When I am an old woman

Years and years and years ago, when the whole concept of old age was a rather abstract one for me, a friend told me that my death would make the news. Not because I’d be famous, but because I’d die spectacularly. His words. Words that lodged themselves in my subconscious alongside Dylan Thomas’s poem Do not go gentle into that good night.

Some years later, I read the famous poem by Jenny Joseph, When I am old, a poem that inspired the international Red Hat Society. Back in 1997, in California, Sue Ellen Cooper gave a copy of the poem along with a bright red fedora to her friend as a present for her 55th birthday. Some months later, in spring of 1998, Sue Ellen and five friends got together for afternoon tea, dressed in purple, wearing red hats. Today, this is the garb of choice for members who have reached and passed the stellar age of 50; those approaching it dress in lavender and wear pink hats (one of the reasons I never joined – pink just ain’t my colour).

pink_red2With tens of thousands of chapters around the world, this global society of women ‘connects, supports and encourages women in their pursuit of fun, friendship, freedom, fulfillment, and fitness while supporting Members in the quest to get the most out of life’.

oldage2I’ve known a few Red Hatters in my time. They’re wild women – fun-loving, exuberant, each with their own particular streak of madness, determined to make the most of life. I saw a chapter on tour in Venice once and it was quite something to watch. I know a few other women, too, who have been dressing in purple for far longer than they’ve been 50.

Anyway, to the poem:

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 sandals,
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 pickle for a week,
And hoard pens and pencils and beer mats
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 was always rather taken by this poem but recently, I came across an alternative  that got me thinking about whether I really wanted to eat myself silly and hoard things and run the danger of being locked up for running my stick along public railings. Written by Jan Etherington back in 2013 for a piece for the Express on Unstoppable Octogenarians, she titled it The Announcement. It goes like this:

When I am an old woman, I intend to be
Sought out by the young, keen to be seen with me.
Curious and aware of life beyond my door
A stranger to ennui, a lover of Dior.
Age shall not wither me, while moisturising creams
Keep tiny lines at bay and lubricate my dreams.
Frequently in Tuscany, fabulous with flowers
Erudite and witty, closeted for hours
As confidante and friend to those who make the news;
Something of an  expert on both rhythm and the blues
Marvellously funny – with an enquiring mind
Glamorous and chic – and stunning from behind.
Busy with new projects, on to the next page
It will be said about me “She’s great – for any age.”

And with all due respect to JJ and the revolution her poem inspired, I so much prefer this version.


Back to Bratislava…again

IMG_1998It’s hard to say what it is that keeps taking me back to Bratislava… apart from second-time visitors to Budapest wanting to broaden their horizons. For some very strange reason, I’m in love with the city. I don’t think I could live there though… yet there’s something strangely cathartic about getting off the train after 2.5 hours of journeying through the Hungarian and Slovakian countryside and stepping into the world of John le Carré. It’s like being back in the Cold War…or at least what I imagine being in the Cold War would have been like.  It’s not the best side of the city by any means. Generally hustling with all sorts – backpackers, touristy tourists, local commuters, shoppers, and the usual hang-abouters that come with every train station – it’s far from picturesque. Concrete just doesn’t cut it when it comes to atmosphere. Still, though, there is something in the air. Slovakia joined the eurozone in January this year and I missed that bit of excitement this time around. There’s something rather magical about getting used to new money; the temporary suspension of reality when you just spend and hope for the best, having tried in vain to come up with an easy denominator to make the calculations easy.

The No. 13 tram takes you down into the old town – the historic centre – and close enough to my hotel of choice, the Kyjev. The lift takes minutes to get to the top floor and when you step inside, you step back in time about thirty years. My imagination runs riot and again, I can see spies around every corner. I love it. Nothing has been touched in years. This is in sharp contrast to the old town, where modern sculptures have been plonked in random places.


I’ve been to Bratislava four times now, and each time have made a valiant effort to light a candle in the Cathedral. Only it’s never been open to the public. I’ve been on varying days – Monday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday and each time it’s been closed. Right next door to this rather splendid tribute to Catholicsm, is a far more intriguing building that is overshadowed by its neighbour. Personally, I think it has more character; better reflects the mood of the people; and for me, symbolises the arty side of old age. If it were a poem, it would be Jenny Joseph’s When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple. You have to hand it to the Bratislavans – they take any and every opportunity available to art it. The day I was there, we came across a bunch of lads who had just taken part in choral competition. While waiting outside on the street to be summoned for their photo call, they started singing. Beautiful a cappella. The jury is out on who enjoyed it more: the singers or those fortunate enough to happen past at that moment. That is Bratislava. You never quite know what’s around the next corner. It’s not somewhere to spend a week – a day and a night is plenty – yet no two days or two nights are quite the same.