TRIBUTE TO JENNY JOSEPH from The Times newspaper obituaries - January 13 2018
(provided by Wanda - Queen Opal, British Red Hatters - Aust expatriate)
For years Jenny Joseph was irritated that the lighthearted diversion she had
written in 1961 would become her main legacy.
It is one of the nation’s favourite poems, but its writer came to hate it.
In Warning, Jenny Joseph tells of a woman weighed down by responsibility who
fantasises about dotty old age when she can wear purple dresses and red hats
while behaving outrageously.
Lines such as “And run my stick along the public railings / And make up for the sobriety of my youth” resonated with anyone who had felt trapped by circumstance or by convention. People who did not normally read poems loved it and passed it on to friends; it became a favourite valediction at funerals. In 1996 Warning was voted Britain’s favourite postwar poem in a BBC poll, beating WH Auden’s Stop All the Clocks and Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. It was praised by John Betjeman and included in The Oxford Book of 20th Century Verse, edited by Philip Larkin.
Yet for a long time Joseph resisted the poem’s rise in the nation’s
affections, blocking its inclusion in anthologies and refusing to read it in
public. A tiny, gregarious woman whose outsize glasses gave her an owlish look,
Joseph could not help feeling irritated that an earlier, almost throwaway poem
overshadowed a more serious body of work.
Critics warmed to her first-person lyrical yet everyday observations, which
were comforting and discomforting at the same time. One critic wrote that “she
can delineate surfaces like a sculptor . . . yet with a startling undertow, a
pull of unease which lies just beneath the texture like an artery beneath the
skin.” Robert Nye wrote in The Times: “She writes poems full of mist and
reason, poems strange in what they say but plain in the way they say it, poems
rooted in an English tradition of passionate but quiet exactness . . . careful
craftsmanship, an honest exploration of the human heart, and statement after
statement that nags at the memory.”
Joseph was bracketed with Robert Browning and Emily Dickinson, but her
sensibilities were challenged when Warning began to be merchandised on tea
towels, mugs and birthday cakes. She was happy enough to pocket royalties, but
she drew the line at the Red Hat Society, which was founded in America and was
inspired by first line of the poem: “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
/ With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.”
The group of women of a certain age who would wear red hats and meet to have
fun in the carefree vein of the poem developed into an international movement.
Joseph never approved of it, claiming that their activities, which seemed to be
a rallying call for feminist empowerment, did not represent what her poem was
The Red Hat Society rather summed up her frustration that the lighthearted diversion she had written in 1961 would become her main legacy.
Jennifer Joseph was born in Birmingham in 1932 to Louis Joseph, an art
dealer, and his wife, Florence. She grew up in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire,
next door to Enid Blyton.
It was a non-observant Jewish household where books were debated at the
dinner table. When she was seven years old she began to write fairy stories and
verse to “hold the world”.
After the outbreak of war she swapped the “polite” countryside of the Chilterns for the wilder, more dramatic terrain of north Devon where she was evacuated, developing her observational powers and a lifelong obsession with watching the light change.
Joseph won a scholarship to read English literature at St Hilda’s College,
Oxford, in 1950 and came top of her year. After graduating she worked as a
journalist then moved to South Africa to write for the radical magazine Drum.
She was asked to leave the country in 1959 because of her articles against the
apartheid regime. Back in London she published her first collection, The
Unlooked-for Season, which won a Gregory award in 1960.
Around this time she met a publican called Tony Coles and married him in
1961. Her husband was by now working in an old people’s home and she became
fascinated by his tales about the strange and solitary behaviour of the
residents. It gave her the idea for Warning. She viewed it as little more than
a “dramatic monologue” and was pleasantly surprised when it was published in The
Listener, thinking that would be an end of it.
In the meantime she brought up three children — Martin, Nell and Bec — and
for a time was the landlady at the Greyhound pub in Shepherds Bush, west
London, which her husband had inherited from his father. Her artistic life
became separate from her marriage, which was increasingly unhappy. In 1971 she
left her husband and with her children was given refuge for six months by a
kindly lollipop lady. Joseph then settled in nearby Acton, in an area
appropriately known as Poet’s Corner.
She was an inveterate listmaker, but her housekeeping could unravel, with
forgotten pans burning dinners to a crisp and food brought to picnics in a
suitcase. She dedicated one of her books, “To my children, preventers of
literature, lifesavers”. She is survived by Martin, a theatre producer; Nell, a
welfare rights officer; and Bec, a carpenter.
Although she formed close friendships with many fellow writers and poets,
she shunned the idea of being part of a literary scene. She was more interested
in passing on her love of literature as a lecturer for the Workers’ Education
Association, teaching people who had not been fortunate enough to go to
university or attend school beyond the age of 15, or even younger.
A woman of strong opinions untroubled by self-doubt, Joseph was an incessant
conversationalist, savouring the words that passed her lips. She could be
exhausting company; listening was not her finest quality. “She was like a bird
pecking at a thought, then running with it, then another association,” said
Neil Astley, her editor at Bloodaxe Books, which published her Selected Poems
In 1974 Joseph allowed Warning to be included in her collection Rose in the
Afternoon, and she began to recite it at literary festivals with a reading
style that segued effortlessly from melancholy and anguished to humorous. On
travelling to the Cheltenham Literary Festival she would gaze longingly out of
the window at the Golden Valley, so she used proceeds from Warning to buy a
19th-century greystone cottage in the small town of Minchinhampton in
Here she embraced the old age she once imagined, describing it as “one race
you can win”. She enjoyed pottering about, but resisted the temptation to
“gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells”, as in Warning. She wrote
from a desk overlooking a crowded garden of honeysuckles, roses and St John’s
wort. It inspired a book about her garden through the smell of each month’s
plants. Led by the Nose became a favourite with the blind and partially
sighted. Joseph herself was blind for the last four years of her life. It was a
cruel blow to a woman whose creativity was triggered by visual observation.
Persephone, written in 1985, was her favourite work, but she became
reconciled with Warning, enjoying the opportunities it afforded her to lecture
and recite throughout the world. “The old woman has been a very good passport,”
she conceded. “I must admit to finding her a bit of a bore. But I’m not going
to disown her now.”
In 1997 she finally gave permission for Warning to be published as an
illustrated book. The poem accompanied her into old age, but the dress did not.
“I can’t stand purple. It doesn’t suit me.”
Jenny Joseph, poet, was born on May 7, 1932. She died of natural causes on
January 8, 2018, aged 85