I was pleased to receive some responses to The Brylcreem Moment, and it’s interesting to learn that others have experienced similar parental disapproval, and an obsession in later life. Things could have been worse, of course; if the Forbidden Fruit had been toy guns then things might have turned ugly. Some more observations from my youth are prompted, and I hope I can be forgiven if I fail to weave them into a coherent narrative. If the tone and the episodic nature of this piece make it read more like the confessions of a grubby little voyeur, please understand that these observations are based on fact and are offered in good faith. If the style ain’t your bag then please read no further.
I have already explored parental disapproval of Brylcreem and the ‘taboo’ associated with it, to some extent at least, in the piece Walking to Jenny’s House which I wrote for HSN a few months ago. This time I would like to discuss some other young peoples’ adventures with Brylcreem, or at least my own perception of these incidents as they took place in front of me. I say ‘young people’ deliberately, as distinct from ‘boys’, and you’ll see why if you read on.
Summing up after describing a number of incidents and encounters, I would also like to examine that thing I call the taboo. May I suggest that if you haven’t already done so, then reading Walking to Jenny’s House first will provide some background to my thoughts in this new piece and my occasional references to that rather influential young lady.
While this new piece is episodic, there’s one thing that provides a common thread between some of my observations and expands on the thoughts I described in The Brylcreem Moment. I’ll draw your attention to it now, otherwise you might think I’ve just run out of ways of expressing myself as the memories, olden but golden, unfold. My theme is the way that the boy in the barber’s chair, watching in the mirror as his hair was Brylcreemed and combed, would often have a look of shy delight on his face as he saw his strange adult beauty revealed. I know that revelation could be quite startling, especially if it was the first time. “I can’t believe I’ve got my hair like this” the expression was saying. Sometimes the look was concealed, with varying degrees of success, and sometimes it beamed forth uncontrollably for all to see. I was never quite sure how effectively I concealed the look myself, if indeed I managed to conceal it at all, and it fascinated me to see the same thing happening to other boys. The struggle to contain that expression of shy satisfaction was an intriguing feature of The Moment, and sadly I have to write this in the past tense because it just doesn’t happen any more.
So, why oh why do I obsess over that everyday but arguably outdated mens’ cosmetic known as Brylcreem? Why have I built something that amounts to a fetish out of a product that’s designed simply to keep your hair in place? Do women obsess over hairspray? I very much doubt it.
The thing is next to impossible to explain, except to say that it’s related to the way a person’s hair influences their image and their attractiveness, both regarding themself and their perception of others. That’s an appeal to vanity, but then so is the whole womens’ hairdressing industry. To my teenage eyes a girl with long or shoulder-length chestnut or auburn hair was almost always more attractive than a girl with short fair or blonde hair. By present-day standards that’s a sexist and objectivist attitude, but I’m afraid that’s the way it was and I won’t attempt to rewrite history by pretending it didn’t happen. In much the same way, if I saw a boy with Brylcreem on his hair it would always attract my attention. That’s not the same as saying I felt personally attracted to the boy himself, that’s not the point at all. What I was feeling was a sense of envy. Something inside me was saying I wanted to be that boy, or at least, to have my hair looking like his.
So recognising the effect, without attempting to delve too deeply into the cause, I find there are things locked away in a special little place in my memory that deserve to be taken out and examined occasionally. If some readers find interest, amusement, or even nostalgia in exploring them with me then I have achieved something. If others think I’m a weirdo, I raise my hand and plead ‘guilty’, but you show me someone who hasn’t got a few naughty little secrets and I’ll show you the door.
The Prohibition Era
My father had no problem with boys using Brylcreem because he was a moderate user of it himself, but to my mother the sight of Brylcreem on a boy’s hair was like a red rag to a bull. It was in the same moral and ideological territory as girls using make-up or having a hairdo at too early an age, and she disapproved absolutely. As to what constituted ‘too early an age’ I think we had an unspoken agreement to differ on that.
This being so, you may wonder what my mother thought when sixteen-year old Jenny had her hair styled as I described in Jenny’s House. I remember that she did express a degree of disapproval, along much the same lines as the ever-judgemental Mrs Roberts, even though Jenny was approaching young adulthood and was hardly ‘a little girl’. From my point of view, and here I’m thinking back fondly to the actual events behind the story, that lovely flip hairstyle on that already good-looking teenage girl remains one of my most precious memories.
