116. Of folly and follicles

Not sure that this story has anything to redeem it, bar telling the truth. Forcing the shadow further out into the light.

Harking back to my teens, I built up a thick emotional armour. By the age of 17, I was able to wield humour as the easiest technique for avoiding confrontation and pain. Protection for as long for as the humour could be maintained.

A massive over-use of sarcasm was another method. A third was pretence at aggression, by developing a ‘tough’ look for those situations where instinct said you might blag it.

Like most teens, I lacked self-knowledge, context and perspective. The most articulate explanation for these barriers, the best that I could have spat out, on a good day, would be that others had hurt and shamed me in formative years. And that nobody must ever again be given the chance to repeat this.

The absence of somebody to whom I could unload anxieties, without feeling shame, was always a crippling handicap. It felt hopeless to even think of asking for it from males, despite the excellent friendships forged in Birmingham. My father and school had put paid to that. Women were an obvious source of sanctuary, and Saxon’s affections had cleared up the notion that I might not be lovable. But trust? I could never begin to tell her fully about a problem that steadily yanked up my worry levels.

I was gradually losing my hair. Had been since the age of about 15. I had a thick thatch of auburn locks, shoulder length, aligning comfortably with the early 70s’ fashion. But hair would fall out when combed, or washed, especially the hair above my forehead. It was so thick that a centre parting generally hid the recession eating into either side. But, by the time that I was 20, the worry that my receding hairline would eventually open up new vulnerabilities had begun to form.

The word “baldness” carried distinct stigma at this time. A minus from your masculinity.

Real men were hirsute, in the culture and myths I moved in. Exceptions, such as Yul Brynner and Telly Savalas, were sparse. I lacked their confidence, or any bluffing skills. Fitting in was the aim. But it didn’t work out.

Some fine people were fucked up by the challenge, not least Bobby Charlton, whose reputation as a footballer was almost matched by the image of his hair parted somewhere below his left ear, and swept across his bonce. Bob would run with the ball, his hair flapping in the wind about a foot above his head. Ralph Coates at Burnley, and then Tottenham, was the same.

To have been born two decades later, when it had become perfectly fashionable to crop your hair close, would have been such a comfort. By contrast the blokes sporting a ‘number one’ in my second decade were making one statement alone – you’re going to get your head kicked in, pal!

Punk began to redress this angle to some extent, although bald heads were still seen as a sign of over-intellectualism. At the other end of the scale was Buster Bloodvessel, the frontman of ska revival band Bad Manners, whose cropped scalp spoke of mind-less violence.

It took until the age of 20 for somebody to notice and point out that I was going bald. A German guy in a bar in Spain, who enjoyed a minor chance to put down a Brit. I gave a brave smile, but felt a surge of inner panic. What taunts would people dream up when this became more apparent?

My unease had made me visit the doctor some months previously. He said, in admirable frankness, that some people developed pattern baldness, and it was untreatable. Not good enough, doc. My incipient hair loss was mentioned a second time in a pub, back in Brum. Again, I feigned nonchalance, masking fragility and the fear that I was headed for new upsets to compare with the serial teasing endured as a young teenager.

Generally, the problem stayed sealed in my head. Occasionally people would enjoy a little mickey-take, not knowing the anxiety they stoked. I would ask barbers and hairdressers if they had ideas that might combat new inroads into my self-esteem. To a man they said – some guys go bald. Nothing you can do. I even ventured my fears to Saxon once, which brought the reply that I would look sweet with a bald head. Not the reply I wanted. It should have been, but deep-seated dreads were at work. Fears of inadequacy.

After my 21st birthday, I saw an ad for a trichologist in Birmingham. A well-named profession. I paid a visit to a salon in town, where the promise was held out that my situation could be halted, even reversed, with a palate of lotions and potions, and a £5 consideration each week.

For about six months I tried this. Without noticeable effects. Didn’t tell a soul, of course, to save myself a mocking. Steve Hudson-Parker upped the ante. He used to rifle though my drawers while I was at work in the summer of 1978, and found said lotions. He was well aware of the embarrassment I felt, and let others know.

Looking back, I can see that I became quite mentally ill due to what some others would have considered a trifle. I stopped having my hair cut, because my forehead seemed to grow incrementally larger each time. I was 21, then 22. Times of youth and strength. Instead I stopped going swimming, as this was another ‘give-the-game-away’ activity. It got worse. I started to fear the wind, for its ability to blow my hair all over the shop and expose my worst secret.

