As a boy – under school age – in about 1960, I had a haircut in West London and the barber put Brylcreem in my hair without asking anyone’s permission. (It was all the rage then – the following year it achieved record sales in the UK.) This was my first, and alarming, experience of hair cream; my parents explained that the man had “done it now” and it wouldn’t dry off, but “we’ll get that stuff off in the bath tonight”.
After that they were careful to stop any barber from putting anything on my hair. And in spite of my later curiosity about hair cream and desire to be “one of the boys” and have it on at least occasionally, they banned it completely through my entire childhood. My father never used it.
I often felt I was so far from having grease in my hair, and yet so near.
What if things had happened differently? Suppose my father had been at least an occasional user; both my parents more open to persuasion; and I no less frightened by the first experience but equally no less curious subsequently. What follows is a fictional account of how things might have turned out.
How Brylcreem came to our house
For some time before I was born, my father’s hair had been problematic, a sign of early middle age perhaps; it refused to stay in order without a lot of water and careful grooming. One day, as a business trip to London approached, he announced to my mother he was tired of “water-plastering” and was going to try “going back to Brylcreem”. He’d stopped using it after the war.
I used to watch him shaving and we would talk about everything from razors and blades to fingernails. A jar of Brylcreem was always on the shelf and the smell would fill the bathroom on the morning of every departure for London. I showed little curiosity about it, however, beyond asking my mother one time, after he’d just left: “Mummy, why’s Daddy’s hair all shiny like that?”
“When Daddy goes to London he puts grease in his hair,” she explained. “It keeps it tidy. In London you have to look very neat and smart.”
This was all the encounter I had with hair cream in my very early years. I was introduced to the world of haircutting at a women’s salon in nearby Drayton that had a section for very small children.
Kensington, Summer 1960
Business must have been thriving for my father. In Summer and Autumn 1960 we had a long stay with my grandparents in London while he did a short commute every day.
Somewhere in West Kensington one afternoon, I had my first visit to a barber shop. My father and I were done at the same time – which meant he couldn’t keep an eye on me the whole time. Just when I thought the ordeal of cold steel and electric clippers was over, I felt my head being smothered with something cold, oily, strange-smelling and (to me at the time) frightening. I made a noise of some sort, because my father’s attention was attracted – but the deed was done.
After a moment I was less frightened and upset than puzzled. What ever had the man done to me and why was my hair suddenly like this? I left the chair and returned to my mother in silence, fingering my head.
“Coo,” she said. “That looks very smart and shiny!”
“What’s this stuff…?” I asked anxiously.
“It’s grown-up stuff, darling. Grease!”
“It’s the same stuff I have,” my father explained. “A bit like wetting it, only grease doesn’t dry off. Your hair’ll stay like that till it’s time to wash it.”
“They should really have asked us first,” my mother added. “But it’s too late now, the man’s done it…”
In the Underground I saw my gleaming head reflected in the darkened window and touched my hair again, all over – across the top, down the sides and back. My twin sister Alice was curious and fingered my head too.
“Nice isn’t it? You look just like a grown-up man!” my mother commented.
“Why have I got this stuff on?” I asked.
“Well you see, darling, that shop’s very different from the one in Drayton. It’s for men and boys only. The mothers who come in are all from London. And they like their boys’ hair to be very stiff… and shiny… and smart. The man knows they all want grease put on so he thought we wanted it too and just didn’t bother to ask.”
I stroked my hair again. “Feel a bit strange, does it?” my mother asked. I nodded. “Don’t worry, we’ll get it off next time we wash your hair … Or perhaps we should wash it tonight. What do you think, Ed?”
“When’s the next wash due?” asked my father.
“Not for three days.”
“Leave it till then. It won’t hurt.”
I awoke the next morning, and the morning after that, with my hair as greasy as before. It was strange having it combed instead of the usual vigorous brushing. (“Your hair’s got grease in it so we’ll just give it a good comb-through.”) The smell and feel of hair cream became very familiar and would remain a vivid memory.
The scheduled shampoo took place. Nothing more was said until the next haircut was coming up.
“Is it the same shop?” I asked my parents.
“Yes, it is,” replied my father. “They gave us both quite a nice cut last time, so Mummy’s taking you there again.”
“Will I have grease again?” (I wish I could recall how I sounded: anxious or just curious?)
“Yes, probably,” my mother replied. “Unless it’s a different man.”
“Why don’t you tell him not to?” I asked.
