Will Self: PsychoGeography

Growing bald disgracefully
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My friend Ralph writes:

"I went to a barber's shop in Greek Street, Soho, about a month ago and realised that it was only the third time I have been to one in my entire life. In the mean old brilliantined days, small boys were forced to sit on a plank placed across the arms of the barber's chair, and this, I contend, made them scowl, because they were the objects of ridicule. Consequently, I refused to go to a barber and preferred to cut off my own hair when necessary.

"Then I shaved off all my hair as part of some daft bet when I attended life classes at East Ham Tech College. This was nearly fifty years ago, long before the style became fashionable, and it never really grew back properly again. When I first encountered a skinhead, in Carshalton, Surrey, in 1969, he said, 'All right, geezer,' then did a double-take.

"I believed that I had made my hair feel unwanted, but in fact the exact opposite was my heart's desire. Hence the nature of the trio's detached hairstyle and the oddness of their bearing. The hand in the ear is a cry for help, the conch my listening for wisdom and my whole life's autobiographical stance. I was brought up in a 3rd-floor council flat on the North Wales coast, an evacuee from Wallasey – not even Liverpool! From my attic bedroom skylight window all I could hear was the sea and a seagull. No real birdsong."

I worry when Ralph talks like this: with a tone of haunted and valedictory reminiscence. Worry, because he isn't here. Not only isn't he here – there's no one else here either, unless you count the businessman in the blue-and-white check shirt sitting opposite me preparing a Power-Point presentation on his laptop. But I don't count him, because I see him bloody everywhere, and if I started counting him and his doppelgangers I wouldn't know when to stop.

No, not only isn't Ralph talking, but I'm also listening to Vaughan Williams's "The Lark Ascending", played by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, so if Ralph were to be speaking of his childhood as an evacuee on the North Wales coast (incidentally, the "not even Liverpool", struck a particularly affecting note, yes?) then it might well represent the breakthrough into either operatic acceptance for him, or full-blown psychosis for me.

I'm on a train from Manchester, putting this column together out of curls and cuttings of personal hair-story. I too have gone slap-head (as they say in the city Ralph doesn't hail from). Someone told me the visual content of your dreams massively increases if you either shave your head, or wear a woolly hat to bed. I tried them both. I thought I'd look like a Buddhist monk, all lean and ascetic; but I more closely resembled the wrestler Big Daddy, and elderly women ran screaming from me as I strolled through the streets of Oxford, a town that ever afterwards has been associated with alopecia for me. "Beliefs are ideas going bald," a remark credited variously to André Breton, Lautréamont, Leonard Cohen and Big Daddy, but which I claim as my own.

Baldness is a touchy subject in our family. Both my brothers lost their hair at an early age – one of them never really gained any. And being a nasty little tyke, I guyed them mercilessly about this. A couple of years ago, still being the proud possessor of a crowning glory that some have dubbed "the Koh-i-Noor Diamond of coifs", I resolved to make amends. For eight whole seasons I gave Keith – my redoubtable hair man, who shears at World's End in Chelsea – the swerve. If I saw him in the King's Road I looked straight through him and said, "I do not know you." Whereupon he stared at me and replied, "I don't know you either, mate, but you could do with a barnet."

Eventually, I had enough locks for any old lusty prince to bust into my tower. Keith gave me the chop, and I had the clippings made into two absolutely beautiful wigs, which I presented to my aggrieved siblings. Were they grateful? Were they fuck. The threw the toupees back in my face, crying out that this was the cruellest taunt of them all. I don't know, there's just no pleasing some people.

In conclusion then: Ralph may have thought he was drawing three of his own personae, but, in the grand tradition of the Surrealists, he unwittingly ended up depicting my brothers and myself, reunited in the afterlife, all with great hair. The symbolism of the clockwork mechanism, the conch shell and hand poking out of one of our ears is also easy to explain. But what any of this has to do with geography is utterly beyond me. I may have to ask the man sitting opposite.