November 3, 2009

When I am Old I Shall Wear Purple or the Red Hat Society - Love it or Leave it.

Please have a look at this poem by Jenny Joseph.

When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple

with a red hat that doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.

And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves

and satin candles, and say we've no money for butter.

I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired

and gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells

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 pickles for a week

and hoard pens and pencils and beer nuts 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 must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?

So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised

When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

This is a great poem. I read it years ago. It's all about an aging woman's longed-for non-conformity. It reminds me of those cool older ladies who love their budgies, add a streak of colour to their hair and might share a toke with their grandson.

What could be more conforming than a "society"? Somebody had the great idea of taking this poem and using it as the tenet for The Red Hat Society. The Red Hat Society is peopled by women 50 and older who think that by dressing alike, wearing purple with their red hats and red gloves is pushing the outside of the envelope. They think they're breaking the mould of what it's like to get older. I beg to differ. They're just reinforcing it.

Here's a quote from Queen Mother, Sue Ellen Cooper

"The Red Hat Society began as a result of a few women deciding to greet middle age with verve, humor and elan. We believe silliness is the comedy relief of life, and since we are all in it together, we might as well join red-gloved hands and go for the gusto together. Underneath the frivolity, we share a bond of affection, forged by common life experiences and a genuine enthusiasm for wherever life takes us next."

I suppose I can see the poignancy for someone of my parent's generation, but as someone from the "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" generation and as someone who refuses to myself middle-aged despite my 47 years - I don't get it.

How about living your life to the fullest NOW; being an individual first. Mixing it up a little before you find yourself old. Instead of longing for permission to be non-conforming - do it now. How can joining a club add to your individuality?

I really shake my head at the Pink Hat society, whose members are under 50 but are obviously ready to wear the mantle of age. To quote a line from the poem, maybe they OUGHT to practice a little now. Maybe they ought to have been practicing a lot earlier to be uniquely individual insteading of waiting to join the club of old age eccentricity.

And to close I'll paraphrase Groucho, "it's a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution"

Sorry - just a rant. What do you think?


Ima Wizer said...

My favorite story about Red Hat Society was a Korean student of mine (who barely spoke English) moved to Washington DC. I wrote to her and asked if she had made any new friends (she was 23 years old) and she told me she'd joined a book club. But, she added, "Funniest thing, they all wear red hats and are much older than I am". Ha! She never missed a meeting and you know they enjoyed her. Her English improved, too.

Susan said...

I'll think more later but wanted to say 'great minds.' Was thumbing through Oxford Anthology Sunday night & there was the poem. Mostly what I thought was, "That damn Philip Larkin included about 3 women in the whole bleeping book." (True.)

Whatever the purple-hatted ladies want to do is fine with me. Lots of'em visit DC & I smile.

The pink hat business...I didn't know. Yikes. It reminds me of a friend who, when we were nearing 30 (!), kept alluding to 'how old we were getting' & how she found it a relief or something like that. Have been working on something to do with it but must call her. (We argue fondly...) But I have told her for many years now, 'cease & desist including me in your Society of the Aged Decrepit, madame.' Thing is I will never, never be that way ('oh I'm so old') even when 85. My grandmothers*, very different people, had one thing in common (other than grandchildren): they weren't like that either--until the very end. Never.

Oooh. You've helped, Puppalina. I mean to get going today. So glad to see this...



* Privileged to know 2 great-grandmothers, one into my mid-20s(!) She was a pain in my rear (& many others) but one thing she was not was a retiring l'il old lady. Practicing with a pink hat would've annoyed her no end.

Poetikat said...

Firstly, I love the poem and have for a long time. I don't necessarily plan to wear a red hat, or purple for that matter, but I love how Joseph flies in the face of convention and just says, basically, "Up yours, Grandad/ma"!
However, I do agree with you about the whole society idea. I can't help but think of Mary Kay ladies or something. What's next? Matching shopping trolleys?!

