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 relentlessly, in long sweeping movements. My hair was combed carefully, with a razor-sharp left parting and a neat quiff, once again “just like a grown-up man”; the smell was still overpowering and a bit frightening.
Presently my mother said: “Now come and look in the mirror!” We went on to the landing, and in the tall mirror I saw my head, dark and smooth and gleaming. Presently Alice was there, reaching up to touch my head in fascination.
It felt suddenly very different from the barber shop. I wasn’t being watched or pressured and knew my parents approved of what was happening, just for once. I felt less dread and more of a thrill.
At the party, I was almost but not quite the youngest boy. I stroked my hair from time to time until my mother whispered: “Don’t touch your hair, darling, you’ll get grease on your fingers”.
My appearance didn’t go unnoticed by one or two of the many relatives. I was allowed to wander about on my own and met Aunt Erica.
“Hello, Richard. You’re well turned out tonight. I like the bow tie.”
“It’s special for this party.”
“Is it now? And what have you got in your hair?”
“Grease. Mummy and Daddy said I must have it, just this once.”
“Only this once? Oh, there’ll be other times I’m sure…”
This, like other short conversations, put new thoughts into my mind. I began to conceive of a different life – less restricted, more sophisticated, freer…
The next encounter was with Uncle Ben.
“Richard! You’re looking very sleek… and smart… Is that hair cream?”
“Just like Timmy. Do you have it often?”
“I never have grease because Mummy and Daddy say I mustn’t, but they say today’s different.”
“It certainly is. Why do they say you mustn’t, though? Timmy has grease quite a lot.”
“Does he? Every day?”
“Just when he needs to look good.”
“And does he like it?”
“Ask him, he’s somewhere around…”
I was slowly gathering new ideas and perspectives. Uncle Ben had suggested grease wasn’t to be avoided as my parents made out, and his opinions were generally respected. Surely he couldn’t be wrong…
I managed to find Timmy. “I thought you never had grease in your hair!” he exclaimed.
“It’s just for this party.”
“Oh… Have you had grease before?”
“I have actually – just a few times.”
“Do you like it?”
“Well I think I do… Do you have grease all the time?”
“No, just when Mum and Dad say so.”
“Do you like it?”
“It’s all right. Don’t think about it much, to be honest.”
When we got home my mother said: “Well, there you are, your first grown-up party. I’m glad we went to a bit of trouble with your clothes. Everybody said you looked very smart.” I fingered my hair, still immaculate after the long evening. “And you’ve had grease in your hair for a party for the first time,” she added.
“Will there be another party soon?” I asked.
“I don’t know – there aren’t any actually coming up. I expect there’ll be something some time, but it won’t be as big and grand as today.”
“And will I go? And will I have grease again?”
“Well… We’ll have to wait and see what comes. We’ll decide whether you need to have grease. Remember you only had it this time because it was a very grand and special party. It doesn’t mean you’ll have it every time.”
I went to sleep wondering about the future. Until now grease had been a forbidden thing, and the rule had been broken only occasionally and unintentionally; but what had been done once could be done again. Meanwhile I felt I’d cleared a barrier. I hoped I could remember forever how my hair had looked and felt that night: a memory to cherish, like the party itself, for there seemed little prospect, and no guarantee, of it all happening again.
High summer at school and the school photo
The summer term brought warmer and drier weather. A few more mothers were tempted to send their boys to school with grease in their hair, now there were no hats or hoods to spoil the style.
My curiosity grew. At a certain point I asked my mother again why I was being treated differently, and she replied: “Now, I know some boys have grease in their hair from time to time, and for no special reason, and you probably still wonder why you’re not having it too. But you see, a lot of mummies and daddies put grease in their boys’ hair whenever they feel like it, and it ends up being greasy nearly all the time. That’s not good for it – grease makes your hair collect the dust, and the dirt… Do you understand?”
“Good. So we need to have a sensible rule and keep to it. That means no stuff in your hair unless there’s a really good reason, like the party in London for example. Just very occasionally we can ignore the rule. Then you have grease just the one time. But we mustn’t get into the habit, do you see?”