The best thing would have been to stroll into a barbers and have the lot cut off. Instead I stumbled on, even standing Saxon up on a Northern Soul evening as I stepped out of the front door and felt a gale scatter my fringe (Blog 8). It was an agonising time, all the more so as I felt unable to share the problem.

Have you ever felt that if just one matter could be taken care of, taking away the pain, the rest of your life would fall into place? I was heading fast for a fall, which came in the shape of a tabloid advert for hair transplants. I cut it out, wondering what it would entail. Eventually, curiosity prevailed, and I asked the company, based in Ilford, Essex, to get in touch with me.

Arriving home from a lecture one afternoon, shortly after finishing with Saxon, I found a guy waiting outside the house. Chain-smoking Gauloise cigarettes, he promised to fill in what I had lost. For £500. I was unprepared for the visit, and agreed too quickly, failing to ask basic precautionary questions.

At last I told somebody – my parents. But only because I possessed just half the money required. I was impressed by my dad’s non-interventionist attitude. He simply said: ‘Handsome is as handsome does. But if you really want to go through with this, we won’t stop you.’

A week or so before my finals, I turned up at the clinic in Ilford. I departed a couple of hours later, on a boiling hot day, with a bobble hat on and new rows of (my own) hair implanted in the front of my head, either side of the widow’s peak. Sitting on the train home I felt insane.

Back up to Brum, where I wore the same hat to take each of my final exams, so that none of the transplant work could be seen. I had not thought this part through, and so had to find a reason for the hat, a reason that might convince friends. There was no way in the world that I could admit my cowardice over losing my hair, and so I invented a story.

A can of weed killer had fallen on me in a shed at the golf club, and taken away large patches of my hair. Only a transplant would put this right, medical experts had said. Even now I shake my head, wondering how I could have come up with such a crock of shite.

While others anticipated their degree ceremonies, I went home to Essex and waited for the new hair to grow through, and for a second lot to be put in place. I lived in a kind of threshold world, where one day in the near future I would look the way I wanted to once again. I would re-enter society, be strong again. All would be well. Jesus.

The key issue was waiting for the new hair (taken from the back of my head) to grow long enough to blend in with the rest of my barnet. My parents must have gone through hell watching their son’s distress. Mum was anxious about me in hitherto unwitnessed ways. Dad asked if I fancied working at the golf club, out with the green staff and behind the bar. Money was still a requirement, so I said yes please.

Making things more traumatic, I was quickly disappointed with the operation. I took the view that more transplants were needed to provide an optimally authentic look. But that would cost. I felt let down and misled by the clinic’s slick sales techniques. At a deeper level, however, I knew that responsibility for my own actions was essential.

Worse, it was dawning that as my hair continued to fall out in the coming years, I would need even more work done to maintain the facade. A circling nightmare of my own making, with no easy exit. That said, it was also a time of great kindness from many people. Some had obviously been told by mum and dad, and hardly anybody indulged in piss-taking. And when I eventually started socialising with friends again, people limited their references to my troubles.

As my new purchases settled down, three options were available. Let them grow, and leave them alone. The downside being that they would look ridiculous as I got balder. Second, pay somebody to somehow take the implants out. But I couldn’t be sure that whoever did that would take the care to provide a smooth job, with minimal scarring. In the end, I asked my local doctor if he could arrange an operation to remove the transplants. He said no way, and proceeded to give me – and later my mum – a lecture on my folly.

Thirdly, to shave my transplants. As the years went by, I increasingly chose this option, and used a masking cream to hide the shaven hair and the scars left by the operations. Plagued by considerable self-loathing, I wrote a letter to all of my best friends a few years later, telling the truth about the whole procedure. But I could never really shake off the feeling of having placed myself at the social margin, a freak who fucked up and tried unsuccessfully to hide his errors.

Eventually, after I had begun to feel particularly low again in my late thirties, Maureen phoned an electrolysis specialist in Wickford, who agreed to see me. Then painstakingly removed my implants over the course of about six months. She carried out an excellent job, for which I remain grateful. For the first time in my adult life, after nearly two decades, I finally lost the self-consciousness about my hairline.

Coming out on the other side of the process perked me up inestimably. Ordinary, natural things became huge joys. No more fear of the wind. Letting the sun tan my head without worry. Cycling and running. The boost was phenomenal. It made me hungry for company, and more interested in the world. It also helped me to step back from the story. A big plus, as John Madden pointed out, was that the main victim of my folly was me.

The whole escapade was so bizarrely mad that I wonder if it was meant to be.





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