Jenny Joseph

This morning, on my #PoetryinJune Reading Challenge, you have the delight of listening to Jenny Joseph (b 1932) reading her poem Warning in a clip that I discovered on YouTube. I’ve given the text below as well in case the piece is unfamiliar to you. This poem was published in 1961 and I came across it in the late 1990s when I was working in a Birmingham bookshop (as it happens Jenny Joseph was born in Birmingham).

In 1997, Warning was published as a stand alone piece with illustrations by Pythia Ashton-Jewell (Souvenir Press) and I remember selling many copies at the time. It was a fantastic idea to publish the poem as a gift book (see picture of front cover) and Ashton’s drawings are a brilliant complement to the text. The giving of the poem as a gift (along with a red hat) by one particular woman gave rise to the establishment of the Red Hat Society (1998) in the USA.

Sue Ellen Cooper gave a copy of the poem with a red hat on friend’s 55th birthday in 1996, and the rest, as they say is history. The society now has many chapters in the US and world-wide. I would love to know whether Jenny Joseph is an honorary member of the RHS. Not many people can claim to have written a poem that has resulted in a global women’s movement. It is appropriate to have picked Warning for my #Poetryinjune feature as the Red Hat Society’s World Wide Hoot 2013 was held on 15 June. If had realised sooner I would have posted Warning up on the day, but belated best wishes to all of the Red Hatters out there.

And here is the poem that started it all:


When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves

Jacket of Warning by Jenny Joseph

Souvenir Press, 1997

And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bell
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We will have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old and start to wear purple.

I hope that has given you a mid-week smile. More #PoetryinJune tomorrow! Are any Red Hatters out there? If so, give me a shout…

Credits:  details shown at end of video (recorded 2008) – with thanks.