A borderline case maybe, taking Jenny’s age into account. However, I know my mother was genuinely concerned, and this I can entirely understand, when it was obvious that pushy parents had deliberately dressed up their child as a little adult to satisfy their own vanity. It might be anything; a hairdo on a girl, Brylcreem on a boy, or expensive clothes like a tailored suit that a small boy would outgrow in a matter of months. The smaller the child, the greater was the outrage, and of all the forms this offence could take there was one that my mother particularly abhorred. She often said :
“I hate to see little boys with their hair plastered down with Brylcreem”.
This was the Ultimate Sin, and she made that comment with particular gusto one memorable day when I was about nine years old. We had happened to see an extreme Brylcreem victim during a Sunday afternoon walk in the park.
The victim in question was only about five or six, and his dark brown hair had been Brylcreemed to a quite remarkable excess. I remember he was also wearing a little suit, but his hair was what attracted attention. It was shaped back without a parting, which was unusual, and whoever had done the deed had achieved something which I now know is very difficult without the conventional side parting. Although his hair was creamed straight back, it wasn’t wetted flat in that severe Rudolph Valentino style. Instead the front was shaped up vertically from his forehead in a small quiff and then went very precisely over and back. It was sculpture as much as styling. There wasn’t one hair out of place, and I describe it as ‘shaped’ rather than ‘combed’ because the comb lines had all been smoothed out. That boy’s hair appeared to be Brylcreemed completely rigid, and the film of excess cream on the surface gave it a deep glassy shine as if he was a little porcelain doll.
In contrast with his gleaming and remarkably daring hair, the unfortunate victim looked distinctly sheepish and clearly did not appreciate the beauty that had been pressed upon him. Of shy delight there was absolutely no sign, in his suit he was a miniature fashion statement and he was acutely aware of that. He could probably feel the Brylcreem, all stiff and heavy, it’s a sensation I described in Jenny’s House as feeling as if your hair has been glued to your head. No doubt this display was to be preserved at all costs, and he was probably under strict orders not to spoil or even touch it. His doting mother was parading him along like a poodle, the only thing missing was a lead clipped to his collar. I think his mother must have been responsible for this exhibition of the wonders of Brylcreem because I don’t believe a barber would have done a boy’s hair that way. My own mother was predictably appalled, and made her feelings known in no uncertain terms once we were a suitable distance away :
“Oh my goodness, did you see that little boy’s hair? How ridiculous, fancy making a little boy have his hair Brylcreemed like that.”
I made no comment, hoping to indicate that I had no opinion either way, but in fact I thought that little boy’s hair looked fabulous. In retrospect, whoever combed it had created the finest and most perfect Brylcreem style I ever saw in my life, and it set a standard by which future examples would be measured. And that included anything I might ever achieve with my own hair.
I have likened the boy to a poodle, or in other words, a pet. Being a pet has its advantages in that you get lots of attention and little treats, but the downside is that you have to accept being sometimes used as a plaything. I felt sure this was happening here. Be that as it may, I couldn’t help thinking the boy’s mother would have been welcome to use me as a plaything, or more specifically to use my hair, any time she liked. I would gladly have let myself be turned into a Dresden shepherd boy with glazed porcelain hair. But not, please, into a poodle.
An amusing incident took place at school when I was about ten. There was a boy in my class called Brian Murphy, and he was one of the more ‘cocky’ kids, or maybe I should say more mature. He wasn’t in any way a bad lad, but he could be very smug and wasn’t above being a show-off. He was certainly a ready source of adult jokes which, I confess, I sometimes feigned to understand when for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what everybody else was laughing at. I suspect I wasn’t alone.
One day Brian appeared at school with his hair quite splendidly Brylcreemed. It wasn’t possible to tell whether this was the result of a haircut the previous day; his hair certainly looked shorter than it had been, but the wetting effect of the cream could have accounted for that. So on the basis that a boy with Brian’s confidence was unlikely to have let a parent do it for him, my best guess at the time was that the initiative was possibly his own.
