Hair Yesterday, More Tomorrow - Valerie Mendes
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Hair Yesterday, More Tomorrow

I used to have lots of it.

Hair, I mean.

I was born with an enormous crop of dark brown hair. I don’t think the people responsible for delivering me – supposedly in a nursing home in Mursley, Buckinghamshire – had ever seen a baby with more of it. There’s a snapshot of me as a small, chubby one-year old gorilla being held aloft by my proud father.

When I was six I remember sitting at our hideous formica-covered kitchen table chewing on the ends of my plaits. Thick and straight and shiny they were, long enough to meet beneath my chin and to be flung back over my shoulders in a petulant rage when I couldn’t get my way. Which is quite remarkable when you think of war-time rationing and worrying about prisoners of war on every street corner. It should have affected the quality of my hair, but it didn’t. I thrive on worrying, see? I now have a PhD in Worrying for England. When I was six, I was already well on the way to getting a starred first.

Somewhere along the plaited line at school, my mother decided I needed to look more sophisticated. I was marched to the local hairdresser. A frightfully modern cropped look emerged which made everyone at North London Collegiate School gasp with astonishment. It took less time to wash and flew all over the place, giving me the startled air of a trapped hedgehog. But my real problem was, I had nothing to chew. So I chose aniseed balls as a substitute, which ruined my teeth and proved to be my waistline’s rapid downfall.

Where was I? Oh, yes … hair.

Washing it while it was that short became a daily ritual with Vosene (you have to be really ancient to remember that) which smelled fresh and healthy, like newly rained-on grass. I then stood over the fan heater in my bedroom and let the waves of warm air balloon the Vosened locks into fabulous waves of hot-air-balloon blow-dried sheen.

On with the latest gear – tight waists, full skirts, high heels – and off to jive with the boys. Those were the days …

When I went (reluctantly) to Reading University my mother (her again) made me have a perm. Remember those? No? Lucky you. They were supposed to give you curls. Girls with straight hair found it harder to find a husband. I tried to tell my mother I was going to university to read for a degree, not get hitched to the nearest pair of trousers, but she didn’t really understand.

The resulting frizz – a polite word for the perm – took months to grow out. When it did, I returned to looking like Liza Minnelli in her prime wrap-your-legs-around-that-chair in Cabaret days. I fancied my gamine chances something rotten.


Several years later, I can’t think why, but everybody else was doing it, I turned my long sleek thirty-year-old locks into an Afro. This was not just frizz, it was Disaster, big time. Nobody at Oxford University Press recognised me. When I went to collect Sam from Primrose Hill Primary School, one of his friends did a double take.

Then he said, ‘New hairdo, eh? … Same old face, though.’

Too right. There’s a photo of me with my Afro in skinny jeans and a T-shirt sitting on Primrose Hill with Sam. To say I look a trifle bizarre is putting it mildly. He must have been terribly embarrassed. None of the other mothers looked anything like so hippy. My hair never really recovered from the shock of the new, either. I took to using henna until the grey took over. The combination of silver and henna turned the chestnut to bright orange, rather like a tortured Christmas tree.

So: where are we today? I’ve given up gamine. My most beloved hairdresser, Nevrus in Woodstock, and his equally beloved colourist, Laura, will not allow me to try to look like Liza Minnelli. Well, I am almost eighty-one. Although I don’t look a day over seventy-five, there are limits to what a girl can do.

So during lockdown I stopped looking. The hair grew. It turned yellow in the sun. Now here I am, a long blonde-haired looking creature wafting about, sometimes with a hat, sometimes without. No plaits exactly (don’t you hate women with tiny little plaits that make you squirm?) and nothing to chew on but nuts and seeds. As for aniseed balls, forget it. The most I can do is liquorice allsorts, the soft ones. Rationed to three a day. Or four if nobody’s looking and I’ve done a good day’s work. Or twenty-five when I’m grappling with page 285 and my villain won’t talk my language. Tearing-my-hair-out-time, that’s what it can be like. Over the years, I’ve had so many problems with storylines, I’m astonished I have any hair left.

But here’s where everything changes. Today, right now, 1 August 2020. Sam’s birthday. I bet I look a lot younger than he does. I can’t think why he doesn’t try henna from time to time.

You see, folks, I’ve stopped caring. I mean, I wash the stuff that passes for hair on my head twice a week. I stand beneath the shower and I’m grateful, what with all those viruses about, to be alive. But the next time I go to Nevrus, Laura and I are going to talk wigs. Not Dolly Parton style. Much more dignified than that. Think the ravishing Joan Collins. Think natural, so you can’t tell the difference. You can buy the wigs online from America, Laura tells me, and frankly I can’t wait. I’ll be the one with the wonderful blonde hair, shining in the sun: immaculate, seductive, with that charming little curl nestling on my nape.

Perfect in every way.

It’ll be our little secret.