“Well, darling, with all the other boys having grease… it’s a bit difficult to ask the man not to, you see. You don’t really want to be the only boy who doesn’t have grease, do you? People would laugh at us. It’s easier to let him put it on and be done with it. You’ll have to put up with it, I’m afraid.”
I said nothing. I hadn’t liked the first encounter with hair cream, but was over the initial shock and partly resigned to whatever London life demanded.
The second Kensington haircut neared its end. Against expectations the barber turned to my mother and asked: “What would you like on, madam? Spray, brilliantine, grease?”
It must have been difficult for my poor mother, never having been inside a barber shop before, sitting among all those wealthy mothers and feeling she was being watched. She had the chance to prevent a second greasing but didn’t take it. With only a moment’s hesitation she replied: “Er… grease, please!” (It was the only one she knew anything about.)
The barber relentlessly smeared my hair with grease once more. It was a bit less alarming than the first time. I made no protest.
Once again there was no hurry about washing it off. I began to think of grease as something nasty, frightening and imposed from above…
My mother did nothing to dispel this. On one hair wash night she saw me trying to part my hair, just rinsed and very wet. She fetched a comb and slicked my hair neatly with a quiff, then let me look in a mirror.
“You look as if you’ve got grease in your hair!” she said.
“Like in the shop?” I must have sounded calmer than I was. The word grease filled me with dread.
“Yes, like a London boy!”
“Are we going there again?”
“Well, it depends. We’re leaving London soon, Daddy doesn’t know when exactly. We may be going to the same shop or we may be back home, and going to the shop in Drayton.”
In the event there was one more visit to the Kensington barber. The same man did me again, clearly remembered me, and this time greased my hair without seeking permission. I managed not to react.
“That’s the third time you’ve had grease, isn’t it?” my mother said casually. I was fingering my head as before. “You must be getting used to it by now.”
I wasn’t so sure. “Why do I have always grease on?”
“I’ve told you. It’s a London shop so you’ve got to have it like all the other boys.”
Perhaps I was, in a sense, getting used to grease – the business of having it on for two or three days at a time, the feel and smell of it, the way it changed the routine. But I found the subject perplexing. And I knew that if my hair was greased, for whatever reason, my parents would never try to prevent it.
Back in the country: the rule is laid down
In the next few days, as the Autumn set in, we returned to the country… only to find that the salon in Drayton was about to close. My parents had to choose another place quickly, feeling anyway that it was time I had started having a “real man’s haircut”. My father tried, and they settled on, an establishment run by a Mr Jackson.
As my mother and I approached it for the first time, I noticed a large sign across the front window and asked her what it said.
“It says ‘Brylcreem’,” she replied.
“It’s hair cream. Grease, like you had in London… It’s the one Daddy uses, actually.”
“Will I have it here too?”
“I don’t know yet. We’ll have to wait and see, won’t we? I’m sure it won’t be quite like London. The man’ll probably ask me first and I’ll say no this time.”
“Why will you say no?”
“When we were in London we had to look smart, so you had to have grease in your hair. Here we don’t, and as long as you’re tidy you don’t need grease.”
The regime was indeed different here. Mr Jackson had a choice of spray, brilliantine, lotion, tonic, hair oil and probably others, all in addition to Brylcreem. He seemed keen on hairdressings and, as the sign suggested, Brylcreem in particular, but was careful always to ask the customer’s preference first and never to go against parents’ wishes.
“Would you like Brylcreem or anything else on, madam?” Mr Jackson asked.
“Er… no thank you.”
I felt little comfort, however. As we left the shop my mother said: “Quite an interesting shop, isn’t it? All those coloured bottles and jars.” I agreed but sensed that if Mr Jackson could use something from one of those bottles or jars, he would.
My mother meanwhile, after another visit or two, became a little suspicious of the shop, believing its hygiene standards to be lax, and muttered about dandruff in the combs. A shampoo after every haircut became mandatory.
Curiosity overcomes fear
For the time being I could have my hair cut at Mr Jackson’s without any prospect of having my hair greased. Nor was there any likelihood of one of the other products he offered. My hair was left without any kind of dressing, even on my first day at primary school.
But for as long Mr Jackson displayed the Brylcreem sign, and I went to his shop, anything could happen. The switch to Mr Jackson was one of a number of new events that slowly began to influence my parents’ very fixed policy on hairdressings.