Towards the end of the school year, individual school photographs were announced. My parents opted for photos of each of me and Alice and also one of us both. And this led to the matter of personal presentation, and a surprise announcement.
“We’ll do it like the party in London – a little something special for each of you. Alice, you can have your hairband again.” (The velvet hairband had been purchased, used at the London party but afterwards put away for the next special occasion.) “And Richard, you can have grease again! How’s that?”
We both agreed. Very slowly I was getting used to having grease, especially with very little warning. All three photos came out rather well and were treasured ever after.
Another exception to the rule – carefully considered no doubt, and presented in terms that weren’t to be negotiated. The basic rule against hair cream remained firmly in force, however, with me having no idea when it would next be relaxed, if ever.
Charles and Rose
This was the status quo when, that Summer, Alice and I stayed with Uncle Charles and Aunt Rose; my first time away from home. They were on the other side of my family and hadn’t been at the London party. Their son Alec, as it happened, was quite close to me in age; he too had a twin sister, May, Alice’s contemporary of course. There had been a frequent exchange of family visits during which the girls and we two boys had found common interests.
Charles’ and Rose’s new and strict policy on grooming had been clear from their last visit to us. Alec had come with greased hair for the first time. May’s long, fair hair was tied back very tightly and (it seemed to me) rather cruelly, as I’d been used to seeing it hanging loose.
My parents were well aware of the regime. My mother briefed me thoroughly: “Now listen carefully, darling. As you know, Alec has grease in his hair from time to time. And Aunt Rose will almost certainly want you to have it too. That’s basically all right with Daddy and me, as you’re on holiday and probably going to some smart places. But you’re not to have it too often, understand?”
“Yes, Mummy.” I wondered whether they had said anything directly to Charles and Rose.
It seemed not. Early on during my stay, an evening out was announced that required smart dress and grooming. Alec, May, Alice and I were dressed carefully by Aunt Rose, who spent long minutes on May’s and Alice’s hair.
“Right now, Alec to the bathroom first!” I watched Alec have his head smothered with grease and combed to perfection. I became deeply worried. And presently it was: “Now Richard…”
“Aunt Rose,” I asked anxiously, “will I be having grease a lot while I’m here?”
“Why not? You want to look smart like Alec, don’t you?”
“What’s wrong, dear?”
“Well, I… at home I don’t have grease.”
“Don’t you? Alec started having it some time ago – last time we came to see you. Haven’t you started yet?”
“Well… no. I had it in London and once for a party and then at school. But Mummy and Daddy say I mustn’t have stuff on my hair. They said it’s all right while I’m here, but not too often.”
“Oh. We didn’t know about this. Why do they say that? And what’s ‘not too often’ mean?”
“They say it’s only for grown-up men, so I mustn’t have it.”
“I know it’s made for grown-up men, but you can put it on boys’ hair too. Now, what about your friends? And Alec, and your other cousins? You see them all from time to time. They have grease in their hair, don’t they?”
“Well yes. But only sometimes…”
“If you’ve seen other boys having grease, it can’t be all that terrible. Alec has it whenever we’re going out so he looks smart. Wouldn’t you like to be smart too? It wouldn’t be fair if he had grease and you didn’t, would it?”
“No, Aunt Rose…”
“Right. Now your mummy and daddy told me you wash your hair every three days or so, is that right?”
“Good, that’s the same as Alec and May. So I’ll put grease on now. We’ll wash your hair as usual after three or four days.”
Aunt Rose, ever fair-minded, treated me exactly the same as Alec. That meant a heavy dab of what I at once realised wasn’t Brylcreem: it was colder, thicker and oilier and stronger-smelling. Brilliantine Cream it was called, a Boots own-brand. I tensed as I felt it being rubbed in – so thoroughly I thought it would never wash off. (Charles and Rose favoured it, they said, because it lasted longer than other brands. After four days our heads were as greasy as ever.)
