Her expert, no-nonsense advice on family matters has earned her the title 'Britain's Favourite Granny', but there's more to Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall than home-cooking and babysitting. A vociferous campaigner against age discrimination, she says that when it comes to learning how to treat the older generation, we need to look towards the Middle East. Older people are a huge wasted resource," says Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall, firmly. "I think they tend to be a civilising influence. Society would be a much better place if younger people were taught that elderly people are worthy of respect. It's something that we've lost along the way. You don't always gain by modernisation; there are attitudes of value that get left behind." The forthright Fearnley-Whittingstall, 69, has many strings to her bow. Not only is she a respected landscape architect, mother of Hugh - the highly respected cookery writer and TV chef - and beloved grandmother to five children, she has latterly become a prolific author.
Her series of books aimed at the proud grandparent have become bestsellers - the latest, The Good Granny Companion, is a sure-fire hit - and, as a consequence, she has found herself something of a spokeswoman for a generation of "Grey Panthers", fighting against the marginalisation of senior citizens. "It is rather extraordinary to find myself in this situation," she admits. Fearnley-Whittingstall knows all about the difficulties faced by her generation via the problem page on her website. It has become a sounding-board for grandparents who have been victims of age discrimination, or who, heartbreakingly, no longer see their grandchildren.
"I get lots of letters from people whose grandchildren have been taken away to Australia or somewhere," she says. "It's a terrible deprivation. And there isn't any legal right for a grandparent to see the grandchildren if the parents split up. I think that's tragic, because they can be the one stable relationship in a child's life, and very helpful in seeing them through the crisis. "There isn't a lot of awareness of the problem, and probably a lot of people that don't see the point. But the statistics are amazing. The average grandparent looks after grandchildren for three days a week. If you factor in grannies like me - I see my grandchildren about three days a month - there must be some out there who are doing all the looking-after.
"For a lot of children, their granny can be the one reliable thing in their lives, so it's terrible if that's snatched away. If I were Prime Minister, that's definitely the issue I would address first." In the UK recently there was an outcry after the BBC allowed calls made by comedian Russell Brand and radio presenter Jonathan Ross to the 78-year-old actor Andrew Sachs (best known for playing Manuel in the 70s sitcom Fawlty Towers), to be broadcast on national radio. The chortling pair left numerous messages on Sachs's answering machine, making obscene suggestions about Sachs's granddaughter, and the tape was subsequently broadcast on Brand's Radio 2 show in the teeth of Sachs's objections. The dismissive attitude the BBC displayed towards Sachs was, says Fearnley-Whittingstall, symptomatic of an institutional lack of respect for older people in the UK.
"On the other hand, I think it's quitepositive that there's been such a fuss about it," she goes on, cheerfully. "I think people were shocked that an old man was on the receiving end of such crudity." And indeed, immense and wholly unexpected (by the BBC) public outrage has claimed the heads of Brand and two Radio 2 executives, while Ross, who earns in a single day more than three times the British basic annual state pension, has been suspended unpaid for three months. It's certainly true that attitudes to the elderly in the UK remain strangely contradictory. On the one hand, now that over half of all mothers work, grandparents are needed as never before to take care of the children at home. Even when calculated at £2.97 (Dh 16.77) an hour, the value of grandparental care has been estimated as being worth £1 billion (Dh5.6bn) annually. But despite this vital role, and anti-age discrimination legislation that has made it illegal to discriminate against anyone under 65 in the workplace, the elderly are second-class citizens. They may be denied healthcare by the NHS or told that ill health is only to be expected. Their travel, health and motor insurance premiums all rocket - at the same time as their income plummets - based, say charities like Help The Aged, on a series of flawed assumptions and arbitrary cut-off points. This is a situation that the government is planning, at last, to address. But it will take more than legislation to change attitudes that view the frail and old as a burden. Where in the UAE and throughout the Middle East, the assumption is generally that elderly family members will be looked after at home by the family, in the West, they are more often shipped off to expensive but depressing retirement homes. "I think our society has a lot to learn from the Middle East in that regard," says Fearnley-Whittingstall. "I am aware that they have a reverence for the elderly, and I wish that over here we had something more close to that attitude. Especially as now we all seem to be living longer, and God willing, we will keep our health for longer, which means older people can contribute the wisdom that comes with experience. "It would be nice if that was recognised and valued more than it is. I'd love it if we went back to a tradition where the ideas of the elders of the tribe are respected, and people turn to their mother or grandmother for advice instead of writing them off as gaga."