Brian’s hair was in the usual barbershop style, but he had squidged the front hair slightly forward so that it stood up. His appearance prompted a few wolf-whistles, which he took in his stride and probably appreciated. When we all trooped out into the yard at the mid-morning break I noticed Brian making for the washroom, and glancing through the door a few minutes later I was astonished to see him standing in front of one of the mirrors combing his hair very carefully and putting more Brylcreem on from a jar. He emerged a few minutes later, the very picture of smug nonchalance, with the jar in his pocket and his hair Brylcreemed solid.
When we went back inside I saw him take the much-depleted jar of cream out of his pocket and put it away in his desk. Nobody said a word, and I believe the blond colour of his hair was concealing the enormous amount of cream he had put on. If his hair had been darker I’m sure the excess would have been far more obvious. Brian didn’t appear to derive any satisfaction or excitement from this performance, and there was certainly no hint of the ‘shy delight’ I sometimes observed in other boys. I don’t think the concept of shyness ever got much mileage with Brian, all he revealed during this episode was a smug display of confidence. So this was Brian Murphy’s new Brylcreem Image, and he took it seriously enough to bring a jar of Brylcreem to school to keep the image maintained and topped up. By my own timid standards this was almost beyond belief.
When I arrived home my mother practically pounced on me. The first thing she said was :
“Did Brian Murphy have Brylcreem on his hair at school?”
“I think he did, yes.”
“I was talking to his mother today and she said Brian was going to start using Brylcreem. I can’t imagine why she let him, I hate to see little boys with their hair plastered down like that, did he use a sensible amount or did he have too much on? I wouldn’t be surprised, knowing him.”
Well, I could have said yes he did have too much on, after the business in the washroom he appeared to have a whole jar on, and wow, it looked wonderful. But no, I just said it had attracted a few jokes and left it at that. The following day, Brian’s hair looked distinctly drier as if most of the cream had rubbed off on his pillow overnight. He didn’t repeat the performance with fresh cream at break, so the shiny new Brylcreem Image appeared to have run its course. By the end of the week his hair was washed and back to normal. Whether the novelty just wore off like the Brylcreem itself, or whether parental authority decided it wasn’t a good idea after all, will have to remain a mystery.
The Boy on the Bus
This episode is an example of a ‘Willing Victim’ in that the individual concerned had clearly just had his hair cut and Brylcreemed, and found pleasure in it. An intense but remarkably timid pleasure if my observations are to be trusted, and if so, feelings not unlike my own. I would have been fourteen, it was a weekday during the Christmas holiday, and I had been visiting some friends in a neighbouring town half an hour’s bus ride away. I was sitting in the waiting room at the bus station about to begin the journey home, it was a typical cold late afternoon in winter, and outside the sky was beginning to get dark and lights were coming on.
In through the revolving door from the street came a boy of about my own age. His brown hair had obviously just been cut, and was gleaming with fresh Brylcreem in a perfect statement of the usual schoolboy style. His front hair was shaped back impressively, it looked good on him, and he had an unmistakable air of shy excitement. However, it wasn’t so much a ‘wow’ look, it was more like an uneasy mixture of pleasure and anxiety. There was something guilty or even hunted about him, but because it was his hair that first caught my attention I didn’t immediately spot the reason for his agitation. Then I saw what was the matter; he was desperately trying to conceal a prominent bulge which was threatening at any moment to burst the front of his trousers. His excitement was making itself apparent in a most inconvenient and untimely way.
There was a mirror on one wall of the waiting room, and hesitantly this young man approached it and studied his reflection. To say he looked self-conscious would be an understatement, although there were very few people there to see him, and no-one except myself appeared to be taking any notice. Facing the mirror with his back to the room, the source of his embarrassment was no longer visible. In that position he appeared to gain some confidence, because out came a comb, and with visibly shaking hands he ran it cautiously through the sides and back of his hair, just the sides and back. He didn’t touch the shiny front hair, which was combed quite precisely up and over, presumably to avoid spoiling the way the barber had shaped it. His hair didn’t need to be combed at all because it was already perfect, so there was an act of some kind going on here. This boy was evidently as timid as a mouse, yet here he was making an exhibition of combing his hair in a public place.
