Slapheads and the art of cover up

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 October, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 October, 1993, 12:00am

A FRIEND was in town last week and we met for dinner. There was a lot of catching up to do since we had not seen each other for 31/2 years. Towards the end of dinner he said in that uniquely apologetic tone Englishmen drop into when they are about to be frank: ''You know I don't mean to be rude, but you've lost an awful lot of hair since I last saw you.'' Forget the picture at the top of this column since it looks as if it has been touched up more times than an official portrait of Kim Il-sung, although it is only the effect of shadows thrown by a flash gun.

Yet if you could magically insert your breakfast egg spoon into the photograph you would be able to use it to flick the pitiful legacy of a once-vigorous fringe that used to run across my forehead, but like the hinterlands of the Amazon, has since suffered a catastrophic deforestation.

My father and my older brother are both what would be referred to these days as ''follically challenged'' and my maternal grandfather was known as ''Dome'' on account of his impressive forehead that started from the top of his brows and did not stop until the far side of his crown.

When I was in my 20s I looked at the long, thick mop of brown hair I sported like a man who has bought something on a hire purchase agreement, knowing eventually he will default on the repayments and someone will come and repossess it. Nevertheless I unhappily studied the slow but inexorable growth in the amount of bare skin on my forehead, wondering if taking a razor to the area would promote longer-term growth.

Of course it would not, the tide was ebbing and it was not going to reflood again; I must bow to the inevitable, stopping only to wonder at the perverse sense of humour of Mother Nature since the loss of hair on my head seemed to be balanced by its increasing profusion on other parts of my body.

Like an impoverished aristocrat who trades in a manor house for a bedsitter, one of the hardest things about losing your hair is trying to keep up appearances. In the case of many men obliged to join that large fraternity known derisively as ''slapheads'', they continue to wear their hair as it was when styling meant a lot more than palming flat the hair that stubbornly clings to the side of your skull.

They grow it long down their neck and tie it into a ponytail; the effect of gathering it in a bow is as if the effort has pulled back their scalp. THE alternative is to keep the hair length the same but to create an elaborate cantilevered structure usinga comb, hairspray and styling gel of a strength that it can also be used to bond metal parts together on Formula 1 racing cars.

Depending on the amount of hair loss, the treatment can be partially effective, although it does depend on the subject keeping out of rain showers and anything stronger than a summer breeze, avoiding places where there is strong lighting mounted on a wall and aiming downwards or strenuous activity including rugby, tennis and dish-washing.

The results can be disastrous; the support structure is a delicate creation, and if it collapses the whole thing tumbles flat, an unruly and rank clump that flops lifelessly across your forehead like seaweed out of water.

At some point in the erosion process sense takes over, probably when the shape the hairline will settle into after the fallout ceases to become apparent. The ageing rock and roller look is spurned and instead you stride manfully into your hairdresser's with your shoulders pulled back saying in a stern, commanding baritone: ''This time I want it short - really short.'' Once that decision has been made and accepted, the newly-shorn man will find there are all sorts of diverse advantages to the new hairstyle. The savings on shampoo are considerable, there is far less wear and tear on your hairbrush, hats fit much more snugly and you don't think twice about accepting a lift on a motorcycle for fear the helmet will flatten your hairstyle because you no longer have one.

You find yourself avidly reading articles about how sexy Sean Connery is, you abandon your previous reluctance to listen to Phil Collins' music and you curse ATV for not showing LA Law repeats because you want to see Arnie Becker's attempts to deal with his shrinking hairline, and admire Douglas Brackman's leadership skills.

And above all, you repeat that ancient maxim that pragmatic slapheads have comforted themselves with throughout the ages - ''Hair today and gone tomorrow.''