I was allowed to look in the mirror at my gleaming head and stroke it.
“You look really nice, because you’re dark, like Alec,” Aunt Rose commented.
I could only pray the shampoos would be timed right and I wouldn’t be going home with my head looking like this. And what if my parents found out some other way that Charles and Rose had had their way? Could I convince them I’d been pressured and not simply given in to temptation?
It was a good month’s stay, though as I’d predicted there were so many trips out that I had my hair greased almost all the time.
The night before I left, a routine bath and shampoo took place. The timing seemed perfect.
But the following morning I suddenly felt Rose’s hands rubbing Brilliantine Cream into my hair. I was too shocked to say anything. All she said was: “There you are, Richard. Nice and smart for Mummy and Daddy.” There was no point saying anything. Aunt Rose, like the Kensington barber, had “done it”.
My mother’s welcome was at once followed by: “Here, what’s this stuff in your hair?”
“Aunt Rose put grease in my hair to make me smart for you and Daddy,” I explained.
“Just this morning? I trust you only had it one or two other times while you were there?”
A stream of confession followed that somehow still hid the full truth: “Aunt Rose said I had to, she said I must get used to it, she said it wasn’t fair if Alec had grease and I didn’t!”
“I see. Now how many times did you have it?”
The full truth wasn’t far behind. “Well – when we went somewhere.”
“And you went out quite a few times, didn’t you? And didn’t you tell Aunt Rose we said you mustn’t have stuff on your hair too often? Do you remember what we told you?”
Of course I did, but didn’t know how to respond. I could only prepare for the inevitable punishment.
“It’s all right, darling. When I said ‘not too often’ I wasn’t very clear. Aunt Rose was only trying to be fair to Alec. Daddy and I are looking into this whole business and one of us will talk to you soon. But in the meantime you mustn’t let other grown-ups – anyone in fact – put stuff in your hair, especially without our permission. All right?”
Only one answer of course. The subject wasn’t mentioned again until well into the Autumn, and mercifully nothing intervened to raise it.
The next development was more surprising, and in a way more startling, than anything so far.
My sixth birthday was approaching. My mother announced the arrangements, invitations were circulated – and then she said to me: “Now, as a special birthday treat, would you like to have grease in your hair?”
“Can I? Really?”
“Yes, darling. You’re going to be six after all. Daddy and Mummy still don’t want you to have it, not regularly anyway. But you’ve been very good about not pestering too much, so we thought we’d put some of Daddy’s Brylcreem in your hair, as a treat.”
The birthday party was a great success and improved my standing not a little. I felt a new kinship with the boys who came, also with their hair greased, Pete among them.
First school concert
From time to time our school put on concerts, under the energetic management of Emma Hutchinson. The first one I took part in was in the village hall on a Saturday night towards Christmas. There were numerous rehearsals, but nothing much was said about dress and presentation until the night approached.
Then we all took home a message to our parents, asking them to see we were all clean and wearing the prescribed shirts, shorts, blouses, skirts and polished shoes. And among other things all boys were to use hair cream.
My mother was annoyed. “They shouldn’t try to force us like that. We’ve decided you’re not to have anything in your hair. I ought really to ask for you to be let off… But if they’re insisting on it I suppose we’ll have to let you – but only for this concert, all right? Once the concert’s over, no stuff in your hair.”
The statement was already sounding a little hollow, but I was in no mood to appreciate this at the time.
My mother’s skills next day were as good as on the day of the family party. She greased and combed my hair to perfection and once again let me look in the landing mirror.
“Mrs Hutchinson should be pleased…”
And pleased she was. Down at the hall, she was inspecting everyone thoroughly. A few dirty faces and fingernails were scrubbed, and a few more hapless boys got their hair greased there and then. But when she got to me she declared: “… And Richard looks perfect. Clothes exactly right, and hair cream too. That’s what we like to see – well done!”
The concert was an unqualified success. People gathered in each other’s houses afterwards and no one lost an opportunity to congratulate the youthful participants.
