I used to have hair on my head, and quite a lot of it too. When I was a small child, it was very blonde, and also incredibly curly. Looking back on childhood photographs, I see a worrying resemblance to the hairstyle of Shirley Temple, the precocious child actress. Thinking about those photos once again, I am prompted to tell you the story of my hair. Despite the sound of it, this is not a fiction piece. However, it is a tale containing humour and history, that ends in tragedy.
I have an idea that my Mum always wanted a girl, although she vehemently denied that. She was very proud of my curly locks, shining almost like platinum in the dull London of the mid-1950s. She allowed them to flourish, to expand, twirling the strands around her fingers in the hope of making the curls even more pronounced. Regular trips to the barber were essential. Not just any barber, oh no. I was taken to the grand department store in London, Selfridges, which had its own hairdressing department back then. Youngsters like me could be troublesome in a barber’s chair, so I was allowed to sit astride a leather horse, as they teased my coiffure. This must have cost a lot of money, at a time when our family didn’t have that much. It shows just how important my Mum regarded the task of keeping me looking my best.
It was never allowed to grow long down my neck or back though. That would never do, for a male child. The end result left me looking as if I had a huge bonnet of almost white broccoli on my head, with the back and sides neatly cut. Strangers loved to comment on my hair, and Mum loved it when they did. I had to stand for inspection as old ladies at bus stops remarked how wonderful I looked, with my curly ‘bonnet’ and blue eyes. If other members of my family remarked on it, I wasn’t aware at the time. This was the age of the ‘short back and sides’; when men had been in the military and kept their hair short and neat, plastering it with Brylcreem or other potions, to make sure that it remained flat and shiny. My own unique style would have been better suited to another century, and marked me out as someone very different.
But it was not to last. By the time I was seven, much to my Mum’s regret, it had turned brown. Suddenly, I looked like so many other schoolboys, as even the tight curls had grown out into a wave-like formation. Instead of the luxury of the department store, I was now taken to the local barber, sat on a board across the chair, to increase my height for him to work comfortably. These 1950s barber shops were the domain of men. Men sat in rows waiting for haircuts, chatty barbers twirled around the customers, flashing mirrors, brushing down clothes, and flapping coverings like bullfighters flourishing their capes. Most customers smoked, and stubbed out their cigarettes on the linoleum floor. Assistant barbers pushed brooms around, collecting multi-coloured clumps of discarded hair, together with the cigarette ends. Departing customers were offered the chance to buy condoms, a proposal not made to me until I had turned twenty-one.
Even then, Mum made sure that I still had a style. She would instruct the barber how to do my hair, before leaving this world of men to do some shopping. The walls were adorned with photos of hairstyles, modelled by young men who looked like pop stars, or successful actors. I was given the high on the top brushed-back style, favoured by many much older than I was. This was hard to manage for a primary school boy, and involved having to use hair laquer to keep it in place, and weekly visits to the barber to keep it looking just right. It was too fiddly for me, so by the time I was twelve, I had reverted to a simple side parting. Around the same time, I began to notice that many of the older men in my family had little or no hair, especially those on Mum’s side. My grandfather was as bald as a coot, and even my youngest uncle had receded badly, seeking to disguise hair loss by always wearing a hat.
When I was old enough to choose my own barber, and a style of my selection, I went to the same man for years. I had a parting, and the rest cut very short, all over. When he suggested using clippers, I remarked “No clippers on my head, Mustapha. I’m not a sheep.” Words that would come back to haunt me. Over the years, I could not deny the onset of what is known as ‘male-pattern baldness.’ By the time I was in my early thirties, the sides were beginning to recede enough to leave a distinctive ‘hair island’ at the front. I abandoned the idea of the parting, and succumbed to the necessity of clippers, asking for a ‘number three’ all over. Within ten years, this would graduate to a ‘number one’, leaving little more than a stubble covering my head.
I could no longer see the point of paying someone to spend five minutes running clippers over my head. Despite the long relationship with Mustapha; chatting over coffee, watching his partners come and go, and seeing his salon develop into the modern age, I regretfully parted company with him, and purchased my own clippers. Mum had never got over the loss of the blonde curls, and hated the new shorn look. Given the chance, she would launch into a nostalgic story-telling of the days when people admired my hair, and how we went on the bus to Oxford Street to get it styled.
Then it changed colour again. First, a combination often described as ‘salt and pepper’ that soon became just grey. Then parts of the grey turned silver, and eventually white. Even though it still covered the majority of my head, the short crop and white colour made me appear completely bald at first sight. Then I was described as ‘bald Pete’, by a friend’s child. Once I heard that, I knew it was close to the end. This year, it appears to have stopped growing, and has remained the same for months. I got out the clippers today to have a trim, and the result was little more than some clippings of dust. I conclude that this is the end of my hair, as I knew it.
So if you are lucky enough to have a good head of hair, look after it, and hope that your genes do not come back from the past to claim it. Whatever you do, never attempt to ‘comb-over’ the missing bits, and on no account ever consider a wig.