Sunday, December 17, 2006


I was in a pub in London with my old friend the mad biker King Arthur Pendragon, when a woman came up to us.

“Sorry to interrupt,” she said, looking vaguely flustered, “but I just had to say something. You both have beautiful hair.”

She said she’d been looking at us for a while and that couldn’t keep her eyes off our hair.

What can you say to that? “Um, thanks.” It’s not often you are approached by complete strangers in pubs with comments to make about your hair.

Arthur’s hair is shoulder-length and steely grey, by the way, while mine is silvery grey, and is usually more than a little unkempt.

The last time I had it cut was at Len’s in Whitstable. He asked how I wanted it. I never know what to say when I’m asked that question.

“Make me look like Brad Pitt,” I might suggest, but I doubt if it would work.

When I was growing up there was only one haircut available for a boy: the short-back-and-sides. There was no question of asking how you wanted it done. Whatever you wanted, all you ever got was the short-back-and-sides.

A quick zip with the razor up the back of your head and round your ears, a splosh of brylcreem and that was it.

It made the wearer look like he had just escaped from bedlam.

There was always one lock of hair left standing on the crown of my head. No matter how much I stuck it down with spit, that single lock would always stand to attention again, like a guardsman on duty outside Buckingham Palace.

Later the people of my generation rebelled against all this hair-cutting nonsense, and let our hair grow out wild and free. First of all we let it creep over our ears. Then we let it crawl over our collars. Finally we sent it tumbling over our shoulders and down our backs, letting it all hang out in a cascade of layered significance, stretching the point to monstrous lengths.

They even wrote a musical about it. Imagine that: a whole musical devoted to the subject of hair.

Other people took the opposite course, and shaved their heads. These were the skinheads, and they were the mortal enemies of us hippies. But at least they kept the barbers in business.

Hair had become a social issue. It was a class statement, a declaration of intent. The skinheads would lurk about malevolently and stare at you on the street. If you looked back they would say, "what are you looking at?" and clench their fists. You soon learned not to answer them.

Then there was a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song about hair. I think it may have been called “Almost Cut My Hair”. Dave Crosby lamenting his hair-do, telling us that he had almost considered cutting it for a while. Why did he decide against? Because, he tells us, in a moment of passionate intensity, it is a statement, an act of defiance, a visible reminder of his status as a revolutionary out to change the world.

Hair was a serious issue back then. Hair-revolutionaries marched the streets of our cities and towns, causing mayhem and disruption with their raised hair-consciousness, forming hair-alliances out to overthrow the short-back-and-sides consensus of the hair status quo.

After that punk came along, and hair got even stranger. It started to stick up in pointed shafts like sharpened spears. It turned purple and pink and blue. It got smothered in soap, doused in glue, and shaved into peculiar fronds like colourful sea anemones in tropical oceans.

I think that’s when I gave up on hair. I couldn’t be bothered with hair anymore. It involved far too much commitment. Being a punk meant taking as much trouble over your hair as the blue-rinse ladies did over their perms. Later again, of course, men did start getting perms.

Actually I always wondered how those punks managed to sleep at night. It must have been like going to bed with a deadly weapon. You were liable to wake up with an eye missing.

These days hair is even more elaborate, with spikes and squiggles and geometric shapes, and various parts cut to various lengths, with dyed bits and asymmetric lines and shaved elements and all sorts of novelties to keep the barber’s fingers in trim.

There are more hairdressers on the High St. than there are pubs.

Which is probably a good thing, given that Demos, the New Labour think-tank, have recently suggested that hairdressers should be given a part in the creation of local government policy.

“Our research has led us to conclude that hairdressers are the most authentic voice on the high street,“ says the Demos document, “and they should be given a formal role in urban policy making.”

Ha! Whatever next? Beauticians for housing policy? Masseurs for urban regeneration? Dress-makers for planning?

Come to think of it, maybe it’s not such a bad idea. They couldn’t possibly do any worse.

I was talking about all of this to my friendly hair dresser, as he snipped and clipped behind my ears, being all artistic as usual. I asked him what hair was made of? It’s made of keratin, he told me. And it is covered in scales. That was a very unappealing thought. Who wants some scaly substance creeping about all over your head? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

And then I asked him the Big Philosophical Question: “Yes, but what’s the point of it? I mean, what’s hair for?”

“It keeps me in work,” he answered, matter-of-factly.

So now you know. Hair exists to give hair-dressers something to do with their hands. It’s God’s consolation for people with an artistic frame of mind.


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