The boy had his back to me but I was discretely watching his reflection. As this act unfolded I saw his cheeks suddenly begin to dimple, and then… aah, there, lovely ! His lips parted slightly and his face broke into such an expression of shy joy that I found myself smiling in sympathy with him. If he had spoken aloud “oh, that’s wonderful” his delight couldn’t have been more plain to see. He gazed blissfully at his reflection for a few moments, still running the comb carefully through his back hair, but then his pleasure seemed to fade as suddenly as it had begun and the guilty look returned. I felt for that kid and almost shared his agitation as well as his pleasure. “Please don’t drop the comb” I was thinking, it’s easily done when your fingers are slippery with Brylcreem, never mind if your hand is shaking as well. That would have attracted attention and probably ridicule. To my relief he didn’t drop the comb, and having finished his awkward little act he put it away but continued to look nervously at his reflection for a few moments. When he moved away from the mirror, the bulge in his trousers had visibly subsided but in its place was a wet patch.
When my bus arrived, I got on and for no particular reason I took a seat one space back from the driver’s compartment. It hadn’t occurred to me that Brylcreem Boy might be waiting for the same bus, but here he was getting on, and he sat down in the seat in front of me. This meant he was directly behind the driver and could see his reflection in the glass partition that separated the driver from the passengers. Whether this was deliberate, your guess is as good as mine, but it was a most appropriate position because it enabled him to admire his hair from the front while I was able to admire it from the back.
Yes, his hair was newly cut alright, you could tell by the sharp ends and the shaved neck. Yes, it was Brylcreem alright, not one of the other creams, I could tell by the smell. And his agitation was so intense I could almost feel it. Poor kid, he really did look uncomfortable sitting there just in front of me, and he kept making a slight squirming motion as if there was something wrong with his pants. Which of course there was, and I’m sure he would have been mortified had he realised that the passenger sitting just behind knew what had happened to him back there in front of the mirror.
I commented that this boy’s hair-combing game seemed unnecessary and must have been just an act. Close up, the parting and shape of his hair were perfect and I could see how his own application of the comb had merely repeated the finish made by the barber. As the bus rolled through the outskirts of the town he hardly took his eyes off the reflection in the partition, and occasionally he reached up to explore his shiny hair, sometimes on the back and sometimes at the front. He didn’t get the comb out again, and neither did the joyful look reappear, although there might have been a hint of it now and then.
Darkness had now fallen outside so he had another reflection to look at in the side window, and the two panes of glass at right angles created a third reflection which showed his image the right way round. So altogether the view from that seat was pretty fine, and from the way he appeared to be maintaining his state of nervous excitement I wondered if he was anticipating a repeat of the bus station incident. I really couldn’t tell whether it happened a second time, but whether it did or not there’s no doubt that kid was in an extreme state of arousal.
The end of the game arrived when he suddenly stood up and rang the bell. The boy got off the bus and I followed him out of the corner of my eye. As the bus moved away, I saw him get his comb out, but he didn’t do what I expected with his hair. Instead, to my surprise, as he walked away he slowly and very deliberately combed his front hair down and sideways so that it lay across his forehead. That was exactly what I would have done myself, approaching home after a haircut, when the pleasure of the up-combed front hair became dangerous instead of desirable. So, after all, it appeared I wasn’t alone in being shy about that front hair.
An odd incident occurred in my usual barbershop not long after the bus episode. It was towards the end of the same Christmas holiday, during the predictable ‘back to school’ haircut rush which I think must assume a ritual significance for practically every schoolboy on the planet. Ahead of me in the chair was a boy from my own school who was known to me. His name was Alan Dobson and he had hair of a reddish brown colour which on a girl would probably have been called dark auburn. He usually kept it brushed forward with a heavy fringe.
I had never knowingly seen Alan with cream on his hair, so I had no idea what his attitude to it might be, and I was curious to observe his Brylcreem Moment. The moment arrived, onto his hair went the cream, and just as the barber was about to do the parting Alan said :
“What happens if you just comb it straight back without a parting?”
This took me by surprise and I think it took the barber by surprise as well. Alan said it in quite a casual voice, it didn’t come out as a nervous squeak as it might have done had I chanced it myself. So I took it that Alan had no hang-ups about the Adult Look and so on, he was just curious and regarded this as an experiment.