There was time for a bath before bedtime, but my mother said: “We can wash your hair now if you like. But would you like to leave the grease in your hair a bit longer and wait till tomorrow night? That can be your reward for giving everyone a lovely concert!”
It was spontaneous, and still rare, generosity of spirit; a better reward, and more memorable, than sweets or even extra pocket money.
The Christmas season itself
A further episode in the Christmas season was to undermine the no-hairdressings policy. Towards the end of the autumn term there took place the school Christmas party. For some practical reason, on the actual day Alice and I were dressed appropriately and minded by a local family, the Baldwins (wealthy as it happened and mindful of good grooming and dressing), before being driven to the party along with their two boys.
“Just one thing, Richard” my mother said as we prepared to leave. “Mrs Baldwin’s probably putting grease in the boys’ hair. Remember we’ve said you mustn’t have stuff in your hair without us saying you can.”
“But what if she says I must and you’re not there?”
“Well, if you really can’t stop her then it’ll be all right just for tonight, because it’s the Christmas party. But don’t encourage her, all right?”
We spent a happy two hours playing with Eric and his older brother Simon. As the deadline approached, Mrs Baldwin called her two sons and announced: “Right boys, clean hands and faces, then hair cream!”
She hustled them into the bathroom and cleaned and greased them accordingly. Then, turning to me: “And now Richard! We’ll give your hands and face a wash. And you usually have hair cream for something like this, I take it?”
“Erm… I don’t know really. Mummy and Daddy say I mustn’t have any stuff in my hair unless they say I can.”
“And did they say you can this evening?”
“Er… No. But Mummy said if I do then it’s all right just tonight.”
This would have made the position less than clear to Mrs Baldwin, who was making an honest effort not to go against my parents’ wishes; but I couldn’t very well talk about not being able to stop her.
“I see,” she said. “Well, why don’t I put a dab on and all three of you will be looking good? I’m sure your parents will be pleased.”
So I was driven to the school with my head gleaming. When I returned, my mother’s reaction was milder than I’d expected. She said, not without a measure of good humour, “What’s this stuff in your hair then? Mrs Baldwin make you all grown-up did she?”
Over the Christmas and New Year period itself there was no thought of anyone in our house being specially smartened up when we entertained in our own house; it seemed a bit of a come-down in fact. The significant event, however, was tea at Granny Elvington’s late afternoon on Christmas Day, when certain presents were exchanged.
Aunt Jemima’s Christmas gift
Fate decreed that the school concert had taken place on a Saturday evening. In the audience was my aunt Jemima Elvington, who worked in London and couldn’t have come on a weekday; married a few years before I was born, swiftly divorced, she had so far failed to find a replacement and the prospect of a family of her own was dwindling. Meanwhile she doted on her nephew and niece but had little idea how to relate to us. Tactless remarks, soppy greetings cards and (often) unwanted presents were to be expected.
After the concert there was a small gathering at our home. Aunt Jemima made her presence felt, and was all over me for my supposedly virtuoso performance and my turnout.
“Oo, and don’t you look handsome!”
For some reason I never guessed she was looking at my hair, still immaculate. At tea, at her house, the next day, she got another chance.
Imagine my mix of embarrassment and uncertainty when, on Christmas afternoon and in her presence, I opened one of her Christmas presents to me: a jar of hair cream, not the largest size but not the smallest either.
My parents now faced a dilemma. They were quick to consult the same evening, and before lights out my mother was telling me: “Now, darling, about that hair cream Aunt Jemima’s given you. A bit embarrassing wasn’t it?” I nodded. “We’ve said you shouldn’t be using stuff like that at your age. But Aunt Jemima doesn’t know that, I’m afraid. She saw you at the school concert and thinks you’ve started using grease. If it was from somebody else we’d just give it to Daddy and get you something else instead, and not say anything. But you see, Aunt Jemima’s a bit difficult, because when she gives you something she always wants to see you using it, or she’ll be upset. So we can’t just give it away and forget about it. Do you understand that?”
