Books

The dangerous red-headed league

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

‘Gentlemen prefer blondes,’ Anita Loos pronounced, ‘but gentlemen marry brunettes.’ Quite what they do with redheads she never revealed (and I’ve often wondered), but with Red: A Natural History of the Redhead, Jacky Colliss Harvey sets out to discover everything — what it takes to make a redhead, where in the world they come from and why they exist at all; whether redheads are actually different or just treated differently; how they got their reputation, what that reputation might be and whether they deserve it.

The history begins some 40,000 years ago, we are told, when the gene for red hair was carried from ‘the grasslands of Central Asia’ to Europe. We encounter the bones of red-headed Neanderthals in a Spanish cave, red-headed Thracians depicted in ancient Greek art, a red-haired Boudicca, red-headed Scythians, vilified red-haired Jews in medieval Europe and so on across the centuries until redheads are pocketed at their highest density (of 13 per cent, compared with fewer than one per cent worldwide) in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and the Udmurt Republic (at the top of the Volga). This is a history of migration, the author contends, until it reaches these corners ‘set apart from the great ebb and flow of the human ocean’ and the ‘liminal populations’ in those regions. At this point the ‘fixing of red hair among these liminal populations’ becomes ‘a phenomenon that exists logically and obviously’ — i.e. a numbers game.


A redhead herself, and feeling her character defined by that accident of genetics, Colliss Harvey’s project is personal: she is investigating a tribe of which she is a member. When she traces the history of redheads and catalogues the redheads of history, art, literature, cinema and fairytale, she communicates to her reader a feeling of intense solidarity with her subject. She is not just a person with red hair, she is ‘a redhead’, and being a redhead, she says, ‘is the single most significant characteristic of my life’.

St Mary Magdalene by Piero di Cosimo
St Mary Magdalene by Piero di Cosimo

As a result of this attachment Red is a memoir as well as a study. But that doesn’t make it uninteresting; only a little bit fulsome — a paean to its subject. Colliss Harvey found ‘growing up as a redhead’ to be ‘deeply confusing’, not least because everyone had something to say about her hair (and some even wanted to touch it). ‘It sometimes felt,’ she says, ‘as if the last person my red hair belonged to was me.’ Now, however, she is reconciled to her specialness: in the last chapter she travels to the Netherlands to address a gathering of redheads at a festival called ‘Redhead Days’, and when someone asks, ‘Where do redheads feel they belong?’ her answer is, ‘Right here.’

There is much about being redheaded of which I was ignorant. I had no idea, for example, that ‘any scent or cologne will smell different on a redhead’; that a redhead’s ‘unique biochemistry’ means she or he will ‘feel more pain than blondes or brunettes’ (and apparently require 20 per cent more anaesthesia to be knocked out) or that ‘redheads are also much more likely to be stung by bees’. I did not know that ‘red hair has been indispensable to the image of the indomitable, ferocious and usually voluptuous female barbarian’; nor that ‘in medieval art red hair in men… [is] visual shorthand for a brutal character’.

This is, for me, the most interesting aspect of the subject: not red hair per se or the experience of redheadedness but the meaning we have ascribed to ‘the redhead’ (as we have conjured up a persona for ‘the blonde’) over the centuries. Mary Magdalene: the original flame-haired temptress. Judas Iscariot: the original red-haired villain. In cinema, as in art, red hair is used as a signal: you have been warned. Jessica Rabbit — red hair, red lips, red dress — protests, ‘I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.’ (‘Coloured in that way’ is what she means.) Thelma and Louise are both redheads. Both! So what can you expect? No less than a pair of trigger-happy, insubordinate runaways whose hair gets bigger, wilder and redder as the film goes on. This is hair colour worn as a label: blonde, brunette and redhead are not descriptive terms so much as categories into which personalities are expected to fall. And if I sound like a typical feisty redhead, well, that’s because I am one.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £14.49 Tel: 08430 600033

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Show comments
  • Mary Ann

    Why are we obsessed with red hair? why are children with red hair bullied at school?

    • Gilbert White

      Like Ruskin, I never want to see red pubic hair ever again.

      • Callipygian

        In that case, ask her to shave.

        • ViolinSonaten b minor.

          That made me giggle- I didn’t quite know what to suggest to
          Gilbert. Who on another thread has told me that Prince Harry
          wears a toupee- I think ;-D

          • Callipygian

            Prince Harry is ‘cute’ but I’d forgotten how luscious Prince William looked as a late teen until I saw a pic of him that age, again. You could see how a young Kate might have got the hots for him. So the (rather unkind) question now is: what happened?

