15 Feb Warning: eccentricities ahead
Jenny Joseph’s Warning
Jenny Joseph was 29 years old when she wrote her poem Warning in 1960. It began:
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
with a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
She listed the eccentricities she’d like to indulge in when old and grey: run her stick along public railings, pick flowers from other people’s gardens, learn to spit . . . She lamented the sobriety of her young life which required setting a good example for the children and paying the rent.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers . . .
As Nanna grows old in a world that gets wilder and stranger – a world in which friends can’t come to dinner for fear of contagion, and the papers are increasingly irrelevant – it seems this might be the perfect time to let one’s inner eccentric loose. I’m told on the interweb there is evidence the world may be flat after all. We’ve just watched a US Presidency progress along plot lines more bizarre than any self-respecting screen writer would dare to pitch. Theories that world is run by lizard aliens, or a shadowy cabal of paedophiles or big pharma are well documented online. What we used to call ‘normal’ has crumbled about us, making it the perfect time to go a little nuts.
Growing old outrageously
On a recent damp Saturday afternoon, I saw a group of women waiting for a ferry, all wearing purple with red hats. The colours didn’t go and didn’t suit them, but they looked fabulous. I knew Joseph’s poem had inspired the Red Hat Society, an American organisation for older women, but I didn’t know it was alive and kicking in my home town. The story goes that a former assistant to Lady Bird Johnson read Warning in a poetry anthology in the 1990s, loved it, and wrote about it in the Readers’ Digest. Other women loved it too, one thing led to another and the Red Hat Society was formed in 1997. It was called a “playgroup for older women” or, as one of the Red Hatters on the ferry wharf said to me, for “growing old outrageously.”
Joseph was an accomplished English writer. She published 13 books of poetry, won three major awards, wrote six children’s books and some experimental fiction. She worked as a journalist, taught English as a second language, helped her husband run a pub, lectured at university, and reared three children. When she died at 85, in 2018, the obituaries all mentioned her most famous poem – and yet there is no mention of her on the Red Hat Society website. As an artist, I’m sure she’d prefer her work to be known over her name. But even the work isn’t celebrated by the society it spawned. The website mentions a ‘well-known poem’ and the women I met that Saturday, while warm and welcoming, looked blank when I mentioned Joseph and her work.
Each chapter of the Red Hat Society has a queen and Queen Annie-Lou, who I met at the ferry wharf, is a fascinating former teacher, a mother and grandmother who now works in advertising and movies, as an extra. She is enjoying an unexpected, late-life career as an actor. Her group meets for lunch, theatre and movie outings. Queen Annie-Lou sends a regular newsletter. It feels like a fun group to join – a playgroup for older women.
The Red Hat Society itself, however, appears to have become rather serious. It now promotes itself with the mission of “reshaping the way women are viewed in today’s culture.” Very worthy. Very necessary. But I hope they don’t lose the point of the red hat in all that jargon.
Maybe I ought to practice a little now?
Joseph’s poem ends with the thought that perhaps she should start to practice getting a little crazy while she’s young:
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised,
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
Nanna believes there has never been a better time to give eccentricity a valued place at our afternoon tea tables. We are not our grandmothers’ grandmothers. In a world of shape-shifting institutions that no longer feel solid, with all the topsoil of our comfort zones ploughed up by a pandemic and poisoned by an ongoing narrative of fear, why not get a little crazy in the best possible way?
For motivation, you might start here, with Jenny Joseph – as the old woman she became – reading her poem.
Then, if satin slippers or terrible shirts are not your thing, or a little tame, try anything you’ve always wanted to do. What are we waiting for – permission? The lizard aliens or the shadowy cabal running the place probably won’t notice what the old folks do, so let poetry be your permission slip.
Nanna, of course, recommends getting yourself onto a yoga mat. It’s a great place to start dropping the self-consciousness that most of us drag around like our mother’s disapproval. A good teacher will remind you there is no room for ego and judgement on a yoga mat. Embodying a tree or a dog (facing up or down), feeling your inner warrior or paying homage to the sun or moon is blissfully crazy. Plus it has more benefits than the doctors at Harvard could name, saying yoga “may be the antidote for what ails you.”
And that is especially true if what ails you happens to be Serious Senior Syndrome. Go find some purple tights, pin on a little red cloche – or a red ribbon – roll out the mat and explore how it feels. You never know, next you might decide it’s time to learn to spit.