Brian Miller said...

many a young year is spent being non-conformist...sad we must wait until we are old to get back there...

Rachel Fox said...

I've often wondered how the poet feels about it all. It is what you want on the one hand (to have people know and love your poems) but on the have one poem so dominate your have clubs going about in its name! It must be like that for songwriters who have one big hit and then everything else they do has to live in the shadow of that one piece!

I too like the poem (especially the bit about the stick and railings) but would not be joining a club any time soon. Some people do like clubs like this though and that's partly because they need the safety of numbers to be 'different'. That's not to criticise them for's just an observation. Some of us however find being different only too easy. It can be a pain at times!


California Girl said...

Oh Pup, having just had another bloody birthday that is out of the under 50 group, I will say that the only way to go on without tearing out your hair is to greet it all with open arms. Otherwise, what's the point?

Many momentous changes are happening in my life, all at the same time. When I was younger, they might have overwhelmed me. Now I know I have to deal with them one step at a time, baby steps and I will get through them. Age does bring wisdom. Wish it had come in my thirties!

Wonderful poem & funny photo. I'll quote Bette Davis,

"Old age ain't for sissies!"

Rinkly Rimes said...

You might like the above!

Alistair said...

Hullo C-Pup,

Yes, its a rant, but its a good rant, a fine rant even, and its worthy of bringing attention to the point you make which is that you only have one life, so you'd better make the best of it now while you can.

Its a belief we share in our house and enjoy ourselves whenever and wherever possible. Enjoy life, enjoy family, enjoy friends and to hell with conformity.....

I think Groucho Marx also said 'I would never be a member of a club that would have me as a member'


The Clever Pup said...

Hey Brenda,

Great take on the poem. I love your jaunty pentameter. The picture you use reinforces my distaste.

dogimo said...

I quite agree! But I can still play devil's advocate. :-)

There's something comforting about a uniform, about camaraderie expressed through unity of dress. The mindset here is a shared one, a common purpose, reinforced by a common badge of sorts. And so it isn't nonconformism, by any means - you are quite right to say so. And I agree, it is an odd sort of irony indeed that this group would choose to conform around so contrary a cause. They spurn their own inspiration!

But it needn't necessarily be sad, or bad. The members of this guild seek the thrill of nonconformity, but can't abide going it alone. So they band together as one wayward pack. They do not go their own way, but as a group, they seek to go a different way, together. They wish to eschew the conventions endorsed by the conventional Norms and Normas. If they lack the courage to do so alone, isn't it better they go it together, than not at all?

/devil's advocate

I have several red hats. Oddly, they're the only ones that seem to fit.

Hels said...

Although this poem was written in 1961, I didn't learn it off by heart until 1975. I was at that stage in my life running a spotless home, being a professional worker during the day, and raising talented children in the evenings and weekends.

The poem represented a view that old age relieved women of the responsibilities of child rearing, employment and good financial sense. Yet now I am old, I still may NOT misbehave. When does freedom to misbehave, a bit, arrive?

Tina Tarnoff said...

can I be an old woman, please. now.

Candie Bracci said...

That was brillant!

giulia said...

FYI to those who wonder how JJ feels about it all...there's a prominent photograph of her wearing purple & sporting a large red hat. I think we can surmise that she's pleased.

Speaking as a writer, I can say that being known for one poem is a double-edged thing but it did bring grants, fellowships, & so on to Joseph. Most people do not know even one poem by famous & well-regarded poets (including Nobel Laureates). So...

I think if being part of this group makes people happy, good for them. I love the story up top about the foreign student...that's wonderful.


Einbildungskraft said...

hi Pup, I'm so glad you're back, I took a bit of a breather myself so did not check up on things till just now. hugs and my sympathy for your mom, but reaching 80 is a good life. My mom is 81 and doing well -known as a 'bridge shark' to all that know her. My dad also needed morphine in his last days, but he seemed to have good dreams, which seemed to matche his personality in real life; easy going ... happy ...
new phases. life continues.
I'm glad you're back.

Mrsupole said...