“If you want it that way you’ll need a spot more cream” said the barber, and to my surprise he squeezed out some more and onto Alan’s hair it went. Then he began to comb Alan’s hair straight back, very gradually and carefully, making sure it was laid down evenly and the cream was spread right through. It seemed to be a very different operation from the usual part-and-comb-across routine. I knew I was witnessing the beginning, at least, of the style worn by the famous Poodle Boy. Would the barber achieve that elusive vertical front or would it end up just wetted back flat?
It’s obvious that different peoples’ hair responds to Brylcreem in different ways, but I was slightly disappointed when the barber made no attempt to shape Alan’s front hair. He just took it straight back, which after all is what Alan had asked for. However, as Alan’s hair was gradually wetted back from his forehead I saw that he had a relatively low hair-line, so there was still a vertical part at the front. As the barber applied the finishing touches I found the result was, in fact, extremely impressive. Combed all in the same direction and with that extra cream on, Alan’s red-brown hair had a deep shine like polished mahogany, the question now was whether he would say “okay” and go home committed to leaving his hair in this distinctly daring style. The barber picked up the hand mirror and showed Alan the rear view.
Alan stared at his two reflections, front and back, and a look flickered across his face that seemed to say “oh, wow”. Then he composed himself and said :
“Er… I don’t really think that’s me, after all”.
Commenting that the straight-back style doesn’t work for everyone, the barber parted Alan’s hair along one of the comb lines and soon it was finished in the usual way. The only difference was that he now had twice the normal amount of cream on, so his otherwise conventional barbershop hairstyle was wetter and shinier than usual. He stood up from the chair, paid, nodded to me, and left the shop with no visible reaction to his finished hair. The experiment had evidently been a failure, and now it was my turn in the chair.
To my eyes that straight-back style had worked very well for Alan. I wished it worked that well for me, but having tried, I knew it didn’t. The success of that style depends on the shape of your head, the texture of your hair and the depth of your hair line at the front. I now believe that when Alan saw his hair briefly shaped that way he was just as impressed as I was. The ‘wow’ look that showed for a moment on his face was strongly suggestive of that, and I suspect the shy smile of delight would have appeared soon if he had chosen to leave his hair that way. But faced with the strange novelty of it, I think Alan had felt the same clash of excitement and taboo that I knew myself, and that was his main reason for changing his mind.
Our mothers in those days loved to see partings, and I don’t think there were many boys who would have dared to go home from the barber with their hair Brylcreemed in that unparted style. For some of our mothers, the cream alone was a sufficient source of disapproval (“why do you let him put so much on?”) so going for the unparted style as well would have been courting disaster. I think this was true for Alan but in his case I’m convinced it was a private taboo, as much as the possibility of disapproval, that was behind his decision.
I will never know whether Alan’s own version of the taboo extended to the conventional ‘side-part and up-combed front’ as well, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, like the Boy on the Bus and indeed like myself, he combed his front hair down before he got home. The side-parted style did at least leave that option open, which was a good thing, but the straight-back style required a commitment which took more nerve than I believe most boys of our age could have managed.
I will round off this set of ‘Brylcreem incidents’, as I call them, with an encounter which astounded me at the time and haunts me still. Although my dear long-suffering mother wasn’t involved this time, it would have been interesting to see her reaction. I was seventeen, and I was in town one day when I saw what appeared to be a well-dressed young man approaching. What caught my attention was that his hair was in the straight-back Brylcreemed style that Alan Dobson had briefly explored, and while trying not to stare I observed that he was unusually good-looking with very striking eyes. My reaction was that this was a strangely elegant young man with an obvious sense of style. I then realised that as well as those eyes, this individual had a woman’s walk and a very shapely figure. I was looking at a stunningly beautiful girl of about twenty, wearing tailored jeans and a suede jacket, with her eyes immaculately made up and her short dark brown hair Brylcreemed straight back.
I could hardly believe what I was seeing. This girl’s boyish hair was tapered off at the bottom but thick on top, and I expect that her front hair, if not creamed back, would have come forward in a heavy fringe like the school-day version of Alan Dobson. So she had plenty of hair to play with, forming a big upward sweep at the front, all creamed back very precisely with a deep gloss. I have never, before or since, seen another woman wearing Brylcreem. It was one of the most unexpected and one of the most memorable sights I have ever seen. Did she have the shy smile of delight? No, her expression was more akin to the smug confidence of Brian Murphy. If shy delight was visible anywhere during that all-too-short encounter, I suspect it was on my own face.
