The formidable power of little old ladies

Just thinking about them makes me feel like marching off to protest about something
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The Independent Online

Please God when I am 83 let me be fearless and feisty like Elizabeth Winkfield from Barnstaple who told a magistrate in court last Thursday that she would rather go to prison than pay an extra £114 council tax. I am with you all the way, Miss W. We haven't yet been advised how much more our council tax will be, but at the rate they appear to be squandering public money in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, it promises to be big bucks.

The trouble is if I dug my heels in and refused to pay it wouldn't make the front page because council tax campaigners are newsworthy only if they are little old ladies with white hair. This, at least, makes the prospect of living to be 100, as we are constantly told we shall, a little less bleak.

Maybe that's why Miss Winkfield did it. She makes her own clothes and goes to jumble sales, we know that, but there are limits to the pleasure a body can derive from needlework and jumble. Three months' porridge living cheek by jowl with hardened criminals, slopping out with gangsters, sewing mail bags beside bank robbers, exercising next to ram-raiders and Miss Winkfield's hitherto happy but uneventful existence in the Devon countryside will take on a whole new lease of life. Who knows, she might even become a Yardie.

Thank heavens I am female. Protests and porridge aside, Miss Winkfield has proved yet again that as a species little old ladies are far more interesting and forceful and - yes, I'll say it - more fun than little old men. With rare exceptions like Bertrand Russell who was still going on CND marches in his scruffy old duffel coat when he was 90, men disintegrate the moment they retire.

Not physically maybe, or they wouldn't be able to put in all those hours playing golf or climbing up and down ladders doing DIY, but mentally they are a washout. All they talk about is golf and DIY. Little old ladies, on the other hand, as Miss Winkfield has so richly demonstrated, have broader interests and farther reaching horizons.

Just think what might happen if, galvanised into action by the Winkfield prototype, little old ladies up and down the land, with or without homemade tweed suits and hats acquired in jumble sales, refused to pay their council tax. There'd be a revolution. Tolpuddle Martyrs, Cato Street conspirators, the Birmingham Six - they'd all pale into historical insignificance compared to Winkfield's Women Warriors against Council Tyranny.

I have two little old lady role models, one famous, one a friend, neither, alas, still living but just thinking about them makes me feel like putting on a pair of sensible shoes and marching off to protest about something.

The first, Catherine Bramwell Booth, granddaughter of the founding father of the Salvation Army, died in 1987 aged 104. I met her only once at a big Help the Aged charity lunch at a posh London hotel. She must have been well into her 90s but she was a great deal sharper than any of the guests half her age. Keeping in touch, she told me, was the answer - with books, with news, with friends and especially with the young.

She was frail. Her eyesight was failing and she had two long white whiskers protruding from her chin, but she held everyone at the table spellbound with her conversation. If it takes whiskers to become a witty raconteur at the age of 90 I'll start growing them now.

My other role model, Gaye Stevenson Hamilton who, until she died five years ago, was the first person I visited whenever we took the children up to Argyll. She was was tiny and forthright and invariably greeted me with news of the preposterous reply she had just received to a letter she'd written to The Scotsman, J K Galbraith, Mother Teresa or the Moderator of the Church of Scotland.

She was always writing letters. The one to the Moderator was to warn him that a number of shops in George Street, the Avenue Foch of Oban, had become vacant and it was highly likely in an age obsessed with sex they would be snapped up by dubious commercial operators offering erotic underwear, videos and other recreational aids, making Oban the pornographic capital of Europe. Chance would be a fine thing.

The Moderator said that he was rather busy but would certainly look into it. "Silly fool," said Gaye. "It will be too late by then. Never mind. Have a dram."

When into her 90s from April to October she swam every morning in Loch Laich, to the astonishment of Japanese tourists in coaches who stopped to take pictures.

Keep up the fight, Miss Winkfield. And may the Force be with you. Little old lady power is a hurricane waiting to happen.