Thank you for the poem, it is great.

I think that everything is relative. You can be a teenager and feel old or basically any age and feel old and the same in the reverse.

I think you are right, it is what you do with your life that makes the difference. I think that there is always a group of something that everyone belongs to, with being part of a family as the most important one for all of us. But conforming to be in a certain group is, I guess, something that one can choose or not choose to do. As long as they are having fun while doing it, might be the most important aspect of these groups.

I truly dislike hats and so will just keep on going as I choose. I have noticed that when I was one age, that I have always thought those who were 25 or 30 years older seemed old. And with each year as I grow in age, I have also noticed that what I once thought was old, no longer seems old to me anymore.

So age is relative. Maybe when I am 100, be I so blessed to reach that age, then I might think I am old, but then again, I might only think those who are 125 are the old folks. Yup, everything is relative.

God bless.

T. Clear said...

I agree with Groucho Marx.

I intend to defy/accept "old age" by remaining a member of a diverse community -- to be as "uniquely individual" in twenty, thirty years as I strive to be now. No retirement villages for me! No categories!

Thoughtful piece, Hazel.

Denise said...

A little harsh methinks.

A generation ago many woman lived in a society that frowned upon outward individual expression, particularly in matters of dress. They reach that certain age where they are largely invisible to society. They think 'What The Hell', I do exist. I'll have fun, be daring, don outlandish little red hats and groovy(?) purple coats, wear them in public (albeit in the comfort of comrades). Anyone under 60 now has enjoyed unparalleled freedoms of many kinds when compared to many in the red hat brigade.

More power to them.

Go for it girls - laugh long and loud and do whatever you want!

And everyone else remember, even Clever Pup, we are all uniquely invididual. Be gentle!

Ingrid Mida said...

Wearing any kind of hat seems to make a statement these days. A hat tells the world that the wearer has a sense of style and confidence. Who doesn't admire that!

Anonymous said...

Just want to weigh in on this and claim proudly that I'm a fun-loving, card-carrying member of the Red Hat Society. The camaraderie that comes with belonging to a group whose only stated purpose is to HAVE FUN is different than belonging to a club with causes. Having a cause is admirable, but having fun is good for the soul and the body! Long live the Red Hatters and the lifestyle they embrace!
Sandy, a Red Hat Diva

Minnie said...

The poem was not written to intentionally persuade "old" people to wear purple with red hats, it was an individual and beautiful expression of how to meet age head on and celebrate age, not necessarily in the same way as others.

Age is also an attitude of mind. You can create a collective of golden oldies together and treat them as past it and they will reward you with
tales of their aches, pains and problems. Play music hall songs FOR them, we all know they 'love' those memories, don't they....?
Or invite them to a party, with some booze and Elvis to Roy Orbison to Adele and they will rock or slow dance with their walking sticks at the ready if necessary!
Talk to them about the subjects that interest you and they will probably know more than you do and fill in the gaps for you.

They probably know far more rude stories than you do and are not afraid to tell them! How do you think we became grandparents? We loved and laughed, too!
Old people are privileged and poor, young looking or well worn, but they are still people and they can often tell a great yarn.
Some wear comfortable clothes as they may have preferred in their youth, while others still seek labels and look smart slways.

Some do not make it to old age, and for that I feel sad.
So face old age with a sense of achievement when your turn comes.
Regardless, do what you can while you can. Be busy if you are able.
Enjoy the younger generations, it's a great mix!
We can become GREAT grandparents, too, by the way
So,you can go and earn those extra pennies.

And I can continue to wear my own personal favourite 'look' which is based on a fuchsia and welcome the Red Hat Ladies wherever and whenever they appear.
Happy 18th birthday to their friendship society!

The Clever Pup said...

Minnie - The poem is meant to symbolize the individuality and power that comes with age. "Up yours" is a valid expression to define the feeling; I'll wear what I want. The Red Hat society is the antithesis of this by creating a "club" for those feeling their bones instead of letting their "freak flag fly"