So, I ask myself, why did the sight of an attractive young woman with her hair Brylcreemed like a schoolboy make such an impression on me? I think it’s because she showed there could be more to my Brylcreem obsession than just envy of other boys. She woke me up to the fact that it could be a heterosexual thing after all, and I found this comforting because I sometimes worried that my ‘Brylcreem envy’ meant I was a latent gay. Please don’t misunderstand me here, because I give gay men the respect that is due to them, but I don’t wish to join them. I never saw that girl again, unfortunately. Who was she, where was she going, and what was she up to?
I have to say that although she made a big impression on me, the decidedly radical beauty of that girl was worlds away from the chestnut charm of my good friend Jenny. The girl I call Jenny was always, as far as I was concerned, queen of the Most Beautiful Schoolgirl stakes and I’m happy to record that at the time of the Beauty incident Jenny and I were ‘a couple’. This was about a year after the events upon which Jenny’s House is based. The lovely flip hairstyle she had at that time was (sadly) not going to last for ever, and she had eventually replaced it with an equally precise, equally bouncy and almost equally charming pageboy bob. Jenny was accessible and loving, and I was content to accept that The Brylcreemed Beauty was from another planet and probably ate schoolboys for breakfast.
There was always something about the kind of encounters I’ve described, and there were plenty of such cases, that fed my fascination with Brylcreem. I’m also convinced that it was encouraged by my mother’s dislike of it. ‘Taboo’ is a useful word, it sums the thing up nicely. As with Eve and the apple, authority’s very explicit disapproval only succeeded in making the forbidden thing more desirable, but for me the taboo operated on another level as well. A haircut with Brylcreem led to something very personal and very private. The thing I secretly desired and looked forward to was the startling novelty of the boy in the mirror with his shiny hair Bylcreemed up and back from his forehead. It was a strangely exciting and peculiarly adult look, and it was in this that the thing I call the look of shy delight had its origin.
There was an appealing sense of naughtiness about this game, especially during my earlier teens, when it felt as if I was dipping a cautious toe into things that were beyond me, or not even meant for me at all. The up-combed hair was always the main attraction and the main source of that shy excitement, but the feeling was enhanced by its association with the ever-desirable Brylcreem, which was like an accessory to the crime. The ‘Adult Look’ went together with Brylcreem like love and marriage, and as I grew older the combination created a feeling that could be described as almost sinful. Or to be more realistic, probably I should just say ‘sexy’. Maybe it’s just narcissism, maybe I was in love with The Beautiful Boy in the Mirror, you my reader will have to be the judge of that.
When I had cream on after a haircut I was always vaguely uneasy at home, but never exactly shy provided that my front hair was combed down or across. But, and this is a major ‘but’, I was absolutely incapable of letting my front hair be seen combed up and back in that adult style in the presence of my parents or my sister. This was the truly deep taboo, it was a gulf a million miles wide that I just couldn’t cross, and I’m convinced that the behaviour of the Boy on the Bus had been governed by the same feeling. The adult look of upwardly Brylcreemed front hair was a guilty pleasure, so private that the very idea of close family members seeing it was disastrous and shameful and completely unthinkable. I could no more have revealed it in the presence of my parents or my sister than I could have sat in the same room as them nonchalantly reading Playboy.
And yet I had gladly let Jenny see it, I would have let other girls see it, and I believe I would have been open about it with my male friends as well, although to be honest that situation never arose.
I’m sure many will find it strange that I was unable to reveal the ‘Adult Look’ within my family, because you might expect a thing associated with growing up to be welcomed more openly. Not this; at home the game was a secret, a thing strictly for private experimentation and reflection. On rare occasions when opportunity and privacy allowed, it meant putting a lot of cream on and revelling in the wetted-back look, the feel of excess, and the squelchy little sound of Too Much Brylcreem. And that element of excess played a major part in it.