“Good. So it means we must put it on your hair, a bit at a time, once a week say, till it’s all used up. Either that or you can have it on all the time, say every three days. That way you’d get through it quicker. Would you prefer that?”
I thought for an instant. “No. Once a week.”
The issue was being forced. Against everyone’s expectations I would be having grease in my hair not just occasionally but regularly – more regularly than most of my classmates.
I was inwardly thrilled at having a jar of my own, if only once, and having grease on once a week, but wondered about the prospect of being seen too often in the locality. What would people say?
“When will I have it on? Will I have it for school?” I asked.
“We can’t decide right now. You could have it on Sunday morning for church, then tea with Granny and Aunt Jemima, then wait till your hair needs washing. Remember when you had grease on for the concert, it was a few days before we needed to wash it.”
I half expected my parents to change their minds in spite of having kept a previous promise; regular greasing had so far been way outside their thinking. But the following Sunday morning the jar was opened and the regime began. It was Brilliantine Cream. (Aunt Jemima had typically tried to score a point by choosing something more expensive and presumably better.)
I grew used to walking to school on Monday morning with my head still greasy. Schoolmates and teachers were surprised at the change in my appearance but made little comment apart from “Ooh, you’ve got grease in your hair now!”
The jar lasted into February. When it ran out they were equally surprised: “Why’ve you stopped having grease?”
For the foreseeable future the general ban seemed likely to remain. Other opportunities came round that, for any other parent, would have been an excuse for hair cream; my parents of course needed compelling reasons, not excuses. But one or two events had shown that the rule, like so many others, had to be broken occasionally – or rather, whenever the situation demanded it.
The tide turns
A few days later, my mother and I were waiting in Mr Jackson’s shop. A pause, then: “Daddy and I have had an idea.”
“Well, you know when you have a haircut we always wash your hair the same night? Now what about an extra little late birthday treat? Let’s ask him to put grease on this time, and you can have it just for the day, as your hair’s going to be washed anyway. Would you like that?”
“All right then. Remind me to say yes when he asks, because I’m so used to saying no!”
I couldn’t help wondering what my parents had been thinking. Why this sudden concession? Were they bowing to pressure of some sort? Had they decided it was time to loosen up?
The haircut neared its end and Mr Jackson asked as usual: “Anything on, madam?”
“Right – yes,” said my mother purposefully. “I think we will this time. Put Brylcreem on, please.”
“Oh! Very good, madam.” Mr Jackson was understandably surprised and couldn’t help adding: “Quite a change, if I may say so.”
“Well… We were a bit cautious and strict about it at first. But he’s six now and we thought it won’t hurt now and again.”
As he put the finishing touches to my greased head Mr Jackson pronounced: “There you are, son – and very nice you look too, if I may say so.”
Outside the shop my mother sounded triumphant: “There – that surprised Mr Jackson, didn’t it?”
I was still recovering from the reminder of what hard, male hands felt like; it had been a while since the last greasing at a barber shop. I fingered my head.
“Feel a bit strange still, does it? It shouldn’t – you’ve had it on quite a lot now.”
“When will I have grease again?” I asked.
“Not for the moment. We can let Mr Jackson put grease on just occasionally, when I say so.”
I was dropped off at Pete’s the same day to play. Mrs Berry was surprised and no end delighted when she saw me.
“Coo, you’ve had grease put on at last! Your mum changed her mind, then?” (She knew about the school concert and possibly the party in London, but it was having grease on at the barber’s, like other boys, that mattered to her.)
“It’s just a special treat…”
“I knew you’d start having grease one day! You look very nice – always thought you’d look good with a touch of Brylcreem!”
Pete was no less curious. “Cor, at last. Was this at Jackson’s?”
“Yep. My mum and dad thought I could have it after a haircut, just now and again.”
“Only now and again? Why?”
“Don’t know really. They don’t want me to get the habit I suppose.”
