Twenty-nine is young to be looking forward to old age. I was saddened last week to read that Jenny Joseph, writer of the perennially popular Warning – better known by its first line: ‘When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple’, had died aged 85. But what really surprised me was that she was only in her twenties when she wrote this poem, which strikes a chord with many of us about the boredom of being a ‘respectable’ adult.
It is, of course, a sign of the times. When I was twenty nine I was still staying out late at night and having fun. By contrast, Joseph’s late twenties coincided with the early 1960’s – a time when people married and started families younger than they do today. The frustrations of a forty-something in 2017 are probably similar to those of a young wife and mother of twenty nine in 1961.
There are other hints which date the poem to a previous era. Being a sensible, respectable adult in 1961 involved ‘reading the papers’ (rather than the flicking through Buzzfeed) and ‘paying the rent’ – nowadays a truly conventional person would, of course, have a mortgage and some Kirsty Allsopp cushions.
Despite this slightly old-fashioned air, it’s still an enormously popular poem. For me, the appeal of “Warning” lies in the quirky, cantankerous ambitions Joseph harbours for her old age. They’re a real ‘have it all’ mixture of wanting to revert to childhood – sitting down on the pavement and running a stick along the railings – whilst also retaining the best bits of glamourous femininity – the satin sandals and summer gloves (again a relic of the fashions of the day), and relishing the prospect of being a pickle-munching, junk-hoarding old crone.
The really interesting thing about this poem IMHO is just exactly why it’s so popular. Despite the advances in women’s equality in the last half-century, feminists are all too often dismissed as men-hating, frigid hags. Lots of younger women don’t feel comfortable describing themselves as feminists. So why has a poem which is fundamentally about refusing to conform to the stereotype of a ‘ladylike’ female been voted the nation’s most popular poem on two occasions?
I suspect the answer is something to do with how our brains work. We’re a story-telling, picture painting species. Journalists and marketers know this, that’s why there’s almost always a case study in every news report or marketing campaign, to bring the facts and figures to life with a bit of human interest. Feminist writers like Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel (both of whom I hugely admire) present rational and passionate arguments about why we should reject patriarchy, yet still vast numbers of women don’t relate to their message. But Jenny Joseph paints a vivid picture of what it would actually feel like to stick two fingers up at the established view of what a woman should be and do, and suddenly everyone gets it. Simple, striking images – a purple outfit clashing with a red hat, picking flowers that don’t belong to you, getting fat in a terrible shirt – are ultimately much more effective than intellectual reasoning.
Which would seem to suggest… firstly that maybe every unpopular or unfashionable cause should consider recruiting a poet or an artist to do their PR for them? (Is poetry the 9th ‘P’ of marketing*?) And lastly- if the idea of ditching conventional gender roles makes us all secretly cheer – perhaps deep down we’re all feminists at heart?
*I know, there were only originally 4 P’s of marketing – product, price, place and promotion. But then they added people, process and physical evidence. And as a charity marketer, I’ve always accepted that philosophy is the 8th P in the NFP sector (See Ian Bruce’s excellent book ‘Charity Marketing’). So you see, this is the 9th. And I’ll shut up now.