When I started school in January 1961, I at once began to see other boys with greased hair, and was reminded of London. My parents had talked of “a few very strict parents” who made their boys have grease, giving the impression they were all Londoners; but this proved misleading. Our village wasn’t like London, of course; only a minority of boys in my class had grease on every day. But after two terms it was hard to think of a single boy whom I hadn’t seen with grease on at least once. Clearly, in every household hair cream was available; and every boy could be made to have it on when his parents thought fit. How long would it be before my parents followed suit?
The initial trauma of Kensington had passed quickly, but I still thought of grease as something grown-up, frightening and to be dreaded; something that, once it was on, would never dry off. I was very aware of the presence of hair cream in our house, and shuddered at the thought of one of my parents suddenly grabbing me and smothering my hair with it, even though they were apparently determined not to use it on me.
My worries were accompanied by speculation. What would it be like to have greasy hair most of the time, or even every day? Could I live with that? Did other boys like it or hate it? My curiosity was growing.
I tried to make sense of it all by asking my mother: “Mummy, why do some boys have grease all the time and some only sometimes?”
“Well now… Some boys have hair that’s difficult to keep tidy, so their mummies put grease on to make it stay in place. Other mummies make their boys have grease only when they need to look very smart, on special occasions. A few very strict parents make their boys have it even if they don’t need it. And some boys never have it at all.”
I already knew the last statement wasn’t true. “I’ve thought and thought, and I don’t really know any boys that never have grease!”
“None at all – in the whole school? I can’t believe that… Why are you asking anyway? You had grease on once or twice when we were staying in London and you didn’t like it. Have you changed your mind?”
“I don’t know – I just don’t want to be the only one who never has grease.”
“I see. And do you like the idea of having your hair greasy all day?”
I was unsure what to say.
“I’ll talk to Daddy if you like and see if he’ll let you have a bit of his just now and then. But I don’t think he will – we don’t want you to have stuff in your hair, in spite of what happened in London.”
Unsurprisingly the idea came to nothing. My father saw no need for hair cream now we’d left London.
Dreams and daydreams
Uncertain as ever when I would next have grease in my hair, if ever, I began to have dreams about it – recurring dreams.
In one, an old woman with a cruel face who suddenly has responsibility for me pushes me in front of a basin and proceeds to smother my hair with grease. There is a vague memory of asking why all this is happening, and her telling me I’ve “got to have it” but not saying why. Who is she? An aunt who’s become my guardian after my parents have died?
In another, a stern uncle takes me for a haircut and orders the barber to put grease on my hair. I cry hard and get a stern reprimand and, once outside the shop, a sharp smack. Again, the reason for it doesn’t become clear. Is he a guardian too, with a son or sons of his own, treating me the same as them?
A third dream is different again. I find myself in a posh hotel in a vast city, presumably London as I know no other at the time, and among grown-ups who are all younger than the people in the other dreams. I assume they were grown-up cousins, though none resembles anyone I know in real life. At any rate I know them all about equally well. Some are charged with looking after us younger ones. I feel apprehensive because a special occasion of some sort is clearly about to start, and that almost certainly means greased hair. I’m right – but the experience isn’t as nasty and frightening as I expected. The beautiful cousin who baths, shampoos, dresses and finally brings me before a large mirror can’t understand why I’m anxious about having my hair greased; but she doesn’t bully me. Firmly but gently, she gets me to stay still and greases my head thoroughly. I emerge with my hair immaculate, fingering the gleaming streaks nervously, my nostrils full of the strong smell, feeling brought into line but ready to face whatever is next.
I daydreamed too, imagining situations in which I might get to have grease in my hair.
I thought of a classmate who had grease every day; imagined him coming to stay at our house; wondered whether my mother would respect his parents’ wishes and grease his hair regularly, and whether I would be allowed the same treatment…
I imagined people other than my parents being in charge of me for several days and taking a very different attitude to grooming and hairdressings: older cousins, nannies, minders, aunts and uncles, grandparents, neighbours, parents of classmates, teachers, all greasing my hair if they thought fit.
I had visions of Mr Jackson slipping out of his rigid routine and making the same “mistake” as the barber in Kensington; and sometimes, less probably, my mother fearing embarrassment as she once did in Kensington and telling him to grease my hair.
In the real world meanwhile, in Mr Jackson’s shop to be precise, a new acquaintance was soon to disrupt the policy on hairdressings.
We were sitting next to a boy my own age who had just had his hair greased. I couldn’t help turning towards him and stretching my hand towards his head. My mother saw at once and said to the boy’s mother: “Sorry, he’s a bit curious about grease. I think he’d like to touch your boy’s hair. Can he?”
