Jenny Joseph in Minchinhampton, 2009 © Georgie Brocklehurst
The catalogue of the archive of the British poet Jenny Joseph is now available online.
Jenny Joseph (1932-2018) is best known for her much-loved poem ‘Warning’ with its famous opening lines:
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me
It was 1961 and Joseph was still in her 20s when she wrote ‘Warning’ for the newsletter of the old people’s home her husband was working in at the time. It was first published in The Listener magazine in early 1962 and then revised for her 1974 Cholmondeley Award winning poetry collection Rose in the Afternoon. The poem wasn’t an immediate hit but it built up steam through the 1980s in the UK and abroad (particularly in the US), becoming much anthologised, reprinted and re-used, featuring in everything from tea-towels to cancer campaign adverts. The poem took on such a life of its own that the archive includes an unauthorised poster attributing the lines to a mythical ‘Anonymous’. In 1996 it was voted Britain’s favourite post-war poem and it even inspired a social movement: the Red Hat Society, a group for women over 50. (You can find recordings of Jenny reading ‘Warning’ and other poems at the Poetry Archive and on YouTube).
Jenny Joseph was born in Birmingham and raised in Buckinghamshire. She won a scholarship to St Hilda’s College in Oxford to study English, and graduated in 1953. She trained as a secretary and then as a reporter, starting at the Bedfordshire Times and moving to the Oxford Mail. She sailed to South Africa in December 1957 and worked as a secretary and as a reviewer for the leftist newspaper New Age. In February 1959 she had just started teaching at Central Indian High School in Johannesburg when she was expelled from the country for reasons stated as ‘economic grounds or on account of standard or habits of life’ – likely connected to her anti-apartheid views and associations. She returned to London and thereafter lived mainly in London and in Minchinhampton in Gloucestershire.
She married pub landlord Charles Coles in 1961 and had three children while continuing to write, teach English as a foreign language, and lecture in language and literature for the Workers Education Association and West London College.
Jenny Joseph’s poetry was first published and broadcast on radio in the early 1950s on programmes like Thought For The Day and Poetry Please. Her first poetry collection, The Unlooked-for Season, was published in 1960 by Scorpion Press (in 1962 it received a Gregory award for poets under 30). She did a great deal of work for children – writing six children’s reading books in the 1960s, teaching workshops in schools, and in 2000 publishing All the Things I See – Selected Poems for Children. Her last poetry collection Nothing like Love (a collection of love poems) was published in 2009. In 1995 Joseph won the Forward Prize for her poem ‘In Honour of Love’ and her experimental fiction work Persephone (1986) won the 1986 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999.
The archive is particularly strong on business correspondence, with a section dedicated to her most popular poem, ‘Warning’ that includes not only agency correspondence and fan letters but artefacts (from cartoons to quilts) that were inspired by the poem.
Cataloguing was generously funded by Jenny Joseph’s friend Joanna Rose, and by Joseph’s family.