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I have a cousin in Scotland who decided a year or two back to let his hair grow, perhaps in honour of his shaggy Highland forebears. He decided that from his chin to the top of his head no cutting instrument should again lay its blade, and now he is wonderfully bearded and hirsute, and several inches taller than he used to be, and in the gloaming looks almost the same from in front as from behind.

“Laurence,” I said to him one day,”I really find it hard these days to remember what you really look like.”

“Miles,” he said to me pityingly, “This IS what I really look like. What I looked like in the old days, and what you look like now, is an unnatural look brought on you by the use of razor, scissor, tweezer and trimmer. If you want to look that way, fine. But don’t go round saying it’s natural, or that it’s the way you really look. Hairiness is the natural look.”

These wise ( and crushing ) words came back to me this week when I saw reports of a new cure for baldness. There have been remedies for baldness before, of course. All my life I can remember seeing advertisements for toupees and wigs and sewn-in tresses and instant thatch, often with close-up photographs of people’s scalps looking like Scottish hillsides just after the Forestry Commission have planted a regiment of baby fir trees.

But all that was rather drastic. This new cure for baldness seems to be rather different. You just take a pill. By and by your hair starts growing again. Indeed, hair may start growing again in places it hasn’t grown in for years, which will be wonderful if you have always wanted a hairy chest.

Except that, as cousin Laurence would point out, there is one basic flaw in all this. You can’t have a cure for baldness, because you can only have a cure for illnesses or diseases, and baldness is not a disease. Baldness is natural. It’s what happens. Nobody ever talks about finding a cure for left-handedness, or for shortness, or for hairy nostrils. Baldness is what happens when your hair stops growing, just as shortness is what happens when your body stops getting taller, or death is what happens when life has finished. All quite natural. You may reverse some of these, but you can’t cure them.

All men know this. It doesn’t make any difference. All men know that certain brave men have gone against the flow and become famously bald. No man follows them. Yul Brynner flourished on baldness. Balding writer Richard Boston even wrote a book with the title “Baldness Be My Friend”. Telly Savalas was famously bald. So is Clive James and so, of late, is William Hague. But I don’t think any of them did it through choice, except perhaps Duncan Goodhew, the swimmer, who no doubt had to shave his hair off initally to go faster through the water and thereafter could not let it grow again because nobody would recognise him when he came on chat shows if he had lots of hair.....

Well, many men have had their hair cut like Elvis or the Beatles, maybe even like David Beckham, but did anyone ever go to his barber and ask for the Yul Brynner or Duncan Goodhew look ? Did anyone ever copy the most defiantly bald man that I can think of, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson ? “Cleanhead” was a blues singer who boasted in many of his songs that his clean head gave him added sexual potency and unbelievable success with women. We hairy listeners all laughed and felt secretly that maybe he was right and our own lack of success might possibly be due to having too much hair, but none of us ever copied him. Man’s vanity is such that a man who marketed a cure for men’s hairiness would never make a profit.

I myself am beginning to go thin myself, and though I am proud of the fact that I have not a single grey hair on my head, it does weigh on me occasionally that I shall never have more hair than I have now, and always probably less. And it was brought home to me most forcibly when recently my son looked at my hair critically and said:

 “Daddy, when you lose all your hair, will you be dead ?”

I assured him that I would be not. And I believed it as I said it. But the trouble with most of us men is that, deep down, we think we will be.


The Independent October 28th 1999