Caroline Moorehead

The art of sucking eggs

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The Good Granny Guide, Or How to be a Modern Grandmother

Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall

Short Books, pp. 350, £

A grandmother, wrote Queen Victoria in a letter to her daughter, the Princess Royal, in June 1859, ‘must ever be loved and venerated, particularly one’s mother’s mother I always think’. Few are the modern grandmothers fortunate enough to attact much veneration, but, as Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall makes clear in her guide for the best grannies, it’s certainly possible to give and receive love of a kind never envisaged or anticipated. No one, after all, decides to become a grandmother: it simply happens to you. And as such there is no more profound pleasure.

Literature is rich in grannies, from Proust's devoted companion to Dosto-evsky’s enthusiastic gambler, but most belong to the Queen Victoria mould, imperious, often crabby, usually dressed in black and sometimes whiskery. The modern granny, as Fearnley-Whittingstall spells out in her brief introduction, is quite another creature altogether. For one thing, she is not only surprisingly young — half of all British grandparents today acquired their first grandchild by the age of 54 — but there are lots of them: 16.5 million, or more than one in every five members of the population. They are also likely to be around for some time. Assuming a life expectancy of 84, a woman with children can expect to spend 25-30 years as a grandmother, while today half of those over 65 belong to families spanning four generations. In the 21st century, a granny no longer sits knitting by the hearth; she buys designer clothes, runs a company, takes conference calls, skis, and treks in Nepal, when not surfing in California.

How, then, does a modern grandmother function? With almost half of all mothers out at work, the role is, says Fearnley-Whittingstall, crucial, not only as nanny, babysitter, chauffeur and cook, but as provider of holidays and treats. She is a sort of ballast to life. The value of unpaid grandparental care in the UK has been calculated at £1billion a year (based on an insultingly low rate of £2.97 per hour, which plays havoc with the economic benefits some grannies could be earning as City consultants or television commentators during that time). Having talked to and corresponded with over 200 grandmothers, a few grandfathers and some 50 mothers, what Fearnley-Whittingstall has done is not simply to list the practical aspects of a granny’s job — the better kinds of baby sling and the desirability of owning a sandpit — but to tackle the more elusive question of what the relationship actually entails. Never, she sensibly urges, criticise, even obliquely, the way your daughter (or daughter-in-law) is choosing to bring up your grandchild, and never, under any circumstances, disturb a routine that she has set up, however barmy it may seem.

Practical, clear, helpful, much of the advice she offers is, by its very nature, somewhat obvious. Wet babies need changing; visiting grandchildren should be offered food they like to eat. The fact that this book has had such a success — it entered the bestseller lists soon after publication — says much, perhaps, about the modern appetite for guides on how to live and conduct the infinitely knotty problems of human relationships. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote, crisply and sternly, in Old Age, ‘A woman of 70 is no longer regarded by anyone as an erotic object.’ She’d better get grannying right.