price of manure. But whatever the cause, the upshot is this: the media have hit upon the late-20th-century old crone, ready to give unpretentious advice on a range of everyday topics.

You know the sort. The type of wise woman who would not have lasted long in the Middle Ages. Somebody who would have been guaranteed a season ticket on the village ducking stool. Not just for her opinions (“old wives’ tales”) but also because she probably neglected to remove incipient dark hairs from her upper lip. The type, in short, who got Macbeth into trouble by muttering over their cauldrons.

And who could be more of an old crone than Greer, walking about her garden with “a slight limp”, hair “half looped up in a crazy bun” (copyright, the Daily Telegraph)?

They’re not all professionl writers, however. The sorority of crones includes politicians such as Barbara Castle and Shirley Williams. Ann Widdecombe has shown great potential as a crone, and Margaret Thatcher continues to exert a strange fascination. Only this month, Thatch was credited with inspiring an entire new political party in Russia, which describes itself with admirable clarity as the Thatcherites of Russia.

By now, you’re probably fuming. You think the term “crone” offensive, and I’m a hell of a chauvinist pig. But in an era obsessed with youth, can there really be any polite term to identify older women? Polite, that is, and also not revoltingly euphemistic? I think not – so why not choose the most offensive term available, old crone, and reclaim it, as gays did with the abusive word “queer”?

But what has that got to do with a man like me (aged 31)? You may well ask, because the prevailing assumption is that my sort will have little interest in the pronouncements of old crones. When the Greer book appeared, for instance, every serious newspaper followed up by conducting telephone interviews with a range of commentators. Is Greer relevant, they asked. Is Greer mad? Young women, old women, famous women and obscure women contributed their answers to these questions. But not men – and certainly not young men. It was as though we chaps could have nothing to learn – nothing to fear – from Greer’s oracular pronouncements.

This is a great shame. Young men can benefit immensely from exposure to wise older women. I marvelled at a recent account by Will Self in the Independent on Sunday of his encounter with Dame Mary Warnock. “A woman whose authority is subtle yet irrefutable,” declared Self, “and whose commensurate powers of reasoning almost audibly hum.” How marvellous, I thought, to meet such a woman.

My own hankering for a wise older woman first developed when I read the memoirs of Clive James. On arriving in the UK from Australia in the 1960s, the young James had met Joyce Grenfell, who talked to him nicely, gave him meals and took him to concerts at the Festival Hall – setting him on his way to wisdom and happiness.

A similar turn of events happened in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale. A callow, thoughtless knight is granted just 12 months to discover certain universal truths on pain of death. He ventures across the country asking for help from a wide range of experts – but only finds what he’s after by consulting an old crone.

And much the same thing happened last week. Prince William ventured unannounced to the House of Commons. Now, he could have ended up with some up-and-coming bloke in a suit, who would have marched him about, fawning horribly. Luckily that didn’t happen. Instead, the prince was shown round by the Speaker of the House. Reading about this, I considered how lucky he had been. An afternoon with Betty Boothroyd. Hmm, I fancy a bit of that myself.