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).


With 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, fulfilment, and fitness while supporting Members in the quest to get the most out of life.


I’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.


5 Responses

  1. Do you know the famous sonnet by Pierre de Ronsard?

    Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
    Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
    Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant :
    Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’étais belle.

    Lors, vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
    Déjà sous le labeur à demi sommeillant,
    Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille réveillant,
    Bénissant votre nom de louange immortelle.

    Je serai sous la terre et fantôme sans os :
    Par les ombres myrteux je prendrai mon repos :
    Vous serez au foyer une vieille accroupie,

    Regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain.
    Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain :
    Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.

    Carpe diem, as the other poet said. We have but little time to stay, And once departed may return no more . . .

    1. And gather roses while ’tis called today – lovely Bernard – thank you

      Of His Lady’s Old Age
      When you are very old, at evening
      You’ll sit and spin beside the fire, and say,
      Humming my songs, “Ah well, ah well-a-day.
      When I was young, of me did Ronsard sing.”
      None of your maidens that doth hear the thing,
      Albeit with her weary task foredone,
      But wakens at my name, and calls you one
      Blest, to be held in long remembering.

      I shall be low beneath the earth, and laid
      On sleep, a phantom in the myrtle shade,
      While you beside the fire, a grandame gray,
      My love, your pride, remember and regret;
      Ah, love me, love, we may be happy yet,
      And gather roses, while ’tis called to-day.

      Translated by Andrew Lang.

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