Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The bald truth at last

I saw a beautiful catalogue of wigs at Maggie’s. They looked most inviting in a women’s magaziny, American TV show sort of way; pretty tip tilted noses peering out from teased golden haystacks, wispy fringes and highlights that look as if they cost a city banker’s bonus. I was tempted to buy one but received an NHS referral to get one for free.

I was directed to a little specialist shop near Paddington station. I stepped into a gloomy old place that smelled of mice and was quietly ushered into the far back. It was a real wig makers, since 1899 it said over the door, with hunks of nylon hair hanging over polystyrene skulls on stands.

I was seated in a small side room and attended by an elderly cockney woman, of the sort you might expect to see assisting Sweeney Todd.

Her face was immobile under its make-up, her own hair very yellow like a farm girl in a musical. She didn’t look at me, smile or show any sign of interest as she plonked a large black wig in front of me. I put it on and from what I could espy from under it, it was the Cathy McGowan, dressing up for a 60s party wig.

I asked to see something else. She sighed and slowly went out and got another. This one was long, thin and streaky, and made my head very tall and pointed.

“You’ll need to get it cut,” she said hopefully.

I asked for something shorter. Where were all those snappy, chic things I had seen in the catalogues?

“You want it flicky do you?” she said and went out again.

She came back with a bushy bunch of acrylic that seemed to have been chewed. I shoved it on, feeling that I had to make a decision quickly as I was obviously being a nuisance.

We had advanced to the 1980s with this one and I now looked like Sheila Easton.

“It’s a bit rough at the back,” I said. “That’s because it’s flicky.” She said.

I said OK, desperate to end this unpleasant situation and she brought out its black box, marked “Rene of Paris.” What kind of shyster was he?

I asked if someone in the salon might trim it, and trim me, as I had decided to get rid of the rest of my hair.

“He’ll charge you,” she said, “and you’ll have to wait.” Obviously the answer was no.

“You’ll need products to clean it,” she said. “You can buy them here for £16.50 a bottle. You’ll have to clean it every ten days when it gets heady with your sweat.”

She used that odd pun several times.

Well I’d seen worse. I’ve seen some black women in wigs that look as if they have died of drought. As wigs go it was OK, glossy with some red lights, just not perhaps the right one for me.

I put it on and left hastily. The whole undignified process had taken about seven minutes. If she had a nice range of glamorous wigs out there, she wasn’t going to let me see them.

Outside I felt sad and deflated. In shop windows I seemed to be leaning forwards under a small bear skin, the men who used to wear the full bottomed type in the old days must have been tough, and the thing felt as if it was lifting off, like an over tight egg cosy.

I decided to get a grip and go to a proper hairdresser to get it sorted out.

In Kensington, where I worked and played for nearly twenty years, I trundled up Old Church Street, towards Tony & Guy’s, my hairdresser in the last century.

I was surprised to see that most of the shops and restaurants I once enjoyed have now gone, not just upped sticks but boarded up. The salon was still there, but almost empty.

I was relieved to be able to hide away quietly, taking my wig off to show my horrible patchy pate to a young man called Josh. I asked him to trim the wig and take off the rest of my hair.

“I’ve never done this before,” he said and began to snip tentatively at the thick dark fringe on the wig. His scissors seemed to blunt to manage the thick fibres. I wanted him to hack at it, turn it into a Liza Minelli, but all he managed was to shorten the fringe a little so that I could peer out.

He then very gently applied an electric razor to my head. It wasn’t traumatic, I didn’t feel as if I was going to the gas chamber, it was very gentle and I was amazed at the result – we both stared as my white skull appeared and it looked really good! My ears are perhaps my best feature, like little pink shells, and there they were in all their glory. I looked ten years younger.

Leaving the salon a girl on the front desk said that her mother had been issued with a wig four years before, when she had breast cancer. “She never wore it, as she couldn’t get on with it,” she said.

Would I come to terms with mine, wigs are somehow very defining things, forming a large part of your visual identity. Would this one say something nice about me, or just sit there like an unhappy stranger. Giving it a sporting chance, I stuck it back on and went to meet a friend for lunch.

Waiting for her in the sunshine with a glass of rose, the waitress glanced at me sympathetically, the way you do at any woman forced to wear a Busby, as you know she must be odd, bald, or Joan Collins. It wasn’t doing very well, at least not if it was supposed to look like authentic hair.

My friend liked it. “Very glamorous,” she said, “I hardly recognised you.”

This gave me a boost and picturing those women in the catalogues I felt transformed into a very forthright, powerfully maned go-getter, someone not to be trifled with. We argued about politics for awhile, I heard myself putting my case strongly like one of those well coiffed women on Question Time.

Several old colleagues turned up and lunch became very jolly. I felt Busby start to slide sideways, took it off and placed it on my knee like a lap-dog where it gradually filled up with bits of roquette, stray frites and biscuit crumbs.

I went home in my head-scarf. The wig is still in its box. It will come in very useful if any more good omens turn up in the coal-hole.

In the evening, to the National Theatre to see Danton’s Death, starring Toby Stephens. (How does he manage it to looks so youthful when he’s been around for years?)

A tortuous, teenage rant from Georg Buchner, written when he was twenty one, against the inevitability of death and the pains and disappointments of staying alive. Of course I now know which I would recommend now but at his age I felt the same, and young Georg is a Germanic Adrian Mole.

The play is also stuffed with wigs, at least the baddies all have them. Robespierre, played in the predictable constipated way, wears something like a white split tin loaf on his head, while the goodies all espouse natural, free flowing romantic locks.

The Age of Reason led to the death of wigs powdered and au natural, and for some reason they have never been taken seriously since.

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