At the next haircut it was Mrs Berry’s turn to mind us both once again. (When my mother had minded us, she’d still refused dressings for me but given the nod for Pete to have “whatever he usually has”.) Pete went first this time, had his hair greased as usual, and I immediately followed. At the end Mr Jackson asked in the time-honoured way: “Anything on, Madam?”
“Er… Yes, Brylcreem, please,” replied Mrs Berry with only a moment’s hesitation. I would have had to speak swiftly to stop him. Both he and Mrs Berry had assumed, reasonably, that I would now be having grease every time. Only Pete knew it was supposed to be only occasional.
When my mother appeared she was startled but seemed unperturbed. “I didn’t really mean him to put grease on again. I suppose he’ll do it every time now unless I stop him…”
Mrs Berry made a sort of apology but clearly thought she’d acted in good faith. It was equally clear she’d enjoyed a triumph of a sort.
The rule becoming unenforceable
At some point in the early Spring of 1962, probably not long after the greasing at Mr Jackson’s, a discussion took place between my parents which, on this occasion, I didn’t overhear. It probably went something like this.
“Ed, I think we need a new policy on this business of hairdressings. I keep telling Richard the rule and keep making exceptions. There’s been a ‘mistake’ or two at Jackson’s. I just hope Richard’s taking us seriously.”
“So you’re saying the rule’s unworkable. It’s worked at least partly, hasn’t it? We decided Richard shouldn’t have hairdressings and for almost the whole time he hasn’t. Once or twice we’ve made exceptions. But imagine if there’d been no rule at all.”
“Okay, it did its job, for a time. But Richard’s obviously been talking to people – boys at school, cousins, other parents. They’re all telling him very different things from what we’ve told him. It’s not working now.”
“He wants to be one of the boys, that’s all. Quite natural – and healthy too. But we can’t just let him do whatever he fancies. Now, I think what we should do is relax the rule – as much as we can without abandoning it altogether. There’s more than just grooming involved here: we’re talking parental authority, respect for rules generally…”
“And what do you mean by relaxing the rule?”
“I don’t know – yet. We’ll take a fresh look at it though. We need to talk to people like Richard’s been doing. All these parents that allow their boys to use Brylcreem or make them… We decided they were wrong, but can they all be wrong? Some of them must have rules and some of those rules must work better than ours. Now who do we know who’d give us good advice?”
“Hmm. The first ones I think of are Rita and Joe. They think everything out carefully. Paul has grease on quite a lot. Whatever they decided there’d have been a good reason for it.”
Some of this was relayed to me. “Daddy and I’ll look into it carefully, I promise. I’ll talk to one or two other mummies who already put grease in their boys’ hair, find out why they do it, how well it works. They’ll have a few ideas about how much to put on and how often, that sort of thing. Then we’ll decide whether you’re going to have grease and when.”
What Paul’s mother thought
My mother was as good as her word, and had a conversation or two with other mums. I wasn’t there, but from what she’s since said the one with Paul’s mum went something like this, on a park bench, with Paul in range.
“Morning, Rita! And Paul – you’re looking very smart!”
Paul smiled but said nothing and ran off to play.
“Morning, Mel. Yes… Off to town shortly.”
“And he’s got grease in his hair. He seems to be having it quite a lot.”
“Yeah, we think it’s good. Keeps it tidy. What about Richard though? I haven’t seen him with anything in his hair very recently. He seems to have it on and off.”
“No – we thought he didn’t really need it. But we are thinking about it, a bit more often perhaps.”
“Really? That’s good.”
“Well, we’re not sure yet by a long way. But can I ask you, what’s your policy with Paul? I mean, when do you put grease in his hair and when don’t you?”
“Er… Basically, when he needs to look his best. Any time we’re going out somewhere posh, special occasions… sometimes for school.”
“And what do you use? Brylcreem?”
“Yep. Same as Joe.”
“Is that how you got the idea, because he uses it?”
“I suppose so, yes. Joe’s hair used to go all over the place, then Paul’s did, so it just seemed sensible to put grease on Paul’s hair. I suppose Richard doesn’t have that problem.”
