Magazine article The Spectator

What's That on Your Head?

Magazine article The Spectator

What's That on Your Head?

Article excerpt

Each morning, when I opened my eyes, there was another clump of hair on the pillow. Within two weeks, I was two-thirds bald with an absurd black tuft projecting two inches over my forehead. It was radiotherapy, of course, supposedly the only remedy after the surgeon failed to remove every bit of a brain tumour. Yes, it was worrying, but in hindsight it was also a time of high comedy.

After three weeks of treatment, I went on holiday to Cornwall. My young children looked a little more appalled each day and my wife Philippa pretended not to notice. After the holiday the treatment went on for another three weeks: a made-to-measure plastic mask bolted my head to the table, and the nurses directed two shafts of coloured light at the same tiny point on my brow. No one had told me the radio beams would leave a curious pattern of baldness and in the mirror I noticed that the pattern on my scalp looked exactly like the map of where we'd been staying: the left-hand bit of Cornwall from, say, Falmouth to St Ives, with the tuft marking out Land's End.

When I went back to the hospital the doctor told me not to worry, it all looked totally normal. Normal? My job then was presenting a regional ITV current affairs series and I appeared two or three times per programme. I wasn't entirely sure that the viewers would agree with the doctor's idea of normal. 'Oh yes, everyone looks like that after radiotherapy to the front of the head,' said the doctor. 'But don't worry, the NHS provides free wigs.' So I sat down to choose from a hospital catalogue. There wasn't a great selection, but one that was black and quite thick looked nearest the mark. 'What a wise choice,' the doctor said. 'We'll put in the post.'

Some days later the wig appeared on the doormat. The postman had obviously had to squidge it through the letterbox. How could he have known that it was my passport to normality? It was in a ragged, half-sealed brown envelope with hair sprouting from the corners. Curious p&p, I thought, but still, salvation.

But when I tried it on, it wasn't salvation, it was nylon and dreadful. 'Can you put it in the dressing-up box, Dad?' my youngest implored. My mother-in-law said I looked like a Hottentot. But I remembered what the doctor told me: put it on, take it to the barber's, he'll cut it to your old style and you'll never know the difference.

The scissors snapped for a good half-hour at the barber. As he swept up the final bits of my cast-off nylon, I looked in the mirror and saw someone wild and deranged.

Back at work the following week, no one said a word. When I did talk to colleagues they refused to look me in the eye. On the Wednesday, I took the wig off and went back to the Cornish landscape.

My next grand plan was a wig made of real hair. A make-up assistant at work recommended a theatrical wig-makers in London. I rang them and they said the minimum cost was £650. I decided to turn to my boss. 'Dear Clive,' I typed, 'since I appear regularly on your screen, and do not wish to put over an artificial nylon image that might let down the company's reputation, could you possibly give me a cheque for £650?' Back came the reply: 'Don't be stupid, just stop appearing on screen.'

Outrageous, I spluttered to myself. Without my face on it, the programme's popularity would plunge (OK, regional popularity). I tried again. 'Dear Clive,' I wrote, 'I am assured that this will not be just any old wig. It will be made from real Croatian hair and a team of seamstresses will spend literally weeks shaping it to perfection.' (This is what the wig people told me. …

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