WHATEVER happened to Hannibal Lecter when he sauntered into the sunset at the end of Silence of the Lambs? I'll tell you. He went to work in a London cosmetic clinic specialising in treatments for hair loss.

He may not look the same, but it's him all right. Those same piercing, lizard eyes. Those same insidious questions. 'How would you rate your anxiety about your hair, Nicholas, on a scale of one to 10? When does it concern you? Is it in social situations. . . perhaps with the opposite sex?' Like the best insurance salesman, he wheedles his way into my darkest insecurities.

The clinic's brochure has a similar approach. It seems to have been written by St John the Divine as a practice for Revelations. I can 'fight off the evil onslaught of baldness', it promises. I am not 'doomed to live with baldness forever'. Hallelujah]

These people make their money by focusing on and magnifying fears. Not my fears, of course. What do I care if my hairline is not so much receding as running for dear life? I was in that clinic for purely journalistic reasons. Honest.

But men's fear of balding is more deeply ingrained than most of us admit. Elizabeth Steel is the founder of Hairline International - the Alopecia Patients' Society. The support group was created for women who suffer the trauma of losing their hair. After Ms Steel started receiving calls from men as well she realised that baldness distressed both sexes. 'The BBC asked me to find bald men to talk about hair loss on a TV programme. I thought it would be the easiest thing in the world. But one man I spoke to said that he would break down in tears. Another said he would only appear in silhouette, with his name changed.'

Last year a 25-year-old Londoner hijacked a lorry full of leather jackets. He carried out the robbery to pay for his pounds 5,000 hair transplant. The judge gave him a lenient one year sentence: no doubt he thought that for such a young man, the stigma of slapheadedness could provoke temporary insanity.

But how can such a common condition be stigmatic? Desmond Morris says in Bodywatching: 'Although many men start to lose their hair while still in their twenties, the effect is usually minimal. It is not until they reach middle age that the expanse of bald skin becomes glaringly obvious . . . Baldness becomes not so much a symbol of male virility as of male ageing. In a culture which worships youthfulness this is clearly something of a disaster.' Morris should know. The author of The Naked Ape keeps his naked pate hidden with a Bobby Charlton sweep of hair from the side to the top of his head - a technique which is given an approving mention in Bodywatching.

John Firmage, director of the Institute of Trichologists, agrees that baldness is viewed as a symptom of advancing years, but argues that our perception does not match the facts: 'Baldness does not equal old age. The process is triggered off at puberty. Plenty of men lose their hair in their twenties, even if the media pretend otherwise.'

In other words, the term 'premature balding' should not be applied to anyone out of short trousers. I first noticed that all was not well in the trichological department at the age of 17. I was not alone. Now that I am 22, a fair proportion of my friends have foreheads higher than their morale. The rest are nervously counting the number of hairs left in the plughole after every bath, sure in the knowledge that the evil onslaught could doom them at any moment. Male readers will by now be nodding their heads, follically-challenged or otherwise, in sympathy. Female readers may be shaking theirs in disbelief. Most women I spoke to about this article laughed off my fears: 'It's natural isn't it? Millions of men are bald.'

They're right, of course. While temporary baldness can be caused by stress, or illness, or poor diet, common or garden alopecia androgenetica, or male pattern baldness, is there in your genes. It doesn't matter which shampoos you use or how often you wash your hair, if MPB is in your blood, the fate of your pate is sealed. Not that that stops us blokes from fretting.

One male friend (26, thinning hair, cropped short, looks OK) came up with the perfect analogy: 'Young men worry about being bald like young women worry about being fat.' Blame the media. When did you last see a bald male model? Probably about the same time as you saw an overweight female one.

Just as Dawn French campaigned for the sexiness of larger women, it's time to boost the image of the baldy. We're not losing hair, we're gaining face] This attitude would not please Hannibal Lecter. When I refuse to consider surgery, he recommends a course of anti- androgens, pounds 2,000 for a year.

'I think we should start at once,' he hisses. 'If you wait six months, who knows, it may be too late. How will you be paying - credit card or cheque?' I tell him I'd like some time to think about it.

'What is it you want to think about, Nicholas? I've been very honest with you, and I think that should be reciprocated.'

There are lots of ads for hair treatments, I say. I want to check out all the options.

''Fine. I have your telephone number. I'll call you during the week.'

That was a month ago. Even now, the hair on the back of my neck stands on end whenever the phone rings. The hair that's left on my head stays where it is.

Nicholas Barber's rock column and hairline appear on page 24

HEADHUNT

'How much would you pay for a full head of hair?'

Nicholas Barber asks a few close friends

Neil (balding), 31: pounds 2,000 for hair for life. After all, it costs pounds 2,000 to have your eyesight corrected with laser surgery. Don't go for the cheap option.

Mark (balding), 22: pounds 1,000 a year sounds reasonable enough. Women probably spend that on make-up.

Jack (non-bald), 23: However much it took. I'd go for surgery and get it over with.

John (bald), 26: I wouldn't do it. You'd start with your hair, then you'd get plastic surgery, then something else. You might as well accept the way you are.

Bob (bald), 60: I had a full head of hair when I was young and that was appropriate. Now I'd rather be like Kojak.

Alex (non-bald), 24: I wouldn't pay anything, I'd kill myself.

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