“No. Not so far anyway.”
“So why are you thinking about grease for him?”
“He’s seen Paul and other boys using it, and of course Ed. He wants to have it too. We’ve promised him we’ll think about it.”
“Like that, is it? I just wonder if he’d go on liking it. Because Paul didn’t like grease the first time. We had to put it on because his hair was untidy and we had to be tough about it – make him have it when he didn’t want to, force him to get used to it.”
“But now he likes it?”
“Oh yes. We think so anyway. He doesn’t talk about it much actually, just sees it as part of everyday life… But why has Richard been having grease some of the time, then stopping and starting again? Sorry for asking, but everyone’s curious.”
She told the long story of Kensington, the family gathering, school photo, the stay with Charles and Rose, the Christmas season, Aunt Jemima, and the recent concession that had got out of hand. “But we’re not sure if that’s what got him interested. More likely just seeing Ed, and Paul and the others.”
“Interesting, that. But I don’t quite see what’s holding you back. Is it you don’t like the smell of Brylcreem, or you don’t know how to put it on, or what?”
“Oh, we’re all used to the smell because of Ed using it, and he’s already shown me how to put it on Richard’s hair and all that. No – it’s just we think Richard’s a bit young to be having stuff like that on his hair. And I’m worried it’d make his hair collect dust and dirt when he’s out playing. Don’t you find that with Paul?”
“We did think about that, but if you ask me it makes no difference. We grease his hair up, go out, and when he comes back he plays normally. His hair gets dirty anyway.”
“Don’t you have to wash his hair more often? And isn’t the grease hard to wash out?”
“No, not really. We wash it twice a week. It needs a bit more shampoo, that’s all.”
“I’m only asking because of those times in London. They put so much grease in Richard’s hair it took three goes to get it out. And that was after three days.”
“So you left it for that long?”
“Yes. We thought two shampoos a day apart wasn’t the best idea.”
“And what did Richard think, just out of curiosity?”
“He was a bit shocked – didn’t know what was happening. We had to tell him it was too late, the man had ‘done it’ and he’d have to put up with greasy hair till the next hair wash in about three days.”
“Poor boy. I bet he looked good for those three days, though.”
“Oh, he did. We couldn’t deny grease made his hair very smart – like nothing else could.”
“And you’re not tempted to try it again?”
“Well now… What do you think, Rita? Should we play safe and do nothing, or should we start using grease on Richard? What would you do if it was up to you?”
“Now you’re asking… Richard’s different from Paul. He doesn’t need grease for practical reasons. But it is something people expect. You know, if your kids aren’t well turned out people will stop liking you. So: if it was up to me, I’d start right now. Put grease in his hair whenever he needs to be well turned out. You could do what we do with Paul – smart clothes, that means smart hair too. Make sense?”
“And don’t worry about grease being bad for his hair. It isn’t. There’s no more dirt than you’d get anyway.”
“You’re sure of that?”
“Yep, absolutely. Oh, and make sure he has a jar of his own, whether it’s Brylcreem or something else. That’ll show you’re not being grudging about it, you’re committed.”
“Okay. Rita – thank you so much for all this!”
“My pleasure. We’ll look forward to seeing Richard greased up, very soon!”
The rule that worked
My mother asked the same questions of other mothers and had very similar answers. As soon as my father was home from London she presented him with her findings.
“Ed: we need to decide about Richard – whether he can have grease in his hair or not. I did promise him we’d say something definite.”
“Right. Did you talk to Rita?”
“I talked to her, and a few others, and they all basically think grease is a good idea. Some boys have it more than others, as we know. They started for different reasons and in different ways. But no one’s changed their minds, they’re all committed. If we stuck to our present policy we’d be pretty much on our own.”
“I see. Well, as you know, I’ve always thought we should have a clear policy. Especially if Richard’s keen. We’d have to keep it all under control of course – have a clear rule and stick to it… But how do you feel about it now? Any different after talking to the other mums?”
