A Countryside Dweller’s Guide To Hair

I’m currently growing my hair for the first time since 2001. Some people think growing your hair is merely about not getting your hair cut but it’s actually about buying your hair treats and speaking softly to your hair when it’s angry. Recently, for example, I have bought my hair an original vinyl copy of the third Crazy Horse album and the new Anne Tyler novel, and my hair has seemed quietly but noticeably appreciative of both. We have both now also mercifully moved on and put the time back in June when my hair had a tantrum in Tesco firmly in our past. 

I’ve always thought of myself as a spiritually long-haired person, even when I was short-haired and medium-haired, but for years people close to me and people who think they’re closer to me than they are have told me I shouldn’t grow my hair long because it will look terrible. Admittedly, one of the people who is close to me to hint at this was my mum. Mums are generally absolutely wonderful in almost every way, but you should never listen to their advice on hair, as their sole mission in this area is to sabotage your future happiness. I have felt increasingly content with my hair since January, when I last had it cut. This haircut cost £11, which is the absolute maximum any man should pay for a haircut, since anything good that happens to male hair and costs over £11 is purely fictional.

I’ve been told all sorts of guff about hair over the years, been recommended all manner of nonsense products. The most effective product I’ve used on my hair over the last few years is sea, which is available from all good coastal outlets. If someone claims you can recreate this in a bottle, lock them in a closet and walk away. I find that rain, wind and sleet work pretty well, providing you give them time and accept that, before they work their magic, they need to bring you to your knees. 

“HAIR IS LIKE GRASS,” my dad claimed when I was younger. “IT NEEDS SUN AND RAIN TO GROW.” I used to think this was the wisdom of a lunatic but in recent years I’ve come around to his opinion. My dad’s dad wore lots of hats and was almost completely bald by the time he was 30. I went through a big hat wearing phase during 2009 and 2010, which perhaps uncoincidentally were also years when my hair began to sneak noticeably away from my scalp. My hair has had a minor change of heart and stood its ground pretty well in the less headwear-themed years since then. I still like hats, but tend to only wear them for special occasions nowadays, such as when I’m going to a museum or buying a particularly posh sandwich. I try to allow my hair to fly free on country walks, which, on a windy day on Dartmoor, can give me the appearance of a druid who has just made a disappointing folk record. My dad almost never wears hats and has completed hundreds of country walks, and, at the age of 66, still has a good head of hair, although my mum’s theory is that this is just because he has glued it on permanently with a variety of strong gel sprays. He still uses these, against the wishes of many. “I’VE JUST SPRAYED MY HAIR WITH CONTACT LENS CLEANER,” he announced last year, emerging from my bathroom wrapped in all four of the house’s clean bath towels. “I THOUGHT IT WAS MY GEL SPRAY, BUT IT WASN’T.”

When we see a man in old age with an especially thick head of hair, we often have an impulse to congratulate him. But why? It is not as if it required any skill. Or did it? Perhaps there is a nugget of truth inside the old line “Grass doesn’t grow on a busy street.” My hair was busy and stressed over the weekend, and today it is a miscellany of wool, lint and old wire arranged on and around my head. Contrast this with three weekends ago, when it really took things easy and looked so unusually good I kind of wished I could have taken it off and put it in the fridge until something important happened. Most hair has changeable moods. My friend Seventies Pat’s hair glows golden and huge like a hippie halo at night, gets melancholy in the mornings then perks up and becomes upbeat again the next evening, with the help of a Yardbirds record and some spiced rum. I know only one hirsute man past the age of 30 with 24-7 amazing hair: this is my friend Jay, who has past-the-shoulder middle-parted locks so reliably perfect, he makes All Things Must Pass-era George Harrison look like Ross Kemp. But the word in the local town is that he might actually be a wizard.

I only had one great hair year as an adult, which was 2000. This was after the tight curls that had been my downfall during the mid-1990s had loosened up, allowing me to finally stop looking like Dougall From The Magic Roundabout every time I grew it, but before any noticeable diminishment in thickness. I had several great hair years as a child, but being a child is cheating when it comes to hair. Did I need any poncy conditioner or serums back then? Did I fuck. I washed it with the budget own brand supermarket shampoo my mum bought, put nothing else on it, and looked like I’d just had my make-up done by the same people who did the kid from The Shining’s. 
4 year-old me

All this went tragically wrong when, after thirteen and a bit years with straight hair, I woke up one day in 1989 with a curly frizz that wouldn’t go away. “It’s because of wanking,” said Stuart, a builder I used played golf with in Nottinghamshire. Taking his words to heart, I decided to give up for a couple of weeks, but it wasn’t much fun and, if anything, the curls got worse.

