The first column I ever wrote was for a magazine called Options, “the most exciting new magazine of the Eighties”, now relegated to the great Tit-Bits repository in the sky. The date was 1983 and the piece was titled, courtesy of a sub-editor from the Ken Dodd Academy of Punitive Puns, “Hair Today . . .”
Every time I enter a hair salon, be it Damien of Dalston or Sassoon of Sloane, I get the same feeling. It’s not exactly sinking — like 3.30pm at school, when you know the dentist will see you at 4 — nor elated like the sight of a loved one wearing suede elbow-patches at Euston; but with its mixture of fear, hope and blind faith, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the feeling you get just before your waters break.
In the 37 years since mine last broke (which happened, incidentally, in a cheese shop in Hampstead) nothing has changed that feeling in me, or my bulbous follicles. My relationship with hairdressers has been, and continues to be, a litany of split endings.
The truth is, even a great hairdresser is at a disadvantage. They can only cut your hair to be perfect in a week’s time. Immediately post-haircut, you’re more likely to look as though your head has been sharpened, your neck elongated and Michael Gove has just engaged you in a long conversation.
Sometimes, on tour, I pop into a strange salon and get a terrific cut. Perhaps the first time an “artist” sees your face they recognise the proportions truly. Next time, you schmooze, “Just do what you did last time! My hair was incredible, even after hot stone therapy and an hour in the hamam.”
This time, though, the genius looks only at their last great work, not at you. And two hours later you’re in the toilet at Starbucks, £120 poorer, pulling futilely at individual hairs to stretch them across your tears and vowing never to lay eyes on that genius again.
I’ve recently let my hair go grey. It was a process rather than a transformation. It meant allowing years of highlights, lowlights and serial pigment abuse to fade into the palette of a catalogue from The White Company. No more checkered roots, no more leaving the salon with a dense magenta fez and one orange eyebrow. My friends haven’t noticed, my nostalgic daughter preferred it before, and me — I rather like it.
Most of my peers remain loyal to bleach and ammonia, and resigned to spending two hours a month, in twisted tinfoil, looking like an electrified lemur. Joan Collins is perennially dark macchiato, Lesley Joseph keeps her feathers brunette while Elaine Paige, Felicity Kendal and Joanna Lumley remain as platinum, tobacco and honey-hued as a Calvin Klein throw on a Bactrian camel.
I wasn’t always so accepting of my 50 shades of grey. Before filming The Pianist in 2002, director Roman Polanski, who was notoriously anti-wig, posted me to Paris to have the pigment removed from my hair. It was a Sunday and neither Jean Luc nor I wanted to be there. It took seven hours and turned my brown human curls into pewter-green horsehair. I wept on the Eurostar and insisted on wearing a grey wig in the film.
Though initially Polanski could barely speak to me, one morning he strolled on to the set and purred, “That wig is fantastic. I don’t know why you didn’t want it in the first place.”
But embracing the grey has meant more recognition. I don’t mean, sadly, in career terms. I mean public recognition in John Lewis and M&S, and while picking up Basenji droppings in Hyde Park. “If you’re who I think you are, I wanna thank you for all the pleasure,” said a burly, bald geezer in shorts. “You’re looking great!’ he added, kissing my hand and chops in succession. “And always remember” he yelled as he ran back to his white van, “a dog is always more reliable than a man.”
Sometimes, hair can be so revealing. Casting my eye around the Wigmore Hall, I noticed two Grenfellian women, perhaps a decade my senior. One had hairgrips propping up a 60-year-old style choice and the other had carefully combed and sprayed the front and sides of her charcoal bob, while leaving the fuzzy back in a perfect representation of last night’s sleep pattern. It moved me almost to tears.
Meanwhile, hair is a pain in the bun from cradle to grave; source of malcontent between mother and daughter; feminine allure that must be covered by Muslim and Orthodox Jew alike; explanation for tantrums in follically-challenged footballers.
But what is it actually for? Over to you, Mr Chambers: “Hairs regulate the body temperature by reducing heat loss from the skin and trapping warm air next to the body.” There. And you thought it was just the subject of a 1960s love-rock musical.