The old-fashioned granny is a cuddly shape, has grey hair, wears a cardigan and slippers and drops off in front of the telly. She is probably shocked by the way her daughter or daughter-in-law brings up her babies, but she will be philosophical about it and accept that things have changed, without complaining audibly. In time, she will come round to seeing how successful their methods are and give praise where it is due. There is, however, also a less accommodating kind of old-fashioned granny, determined to let parents know that she doesn't hold with new-fangled ways of doing things.
She descends on the newborn's cradle like a fairy godmother bearing gifts of designer baby clothes, cashmere wraps and Tiffany teething rings. In the bad old days before disposable nappies, one such glamorous granny arrived in the maternity ward with a present for her daughter-in-law. It was an exquisite satin and lace nightgown and negligee from Fortnum & Mason. All the young mother could see as she gazed at this generous present were pound signs adding up to rather more than the price of her longed-for washing machine. The Glam Gran won't ever be the nappy-changing, nose-wiping type. Being warm-hearted, she is always keen to take the baby in her arms for a cuddle, but as soon as she detects damp at either end, she passes the parcel. She doesn't really do babies, darling. But she will come into her own when her grandchildren are older, helping them paint their toenails with her nail varnish, giving brilliant presents and thinking up wonderful treats.
The hands-on granny knows by instinct how to get a burp out of a baby and comfort a colicky one. She quite likes the smell of baby vomit and won't mind if her grandchild messes up her hair and sticks his fingers up her nose. Instead of the cashmere wrap, her offering to the newborn is a hand-knitted matinée jacket with matching bootees and bonnet. She always has tissues about her person for mopping dribble and wiping noses, and will spend hours on the floor playing with toddlers. Nothing is too much trouble and she will come to the rescue at a moment's notice. Both her daughter and her daughter-in-law often ask for her advice and even act on it, because she really does know all about babies and she gives her advice tactfully. As her grandchildren get older she will make almost anything for them, training herself, for example, to become a skilful fletcher, making the best-ever bows and arrows.
This granny is in the tradition of Mother Goose, storyteller and guardian of tales, rhymes and songs, to be passed from one generation to the next. It was an immensely important role in the days when most people could not read, and today's grandmother has the same important function: to keep the traditional culture alive by singing the songs and telling the stories. She is also the custodian of her family's history. How else would we know about great-uncle Eric who died in a Liverpool hotel after consuming too many pies and beers after backing the winner of the Grand National? The Wise Woman knows all there is to know about the ancestors, and will pass it on to her grandchildren, naming the names of mustachio-ed gentlemen in faded photographs and ladies with big hair, and ample bosoms and hips.
The Wise Woman is also the guardian of lotions and potions. She has a secret store of gripe water, syrup of figs and other traditional remedies for childish ailments. The Wise Woman can always find a dock leaf to rub on a nettle sting. Her extensive repertoire of superstitions and old wives' tales includes infallible methods of weather forecasting; she teaches her grandchildren to scan the clouds for enough blue sky to make a pair of sailor's trousers, and to look in the fields to see if the cows are lying down (a sure sign it is going to rain). She sometimes issues rather alarming warnings; for example, "If you don't stop making hideous faces, the wind will change and your face will be stuck forever."
She breezes in, straight from the golf course or the tennis court, energy radiating from her. Following the principle that children will have fun if granny is having fun, and granny will have fun if she is doing what she enjoys, Sporty Grannies can be counted on to share their enthusiasm with their grandchildren, and get them off to a good start in their chosen sports.
She may or may not qualify for her bus pass. It is completely irrelevant, since she makes no concessions to her age or her granny status in the way she dresses and her lifestyle in general. Daughters and daughters-in-law often despair of Rock'n'roll Granny, complaining about "the smoking and drinking, the junk food, the late nights", but they forgive everything because granny and her grandchildren are madly in love with each other. Often a self-confessed bad mother, she makes up for it with the new generation and, as well as providing endless fun, she turns out to be a fund of wise advice.
One version of this alarming species of granny was the character immortalised in the 1950s and 60s by the cartoonist Giles. He showed grandma riding a motorbike, at the head of a posse of Hell's Angels, terrorising the neighbourhood. This may say more about prejudice than about grannies, of course...
Folk tales often display this fear of older women (who of course, know too much). To the Sakai tribe in Malaya the Queen of Hell is a giantess known as Granny Longbreasts. (Great, thanks, as if we didn't know.) She washes the souls of the sinful in a cauldron of boiling water. The granny figure is sometimes unequivocally wicked, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, or the terrifying Russian demon Baba Yaga, with her iron teeth. Baba Yaga lives in a house on chicken's legs (rather like her own, presumably...) and rides round the sky in a mortar, beating the ground with a pestle and sweeping away her tracks with a birch broom. As for our well-loved fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood, in which the gentle, harmless granny metamorphoses into the wicked wolf, what can one say? Apart from, we need a makeover.
Eccentricity is not usually considered desirable in a parent, but is quite acceptable in a grandparent. I recently saw a seven-year-old boy announce to a television interviewer, ‘My granddad is absolutely bonkers', and it was said with real pride. ‘Bonkers' would also have been an apt description of Diana Holman-Hunt's paternal grandmother, described in Diana's funny and touching book, My Grandmothers and I. The widow of the pre-Raphaelite painter Holman Hunt, she lived in solitary squalor in a large, cold house near Holland Park, stuffed full of pictures, furniture and objets, from Italian Renaissance Old Master paintings and stage props worn by Holman-Hunt's models to a thunderbolt found on the South Downs by Edward Lear and a bundle of Lord Kitchener's letters. She set up burglar alarms each night, home-made from bells on tripwires and piles of tins.
We probably all aspire to be Supergran - and, oddly enough, many of us get very close. The truth is that, because of the phenomenon of mutual, unconditional love, our grandchildren, in their naive and trusting way, often believe us to be Supergrans. Some model grannies who are able to give a great deal of time and energy to their relationship with their grandchildren might make others feel inadequate by comparison. But there is no need for that. We give what we are able to, and it can be a mistake to be over-zealous. Most of our children would prefer us to follow the example of a granny who, according to her daughter-in-law, "never gave advice unless directly asked, never criticised my methods of child-rearing, just played with the children, listened to them and talked to them". It is quality, not quantity, of attention that is most important