“Oh. All right…” said the mother. “Pete, d’you want to let this boy touch your hair a minute?”
Pete obliged. I fingered his gleaming head for a moment. More than a trace of the Brylcreem came off on my fingers. For an instant I relived Kensington.
“Don’t you put anything on his hair then?” asked the mother.
“No – not at the moment. We’re, er… thinking about it.”
“Oh, I see. Pete has it every time – definitely!”
It so happened Pete and I were back for our next haircut at the same time one Saturday morning. The two mothers greeted each other and made small talk while he had his hair cut.
“Anything on, madam?” Mr Jackson asked when the job was done.
“Yes, please – the usual.”
I watched as Pete’s hair was smeared with grease and groomed immaculately.
His mother turned to my mother. “What about your boy? Is he having grease this time?”
“Oh no, we’re still thinking…” She stayed silent about what had happened in Kensington.
“Why don’t you give it a try? See what it’s like.” Then to me: “What about you, dear? Would you like to have grease in your hair? Like Pete?”
I was so unsure about the subject I dared not give a straight answer.
We got to know Pete and his parents, Mr and Mrs Berry, well enough to exchange minding and shopping sessions and for Pete and me to play together. One Saturday morning we met at the barber’s and my mother shopped for both families while Mrs Berry minded us both. With my mother gone, Mrs Berry leaned over and asked me in low tones: “So, Richard, are you going to have grease this time then?”
“Mummy and Daddy say I mustn’t.”
“Wouldn’t you like to? I think you’d look very nice with Brylcreem in your hair…”
Minutes passed and it was almost my turn. She leaned over again. “When the man’s finished, and if your mum’s still not back, shall I ask him to put grease on? Give your mum a surprise?”
Under such pressure I forgot the consequences and said “All right!” but immediately wondered if my mother would find the surprise pleasant. The moment came and, my mother still not back, Mrs Berry said “Yes – same again, please”.
Mr Jackson was understandably cautious. “Are you sure, madam? This one usually doesn’t have anything…”
“Today’s different!” Mrs Berry replied.
Thus it was that Kensington now wasn’t merely relived; it was repeated. I’d remembered the smell and feel of Brylcreem when I touched Pete’s hair but almost forgotten what it felt like to have my hair smothered with it and combed to perfection.
My mother returned a few minutes later. She was startled. “Hullo, what’s this? Grease!”
“Pete’s had it, so I thought Richard might as well too,” Mrs Berry explained. My mother’s vague talk of “thinking about it” meant Mrs Berry wasn’t aware how strongly my parents were against hair cream.
After that they were wary of the Berry parents, thinking them not a little “grease-happy”.
After that, too, Mr Jackson kept to his routine of always asking first but was inclined to be more specific. Instead of “Anything on, madam?” it tended to be “Brylcreem again, madam?” My mother never quite lived down Mrs Berry’s high-handedness; the offer of Brylcreem was refused consistently.
Children as smart as the grown-ups: the rule broken
In the Spring of 1961 a grand family party in London was announced, a gathering so large it was, according to my father, unlikely to be repeated. Alice and I were told we’d be attending, being just old enough for our first grown-up party.
My mother told us about it in excited tones: “Granny and Grandpa will be there of course, and all your aunts and uncles and nearly all your cousins. It’s at a very grand hotel, so everybody’s got to look very smart indeed – especially children. They’ve got to be as smart as the grown-ups in fact. So we’ll be buying you new clothes and shoes specially. Mummy’s going to have her hair done. We’ll do Alice’s with a pretty ribbon, or perhaps get that velvet band you wanted. Daddy’s going to put grease in his hair of course. And Richard – you’re going to have grease in your hair too!”
“Yes, darling. Now… normally I’d ask you if you’d like to have it, but I’m afraid this is such a special occasion that you’ve got to have it whether you want to or not. Do you understand?”
Late on Saturday afternoon my hands and face were scrubbed, new clothes put on, and the big moment loomed. My father wasn’t around but must have briefed my mother carefully, for she herded me into the bathroom and unscrewed the jar of Brylcreem with a confidence you wouldn’t expect from someone doing a thing like this for the first time. I’d been full of anticipation and couldn’t help feeling a little anxious now it was actually going to happen.
“Right, keep still a minute…”
And a second later her hands were rubbing in the cold, oily cream. It took her only another moment to wash her hands, then the comb was going all over my head