It sounds enticingly simple. A snip of epidermis will be removed from the scalp. The activity will stimulate cell activity including the regeneration of hair follicles. If the effect of a gene called wnt is boosted, hair could well begin to grow where none had previously been. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania believe that their findings have “opened a window” in the great quest for a cure for baldness.
It sounds exciting enough and doubtless there are bald men all over Britain wondering whether it would be worth nicking at their scalp with a Stanley knife and hoping that the good old wnt gene does the rest. But I wonder whether scientists have thought through the full implications of opening this particular window. What the American author Nicholson Baker has described, rightly, as “the horror of hair loss” is more than a personal event. It has political, cultural and social side-effects. Hair, or lack of it, is one of the defining influences of the way we live, vote and love.
In this age of image, remarkably few, if any, bald politicians will succeed. The public, it seems, are mysteriously intimately reassured by the sight of a full head of hair. It not only suggests youth, dynamism and a sort of genetic wholesomeness but it makes the wearer more approachable. A politician, like a dog at Crufts, needs to look strokeable. No one ever wanted to stroke Neil Kinnock or William Hague and it is why they failed. Sir Menzies Campbell is, scalp apart, the most approachable of our party leaders but, as soon as his dome made regular, shiny appearances on the TV, he was in trouble.
Television is now pretty much a bald-free area. A few specialists (Nick Robinson, Bill Oddie, Clive James) appear now and then, and indeed their lack of hair may be thought to give them a certain extra personality, but the idea of a bald Graham Norton, Michael Parkinson, Jeremy Paxman or Huw Edwards. Jonathan Ross is embarrassingly proud of his mop and enjoys mocking guests with less hair than him.
All this is not merely a matter of aesthetics. Weirdly, the physiological fact of hair loss is seen as some kind of personality indicator. When a man goes bald, his life changes subtly. He is perceived differently, as if he were an actor who was moved from playing entirely serious parts into taking on a character role – a hard man, or a clown usually.
Of course, for some baldness has been a career opportunity. Phil Silvers would have been less funny with a parting. The strange and offbeat humour of Matt Lucas is given another dimension by his gleaming dome. Those who have got on by playing hard men – Phil Mitchell from EastEnders, John Reid from the Home Office – would have been considerably less imposing without their bullet-heads. Baldness has either become part of their character or has helped form it; it is the original chicken-and-egghead conundrum.
So those considering the nick-and-wnt therapy, should think hard before re-activating follicles previously assumed dead. They will find that something else will have to be grown: a new personality. A man with hair, they will be reminded, is fluffier, flirtier. His emotional life will be expected to be mysterious, complex and utterly different from the flat, shiny soul that the bald are assumed to have.
Society as a whole will lose many of the jokes, assumptions and prejudices which have been taken for granted for so long. For both the hairy and the formerly receding, the change could be traumatic.
Shoulder-pads at dawn…
In the week when British talent on Broadway has been recognised in the Tony Awards shortlist, there might well have been some rivalry between British and American playwrights over rights in a terrific story which has appeared in the press.
Two veteran actresses, Linda Evans and Joan Collins, who once stood shoulder-pad-to-shoulder-pad in the TV show Dynasty, have been touring America in a play called Legends.
Unfortunately the rivalry between the two stars, which had been the stuff of gossip columns, developed into on-stage violence, with Collins complaining that she had been kicked and injured by Linda Evans, left, and Evans’s team responding that Collins was “the single most unprofessional actress working in Hollywood”. The story and the stars are in place. The theme of jealousy and decline is as timely as ever. Now all we need is a writer.
* As readers would expect, I am sitting at my desk wearing a yellow ribbon to express my feelings of support to the family of the little girl who has been abducted in Portugal. The nation is united in its support for the family. Footballers have worn ribbons, as have marathon runners. They have been attached to police cars. Politicians wear them, particularly when there are cameras around.
There will be hard-hearted people who will question this outpouring of national emotion. They will ask what wearing a yellow ribbon in public achieves – after all, is there any sane person who, having read about the abduction, does not feel sympathy for the family? These cynics might suggest that the wearing of ribbons on lapels, hearts on sleeves, is another example of the self-indulgent emotional exhibitionism at which Britain now leads the world.
I ignore those people. I am wearing a yellow ribbon. Self-evidently, I am a more caring person than they are.