“Well frankly, I feel better than I did. One or two of the boys we talked about have greasy hair nearly all the time, like Pete Berry, and I still don’t favour that. But most of them have grease only when they need to. And to me that seems a good solution.”
“Hmm. I’d support that. It’s in line with the way I use Brylcreem, so if we do the same for Richard we can’t really say fairer.”
“Yes. It’d be cruel not to do something.”
For some reason, it was a case of “Talk of the devil”. I appeared on cue, ready for bed.
“Ah, son, want to come in? We’re just talking about you having grease in your hair.”
“And can I?”
“Well now, your mum’s asked around and we’ve been talking it over. What do you think? We can see you like having grease very occasionally. But if you want to have it more often you must have it when we say so. Now imagine having it put on suddenly when you’re not expecting it, perhaps you don’t feel like it, and you have to wait two or three days before your hair’s washed. Now are you absolutely sure you wouldn’t mind that?”
“Good. Well, I’ll tell you what Mummy and I’ve decided. We’ll put grease in your hair whenever you need to look smart. When I go to London I use Brylcreem, as you know. And when you go to London or something special, we’ll put it in your hair too. But you still mustn’t have it all the time – very few boys do anyway. We want you to have grease but we have to do it sensibly. So you mustn’t keep pestering your mum to let you have it when you don’t need it, understand?”
“Good. And if you stay with Uncle Charles and Aunt Rose and they want you to have grease a lot then that’ll be all right. But you still mustn’t let other people put it on without our permission, all right?”
I was in no position to argue about what still seemed rather tight restrictions. I had no idea how the relaxation would work out in practice. A small jar of Brylcreem was bought for me but kept out of reach on a high bathroom shelf next to my father’s, with the promise “When you’re old enough to do your own brushing and combing then Daddy’ll show you how to use it”.
I was pleasantly surprised, however. The occasions for which grease was allowed began to multiply. When any church or social or family occasion came round, I always had it put in my hair.
Alice and I seemed to get invited to nearly all the local children’s parties. I went off to the next one with grease in my hair (and she with the treasured hairband), and this was henceforth normal practice.
The next school concert came round in May 1962. I had a minor role as a bellhop and had to wear a stifling uniform, but there were no qualms about me having my hair well greased.
The June school photograph session was an occasion that called for a thorough greasing, of the kind aimed at keeping my hair smart and shiny from the moment I left the house to the moment the camera clicked. The photos of me and Alice together and individually, in glorious colour, once again captured a precious memory.
At the barber shop, Mr Jackson kept to his procedures; but I could expect to leave with Brylcreemed hair no matter what social event (if any) was lined up; one more “occasion” that came round every few weeks. Alice and I even started a special game that featured a character with slicked hair and could only be played on a Saturday, and after my haircut.
Come the summer holidays it was Alec’s turn to stay with us. I’d once daydreamed of a boy coming to stay with us whose parents regularly put grease in his hair and wondered what my parents would do, and whether we would be treated the same or differently. It was a relief to know there was a definite policy in our house that he could probably fit into: grease whenever you needed to look smart, otherwise not.
Alec could expect equal treatment in our house, as I had in his. In practice the only difference was that there were fewer trips out and greasing was less frequent.
I managed to persuade my mother to put grease in my hair on the day Alec arrived, even though no trip was scheduled for that day.
Alec arrived, of course, well greased. He also came supplied with his own jar of Brilliantine Cream. My mother was anxious to reciprocate the equal treatment I’d been given on my visit to him the previous Summer; she used our two jars in alternation. And the day Alec left, she made sure his hair was greased as mine had been by Aunt Rose.
By the time my seventh birthday was approaching I was doing my own washing and grooming, although still under my mother’s watchful eye (“Not too much of that stuff, now!”). I arrived at school for the first day in the Lower Juniors with my hair well greased and gleaming in the early autumn sunshine. Problems lay ahead in the new class, but at that moment I felt ready for almost anything. Once again one of the dreams had partly come true. Patience and gentle persistence had paid off.