Now, of course, I would like some of the curls back, even though I still have a fair few. Thick curls are very slightly like large breasts in probably this way only: they’re brilliant and a lot of people want them but frequently not the people who actually own them. I lost a few more of my curls in 2011 when I set fire to them on a tealight candle while DJing in a bar in Norwich. One of the problems with walking around in a public place with your hair on fire is that social convention requires you to laugh it up, while inside a fair bit of you is dying. While thankfully the signature smell did dissipate after a day or so, that patch at the front has never properly grown back. People have assured that me you can’t tell but I’m still aware of its absence. A bonus of the psychedelic headbands I’ve been sporting this summer is that they stop me thinking about it, although that’s not one of the main two reasons I wear them. The main two reasons I wear them are that in 1985 I did the same thing – though in a more sporty, less hippie way, it has to be said – for a whole summer and it made me really happy, and that I enjoy dressing slightly foolishly, having done some first person research on the option of dressing non-foolishly and found it unsatisfactory. There are the inevitable problems with these headbands: the people with a narrow frame of cultural reference who mention Axl Rose or Rambo, but I’m not dressing for them, I’m dressing for me, just as, when I treat myself to a packet of crisps, I’m not eating those crisps for someone I barely know who has only ever eaten two types of crisp. Sometimes people also look at my headband and ask me, “Is that ironic?” At these points I always do what everyone should do when a person asks “Is that ironic?” about their clothing and pick them up and throw them in a lake.

Am I overly interested in my own hair? Perhaps, but probably no more so than many other men I know, and, in the moments when I berate myself for my vanity in checking in the mirror whether my hair is looking passable, I take comfort from the fact that I will never be as obsessed with my own hair as I am with other people’s. One of my favourite examples of hair from history is that carefully cultivated by Ann Wilson from Heart during 1977 and 1978: especially during one particular two month period when her fringe was especially sharp. If I had a time machine, I’d love to go back to the period of Charles II and the Jazz Age, but on the way I’d definitely stop in 1979, and, ten seconds before Ann opened the door to the hairdresser’s where she was booked to get the perm that would blight her image for much of the next decade, I’d slip a piece of card surreptitiously onto the appropriate chair in the salon, on which I’d written “WILSON! NO!” in a mock blood-streaked font. If I still often think about the lovely hair of a woman in her sixties I spoke to while foraging on the North Norfolk coast four summers ago: the way its salt-dried, dark grey tendrils seemed to speak of the long, healthy, magical life of a good witch. 
Ann Wilson of Heart (right) in the late 70s

If everyone is a certain percentage gay and I am, I don’t know, say, 7%, I would not be surprised if all of that 7% is taken up in the form of admiring nice hair when it happens to be on men. The Parallax View is one of my favourite films, not least because of the stellar performance in the lead role by Warren Beatty’s hair, and the almost as great supporting one from Warren Beatty. If you added up all the time I’ve spent thinking about the hair of early 70s Warren Beatty and Robert Redford – particularly the way it looked in the first quarter of The Candidate – I imagine it would total out at around a full bank holiday weekend. I could have spent that bank holiday weekend cramming in any number of those activities people are always telling you you have to do before you die but, contrary to what popular wisdom might suggest, I have no regrets.
Warren Beatty in The Parallax View

Touchy-feely shampoos and conditioners with packaging that talks about stuff like “your relationship with your hair” make me want to punch my bathroom door off its hinges, but there do seem to be obvious examples in popular culture of how a greater awareness of your hair can aid that hair’s survival. Perhaps if hair is ignored, it ends up wanting to run away? Mick Jagger has always seemed very conscious of his hair and its need for exercise, which is perhaps why he still has so absurdly much of it, at the age of 72. Or perhaps it is just because he is a singer in a famous band and all singers in famous bands are only 91% likely to lose their hair in middle age, as opposed to guitarists, who are 64% likely, bassists, who are 22% likely, and drummers, who are only 7% likely. 

I’m not sure what the percentage is for writers. Woody Allen was already severely receding in his 30s, but then a few years later his hair seemed to say “Right, I’ll stick now” as if it was playing Pontoon, not being hair. It hasn’t all that changed much since. I don’t know what mine is planning. You can never tell what hair’s next move is. Until about five years ago I didn’t even notice that I had eyebrows. Now they want to annexe Somerset. I am sort of at peace with the idea of letting my hair fly from the wings, Terry Nutkins-style, when it the top bit finally departs, but maybe that’s because I have watched too much archive footage of professional football in the 1970s, which was a period when many of the players in the first division were as old as 63 and proudly balding. Hopefully I’m still quite few years away from that, and in the meantime I am simply enjoying looking slightly more like a magician from the 16th Century than I did at the start of the year. I’ve still got a way to go before I reach full 16th Century magician. It takes patience, especially when, like mine, your hair can often be absent-minded, and wander off on long detours. I have, however, bought my hair a book on magic in the 16th Century and I’m hoping that will help.
Pre-order my new book.