Of course, a similar look can be achieved with water, but it’s temporary and not at all the same. One correspondent’s mother observed that “Brylcreem doesn’t dry”, and here I think we have it. Putting Brylcreem on your hair is an act of commitment, there’s no going back now and it will remain there until you wash it off. And washing it off can be no simple job. These days we have the various gels, which wash out easily, but in the 1960s gels were a long way in the future. And even the wettest of wet-look gels don’t do it for me, they can’t hold a candle to the look, the feel and the hold of Brylcreem, and the sense of ‘it’s too late to stop now’ when you put it on.
You’ll remember I said Poodle Boy’s mother would have been welcome to use me as a plaything if she could achieve his style with my hair. For years, even after Jenny was with me, I loved to create little fantasies around this in which Poodle’s mother was replaced by a totally implausible beauty of my choice (usually Raquel Welch, but Ann-Margret or Elke Sommer or Diana Rigg would have done nicely, or that lovely unknown young actress who appeared in a series of Maclean’s toothpaste adverts in 1967… but I digress). She would sit me down in front of a mirror, put a huge amount of Brylcreem on my hair, and slowly and carefully coax it into that elusive style so effectively but reluctantly displayed by Poodle Boy. As this was done, she would give a gentle but exquisitely patronising commentary along the lines of “What a beautiful boy, there, he’ll be EVER so smart in a minute… let’s have a spot more on… there, how do you like that? Look at that LOVELY big smart boy in the mirror, what a LOT of Brylcreem he’s got on his hair now, he’ll have to be careful he doesn’t SPOIL it…” and so on and so forth in similar vein. Having achieved the impossible with my hair, thanks to Brylcreem, my lovely lady would be duly rewarded by an extremely shy beam of delight from me, and some equally shy further business which I will leave to your imagination.
The general atmosphere of this daydream, and the emotional landscape it explored, was similar to the scene in the original 1967 Bedazzled in which Raquel Welch, portraying the deadly sin Lust, brings Dudley Moore breakfast in bed. Or maybe, less fantastically, the scene in The Cincinatti Kid in which the dangerous Melba (Ann-Margret) is flirting with The Kid (Steve McQueen) in the street ”… the Kid’s got himself all shined up…” If you don’t know those scenes, look ’em up on YouTube, and you’ll see what I’m getting at.
Now, what’s interesting is that this fantasy didn’t break the taboo at all because the woman wasn’t family. In truth, being a well-known movie star, she could hardly have been more remote. Looking at it from this perspective, and considering as well that Jenny was aware of my game, I think I begin to understand my feelings. The Brylcreem Game and the Adult Look were free to be explored without guilt outside the family circle, but their sensual associations were so strong that any hint of revealing them within the family was unpleasantly suggestive of that oldest and ugliest of taboos, a sex act involving a close family member.
You may be wondering whether I ever tried to enact the ‘big smart boy’ fantasy with Jenny, and the answer is a resounding NO, I hardly even dared to think about it. I was afraid it would test her female acceptance of Brylcreem to the limit, but more than this, I had a strong gut feeling that any such attempt at fantasy enactment was inevitably doomed to be an embarrassing and shameful failure. I could see clearly enough that there was no shy delight in store along that road, for us or indeed for anyone, just guilty disappointment.
So that’s the way it was for me, and I guess plenty of others like the Boy on the Bus, a balancing act between domestic taboo and private fascination. It’s a long time ago now, but at the age of fourteen nothing quite equalled stepping out of the barber’s shop, fresh Brylcreem glistening, and revelling in my new adult self. Only as I drew close to home would the taboo begin its influence, the pleasure would be compromised, and with mixed feelings of guilt and regret I would push my shiny front hair down across my forehead and become a little boy again. But events did move on.
You may have noticed that I grow gradually older as these various encounters from my youth are described. That’s mainly coincidence, although I deliberately kept The Beauty until last because that tale is in line with my increasing interest in the female of the species as I progressed through my teens. And that wasn’t just an interest, it became a real involvement as my relationship developed with the girl I call Jenny. Fun with Brylcreem had played a part in bringing us together, or at least in getting me to take the initiative, but I have to confess that the significance and the lure of that little white jar began to fade into the background as Jenny and I found and explored what I will, for the sake of modesty, call The Real Thing.