Ian McMillan: Hair apparent

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
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When I was a boy my mother despaired of my unruly and wayward hair, the way it stuck up like a tree, the way it resisted all attempts at combing, the way it always looked like I’d had a fight with a petrol-driven lawnmower and an electric fan and lost. “Why can’t you keep it a proper style?” she’d say, tugging a comb through my reluctant locks which, true to their name, locked the comb up and wouldn’t let it shift. “Why can’t you have a parting and look smart?” she’d say, forcing the comb out and flinging it back into the drawer in disgust. Then, in a final utterance of stylistic no-hopery, she’d cry: “You look like Alfalfa!” and go and put the kettle on.

I found out years later that Alfalfa referred not to the perennial flowering plant of the pea family but to a character in the Our Gang series of films that my mother would probably have watched at the Empire Cinema in Darfield in the 1930s; Alfalfa’s hair was untamable like mine and even though it had been smoothed and smoothed, one stray prong of it sprung up like Emley Moor mast.

I was thinking about my hair and Alfalfa’s hair the other day in relation to how writers might use a kind of shorthand to describe a character, perhaps without taking up too much space in a tight piece of writing, and for readers of a certain age (and perhaps for viewers of the modern remake of the Our Gang franchise, The Little Rascals) to say that somebody looked like Alfalfa would place them instantly in the reader’s head, assuming that they got the cultural reference.

Hair is always good for this kind of character-sketching. A quiff, especially on an older man, conjures up the Elvis fan who likes to give it some Love Me Tender on Karaoke Night at the New Inn; long hair, perhaps with beads in, will always make the reader think of a gentle hippy character, whereas a shaved head combined with bulging veins on a perspiring skull will, perhaps unfairly, give the opposite impression. A punk Mohican will lead you to expect that a character will speak in a certain way, and a neat side parting of the sort my mother always tried to get me to have will prepare the reader for someone who speaks in the opposite kind of way. Someone with a footballer’s perm might be expected to be pivotal to a sporty adventure plot and someone with a comb-over that looks scribbled on with a felt-tip pen could be a kindly physics teacher in a story about life in a boarding school between the wars.

As writers we can use these tiny details to build a character, whether it’s a major or a minor one. And of course you don’t have to stop at the hairstyle, or lack of it in my case. Glasses, for example, can speak volumes about someone. You don’t believe me? Look at Harry Potter: he’s almost all glasses, in the books as well as the films. He is his glasses, like I’m my wayward hair. And don’t get me started on teeth.