None of this was in her mind when she wrote The Good Granny Guide in 2005, which she followed up with The Good Granny Cookbook, and now the Companion. "When you become a grandparent, you never expect just how fantastic it's going to be and how it changes your life and how joyful and exciting the whole thing is. But at the same time, there are so many tricky pitfalls. You can offend by offering advice or by not offering it. I was having that conversation with three or four other grandmothers and someone said that there ought to be a guide. I mentioned it in passing to my children, and they were really enthusiastic about it." The initial guide offered advice to new grannies, culled not only from Fearnley-Whittingstall's generation but also from mothers who'd been on the receiving end of positive and negative grandparenting. "I think the role of a grandparent has changed quite a lot," she explains, "which is why some people are confused. My own grandparents were fairly remote, and definitely from another generation. You had to mind your p's and q's." The 21st-century granny, on the other hand, is likely to be quite young and may well be still working. According to Fearnley-Whittingstall, half of all British grandparents today acquired their first grandchild by the age of 54. And there are 16.5 million of them in the UK. While some of these will be fulfilling the stereotype by knitting woolly jumpers, there will be just as many running businesses, driving sports cars and splurging on designer clothes. No wonder we all need a bit of guidance. If her books are anything to judge by, Fearnley-Whittingstall herself is the perfect granny: imaginative, fun, practical, loving and good-humoured. "I don't have wrinkles," she says defiantly, "I have laughter lines." She lives in a market town in Gloucestershire, in the heart of the English Costwolds, with her husband, who works as a business writer, and works in a study that is festooned with photographs of her five grandchildren, who range in age from 12 to six. When they get together, they like to make things - anything from pizza to bows and arrows. She bakes cakes, plays wild card games and rustles up planes out of cardboard at the first whine of 'Granny Jane, I'm bored'. "We probably have more fun together than I did with my own children," she admits. "If I dare say so, it's because one is older and wiser. You're more relaxed because you've seen it all before. And however close and loving the relationship is between a grandparent and a grandchild, you don't invest so much hope and ambition which creates a lot of pressure. Often, children don't try it on so much with their grandparents." She is less than an hour's drive away from daughter Sophy, and just a little further from Hugh, who lives in Dorset, so all her grandchildren are within relatively easy reach. "Tomorrow, I'm off to Sophy's to stay the night so I can go to one of my grandchildren's school assemblies," she says excitedly. "And on Saturday, my husband and I are going to look after her two boys while she and her husband go off. I love being asked. I sometimes wish they would ask more often." Ironically, her growing success as the UK's favourite media granny is also getting in the way, it seems. She's become involved in a South African charity, African Solutions To African Problems, helping grandmothers who find themselves suddenly in charge of a young family as a result of Aids. "There's a group of British and American grannies who've got together to raise funds. All they need are a set of tools and a few packets of seeds, and they do their garden, grow the veg and sell it at the market. Or you buy them a sewing machine and they can make little garments. At such a small cost, you can achieve so much. "People think of these charities as rather dreary, but one of the things I like about supporting them is that you are helping children at the same time." Last year, Help The Aged took Jane to India to meet elderly victims of the tsunami. "I met a lot of grandmothers whose children had been killed and they had been left in charge of their grandchildren. It was heartening to see how little these old people needed to get them on their feet. They were very strong and optimistic. I found it very moving to see how they were picking up the pieces and not ever complaining." "I was the one who found myself crying, but one of the grannies smiled at me and said, 'Be happy!'" The Good Granny Companion by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall (Short Books, £12.99) is available from www.amazon.com. For more information on Jane, visit www.goodgranny.com.
Making Jewellery: A Button Necklace Keep a button tin and let the children make a necklace or bracelet by threading small buttons, perhaps mixed with larger beads on to shirring elastic. This can be bought at any haberdashers and has the advantage of stretching to put on over a head or hand. Bring the elastic back through the second hole in each button, to hold it firm on the necklace. Tie it with a knot when it is long enough to stretch comfortably around the child's neck or wrist. Fun and Games Outdoors: The Matchbox Game Give a child an empty matchbox and a list of small things to collect - a grey pebble, a petal and so on. If there is more than one child, the first one back is the winner. Another way to play this is to give them a time limit - five minutes, say - to collect as many interesting things as they can. Songs, Rhymes and Stories Our memories are stuffed with rhymes, poetry and stories from different stages of our lives. They float to the surface from time to time. Here is a favourite nonsense rhyme: "Algy Met A Bear And the bear met Algy. The bear was bulgy And the bulge was Algy." Car Games: Granny's Cat The first player describes Granny's Cat with an adjective beginning with A, the second with B and so on, through the alphabet. Each player has to remember the earlier adjectives. For example, "Granny's cat is an Arrogant cat," "Granny's cat is an Arrogant, Beastly cat." Towards the end it gets difficult: "Granny's cat is an Arrogant, Beastly, Cuddly, Disgusting, Elegant, Funny, Gorgeous, Horrible, Ill, Jealous, Kittenish " Granny's Toy Box You could argue that you don't really need toys for small children as they have an amusing tendency to ignore them while making a beeline for your keys, purse,mobile phone. When young children visit, they'll play happily with your saucepans, saucepan lids, sieves, wooden spoons and other safe kitchen stuff. But if they come fairly regularly there are some toys worth investing in:A stroller, full of wooden building bricks to push around and to empty and fill. I acquired the bricks when the first two grandchildren were about 18 months old - now they are nine and still use them to build castles etc. A plastic lorry, to transport the bricks. Stacking cups or stacking rings and a "posting" toy. A rag book, a waterproof book and a few floating toys for bath time. A soft ball that makes electronic noises when rolled or thrown. A ball with a bell inside it and a rattle or maracas give endless entertainment. A cheap toy cooker with pots, plates and cutlery.