12 thoughts on “A Countryside Dweller’s Guide To Hair

  1. Sea is definitely your friend but also your hair enemy. It can seriously dry your hair out making it prone to breakage. Perhaps prep hair with protective balm or oil before plunging into sea. You'll get all the floofiness you're after with a lot less of the damage. R x

  2. I'm very pleased to see that, having followed your writing for a couple of years now, you're finally coming around to discussing the important things in life. Like I was pleased when I finally saw Withnail & I and the importance of hair was discussed by Danny. I started growing my hair in my teens (obviously), but had a weird period in my twenties where I made an attempt at sensible hair. I was never truly happy during this time. It was hard work regrowing to shoulder length, having weird sort-of-curly-but-not-quite hair, but it was worth it in the end. For a few years I enjoyed my messy, wavy, multicoloured hair (I had natural streaks of near blonde in amongst the various browns), but then things went wrong. It started getting thin. I didn't mind when the grey hairs started making an appearance, and the fact that I'd never quite have the smooth shiny black goth popstar look I was really after, but I'm now at the point where I'm very concious of a bald patch on top which is becoming increasingly obvious. I've since had my hair cut shorter (but not short, not yet) which has helped a little, but the annoying thing is – I don't have anyone to discuss this issue with. A large section of my male friends and famliy are without significant hair, and I'd feel slightly daft moaning at them. Anyone I have discussed it with think I should just clipper it all over and get on with life. I'm not sure I can do this.
    Anyway, good luck with your future hair Tom. Make the most of it while you can. Great article, and thanks for giving me the opportunity to vent on a topic close to my heart.

  3. I think it was 1986 that I went to bed with straight hair and woke up the next morning with curls. I had ringlets for the next decade or so, but only on top! The hair at the back rebelled and stayed straight. And then it all went wrong. An ongoing bout of alopecia areata has left me with hair so thin and wispy you can see my scalp through it, and it's lost almost all of the pigment. A sorry sight indeed! But toujours gai Archy; I have taken to dyeing it whatever colour takes my fancy (no need to bleach since it's white already!) and to hell with it. Just now it's pastel pink, lilac, and aqua; and I am rocking it like whoa. If it ever grows back properly and stays, I'll be thrilled to bits (and will take it for a proper haircut instead of doing it myself with the kitchen scissors) but in the meantime we've pretty much made our peace.

  4. I applaud both your hair-growing adventures and dedication to sartorial silliness. I've been cutting my own hair for years now, and am on a mission to grow it down to my waist. We'll see if I get utterly sick of it before then, but that's the goal for now.

  5. Dear Tom, I think you might be a bit more than 7% gay, and I wish you would not write quite so many things that make me laugh so hard I pee myself. I know having long hair makes me feel pretty and it seems you feel the same way. XOXO.

  6. I do believe you forgot the other half of that quote Tom. It should read " grass doesn't grow on a busy street… but it doesn't grow on concrete either"!
    I last cut my hair the month my beloved sister died from cancer. At the time I had a near pixie cut. Today my hair is waist length. When someone you love leaves you, often times the grieving is so profound that there really is no way to express it even to oneself. Somehow the increasing length of my hair became a subtle but constant reminder of the friendship & love between two sisters raised in a family amongst 5 boys. Some days I can't remember exactly how many years it's been since I've been without my big sister, but one touch to my long braid reminds my heart that it's been a very, very long time.

  7. I am surprised you haven't mentioned Elton John who now has better hair, more of and a different colour to the hair he had throughout the 1970s and 80s – a time during which his hairstyle emulated that of a troll toy.

  8. As an owner of both curls and large breasts, I must be one of the fewer percentage of people who have them that do actually enjoy having them. For years I battled with my hair, running straighteners all over it before I left the house, now I can't remember the last time I used them. Part of this may be due to getting older and becoming a scruffy hippie, but mostly it's because I like my hair doing it's own groovy thing and if it wants to curl, then who am I to stop it?
    As much as I'd like to punch my bathroom door off it's hinges when I see what's written on my [admittedly over-priced nice-ish] shampoo, I'm always stopped by the fact that my bathroom is opposite my front door, and the lack of door would render me vulnerable to the postman seeing me sat on the toilet reading old Viz comics.

    I too have previously set my hair on fire, although this was due to the fact I was an idiot teenager, desperate for booze money and acceptance among my peers, and was offered £5 for alighting a chunk in the pub as a dare. Fortunately for me it grew back, but the dignity and regret at prostituting myself so cheaply did not. This, however, did not stop me from eating a greenfly for another £5 dare a few weeks later. Obviously now I'm older and a little bit wiser, I'd never do any of the previous again, and I'm thankful my hair seems to have forgiven me for being such a tit.

    The other day I saw a kid in town sporting a headband slightly like yours, but whereas yours makes you look pretty cool, his made him look like a cross between the guys from the Matrix and an anime cartoon, possibly due to the massive fringe hanging over it and the long black coat he had paired it with. Stick to wearing yours with flares and I think you'll carry on rocking it.

  9. I have curls and large breasts (and am pretty happy with both) and once set my daughter's hair on fire during a Christingle service. I think this is all I need to add to this debate, having come belatedly to the party

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