Judging by the queues which are outside hairdressers’ and in particular, barbers’ shops, it seems that the biggest priority for most of Britain (after seeing friends and family, possibly) is to have a hair-do. Are we a nation obsessed with vanity and appearance? Is it about mental well-being, feeling pampered? Or just wanting to look our best now that we can go out and about? It’s been interesting on social media to see the natural hair colour of several friends and acquaintances – I wonder if they will remain ‘au naturel’ or return to the dye? I used to hate the thought of going grey, but have discovered that I didn’t need to be tweezing out the grey, whilst at the same time paying for the hairdresser (sorry, Kate) to put in blonde highlights when they are just about the same colour as my natural tone now. That is to say, grey. Or ‘Christmas hair’, as my granddaughter, Maia-Tlws, once described it. Loved that! And I don’t dislike my grey hair, either – it’s pretty much a badge of honour by now.

But, talking about appearances, somewhere along the way I absorbed the thought that having long, straight hair at a certain age wasn’t ‘the done thing’. That it ‘draws the face down’, or ages you. So I had loads chopped off each decade, and a couple of years ago, went as short as I dared at the time, to chin level. Over the last year, my hair has grown back at a rate of knots, as you can see from the photo here. (Yes, it was a joke from our family lockdown challenges, though probably not too far from the truth of legs unseen and unshaven for over 12 months. A bear emerging from hibernation would be less hirsute.) And I’ve found that I’m enjoying having long hair again, even if it does age me or doesn’t quite suit the wrinkled face now. (Not inviting any comments here, by the way!) I like having the swoosh of hair down my back even if it isn’t the thicker, silky hair I had in my younger days. I actually like having long wet hair after a swim in the mornings, and I usually don’t find time to use a hairdryer so let it dry naturally. And I’m incredibly lazy about spending time on hairstyles even outside of a pandemic, so it suits my nature, if not my appearance, to just pin it back most of the time. Yes, long hair is staying with me for a while yet.

Actually, I’m becoming my grandmother Rachael when I think about it. She was known for her blonde hair down to her waist for almost the whole time I knew her. Her trademark style was to coil it at the back and pin it up – always neat and stylish, and with a religious weekly visit to one of her daughters-in-law who was a hairdresser. When I stayed with Nana, I loved seeing her unwind the coil until the locks tumbled over her back. If I’d behaved myself, I was allowed to brush it. It would then be plaited for going to bed, until the next morning when it would be reeled up and round again in a few deft moves. And I remember the shock and disappointment when I visited her and discovered that she’d finally had the whole lot chopped off and was sporting some short, permed curls at the back of her head instead. I was honestly in tears. I think she had been having trouble lifting her arms up and it was definitely time for her to change her routine – though fair play to her, it lasted until she was in her 80s. She gave me the plait – still thick and luxurious. I wish I’d kept it, or at least a lock of it. Though it went to a cause more important and was used in some wig-making for a charity helping people with hair loss.

See some extracts from ‘In sickness and in health’ about this very topic of the importance of hair!

…And my mother when she insisted on home perming it when I was at junior school and into my first year at senior school. That’s how it was then. There was this sort of contest amongst the mothers on our estate as to whose child had the curliest hair, and who could do the best home perm with the product in vogue – Toni. No-one could afford to have a perm at the hairdresser’s and anyway why on earth would you when you could do it perfectly well yourself?

     My two aunts would take the 303 red double-decker bus with driver and conductor, destined for Newcastle from Ashington, and would stop off at Guide Post, whereby the female cousins would be subjected to the annual pre-September new school year communal perm-in. The three sisters concocted their brew in a pot, stopping only to add smoke from their Consulate ‘tabs’ (‘Menthol’s much better for your health, you know’) to the acrid ammonia attacking our hair and stinging our eyes and overpowering the Yardley Sea Jade perfume. I can still hear the crackling sound of the perm papers being wrapped around tiny plastic pegs like those used to clamp babies’ umbilical cords.

     The sisters had it down to a fine art, like a surgeon asking for his operating instruments.

‘Paper…no, more paper…yellow curler. Small blue one…this bit is proving difficult…got to keep an eye on the time…clip please…’

          I would inevitably be embarrassed by the end result, and would always risk trouble on a Vesuvian scale, trying to cut out the perm as soon as I dared. There are school photos to attest to my woeful hairdressing skills. It wouldn’t have been quite so bad if my hair had been long and curled, but on the basis that head-lice were rife at school, and my mother thought that short hair was easier to manage to keep them at bay, my precious pony-tail worn high up on my crown was garrotted and the hair was layered, and then curled or waved. Think Margaret Thatcher meets Jo Brand. (And to make matters worse, this hideous hair was complemented by dark blue butterfly-winged specs fashionable in those times, worthy of being coveted by Dame Edna Everidge, plus dull blackish-silver-coloured braces on my rabbit front teeth.) Indignity heaped on indignity, as whenever my hair was washed it had to be set in rollers to avoid looking like the crazy scientist in Back to the Future. There surely must have been warnings about home perms for children in the women’s magazines of the day, but if there were, they were treated with hubris. And they were all at it. If it happened nowadays there’d be a call to Childline….


…I’d been keeping my right leg fuzz-free – particularly important when so many people are scrutinising your other leg. Never understood which style guru in which era decided that shaved legs on men would raise questions about femininity and unshaven legs on a woman would raise questions about masculinity.

     I can vouch for the fact that the mushroom management of a leg injury (keeping it in the dark and feeling c**p) does not impede the growth of leg hair. The left leg was positively ursine. But at least a bear is expected to have excess body fat and hairy legs. As to the skin on my leg, it could only have won a reptilian beauty contest, and the Stinking Bishop yellow tags of skin hanging from the sole of my foot, were peeling off like they were allergic to me, begging me to yank them. But I didn’t think I should add to the burden of the hospital cleaners. And I didn’t like touching my foot yet…


2 Comments. Leave new

  • Marie Harvey
    7th May 2021 6:30 pm

    That certainly brought back memories. Toni perms and the papers, clips and terrible smell. Encouraged by my dear mother, I went for a perm at a hairdressers and came home looking like one of my mum’s friends and I was only 15. Put my head straight under the cold water tap resulting in frizzy hair for months. I gave in and bought a wig!!

  • Julie O'Donnell
    7th May 2021 6:32 pm

    Glad I wasn’t the only one! Though sad that someone else suffered the same indignity! I can still smell that perming lotion…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.