          • ViolinSonaten b minor.

            Prince Harry’s looks have improved with age. He also has a
            charm about him. But Prince William, what on earth went wrong and it happened so very quickly.
            Its not just the lack of hair ( he always looks better in uniform
            when he wears a hat ) its his entire character, he seems to
            have become middle- aged and he’s only in his early 30s.
            The press are also complaining that Kate doesn’t appear in public as much as Diana used to and Kate seems more like a dowager Duchess then a Princess- she cant win.
            But never mind there is always Pippa who’ll grab the limelight
            on every occasion.

          • Callipygian

            Laugh! I do hope the elder prince isn’t reading this!
            Don’t understand the press complaints and good for Kate if she spends most of her life enjoying all the privilege and luxury of being royal — out of the public eye.

          • Mary Ann

            Perhaps she spends more time with her children, although to be fair to Diana, she was one more step up the royal chain than Kate.

          • Y&B Stuart-Hargreaves

            The baldness.

          • Callipygian

            But also a loss of rosy fleshiness in the face, I think. And perhaps the bod too, though I’m no expert on Will’s physicality ha ha!

          • Roger Hudson

            The fact that Prince Henry shows the male inherited baldness refutes that slur about his paternity.

        • Y&B Stuart-Hargreaves

          Who said anything about a lady?

          • Callipygian

            I wondered when someone would ask that!

        • Gilbert White

          Love it!

        • blandings

          Shave equals stubble.
          Discreet scissoring.
          Well, you started it.

          • Callipygian

            But then you’re left with a sooty look. Anyway I’m only referring to the decorative down-arrow. Beyond that is getting obsessive.

          • blandings

            You talk of things of which I know little.

    • ViolinSonaten b minor.

      I’ve always wanted Auburn hair but unfortunately its just brown.
      Marilyn Monroe I believe had naturally red hair.

      Children are bullied at school for a number of reasons- being ginger, having
      spots, being quiet and wearing glasses- just one of those things.

      • Callipygian

        When you start going grey, you can turn that brown into the auburn you always wanted….

        • ViolinSonaten b minor.

          I’ve got a few of those, wiry things that I keep on pulling out ;-D

          • Callipygian

            Take it from me, you’ll have to stop that after a while — if you want to have any hair left!

          • ViolinSonaten b minor.

            I’d better stop then, before I end up doing a Donald Trump with my hair.
            They have specialised oils in Iceland for hair and skin, I’ll bring some back. Either that or eat Whales and Puffins as they do ;-D

          • Callipygian

            Yes indeed: I’m intrigued by what the Trump actually *does* with his hair — never wanting to look at it very closely. It appears to be a back-to-front combover, over his side-to-side combover, in the attempt to give him a sort of fringe. What it gives the rest of us is a cringe! However, we’d better get used to it, as he may well become the next president of the United States. (I’d rather he than any Democrat, even though he isn’t my ideal choice.)

            Can’t imagine eating puffins, much less whales. Maybe you can get some feathers for your hat?

          • Gilbert White

            Trump has 200,000 dollar teeth. He could have excellent hair but maybe he likes the lion’s mane.

          • ViolinSonaten b minor.

            Some lady asked if she could touch it to see if the hair is real,
            I’d not want to run my hands through that,.
            And he clearly colours it- hence the different shades of honey in his mane which goes with that red face.

          • Callipygian

            If only that’s what it was! I don’t see anyone copying his style, do you?

          • ViolinSonaten b minor.

            Oh just look at his hair. It doesn’t simply stay on his head out of
            trouble but jumps about in the wind. But there’s hope. He promised a
            lady from Iowa that if he becomes president he’ll get rid of it as it takes
            hour every morning to get it right- until he meets the wind that is ;-D

      • CatoYounger

        Bullying of redheaded kids in schools is, in my belief, a pre-emptive strike of jealousy of what the redheads will become as adults.

  • Callipygian

    being a redhead, she says, ‘is the single most significant characteristic of my life’
    It would have to be, wouldn’t it? To sell the book. To agents, I mean. A very successful author told my friend the other day that presenting ‘a voice’ is all that agents care about these days.

    • Isabel Bryant

      As a redhead, and one of three sisters all redheads, I can say that it genuinely is one of the most significant characteristics. There’s just something about it that influences your behaviour. Maybe it is the years where people make jokes that your head is on fire, or when you see Pre-Raphaelite painting and see how much people idolised it. It’s my main identifier to so many people if they were to describe me too, “small, redhead.” And considering it’s the rarest hair colour and no-one can achieve a natural looking redhead dyed look, you just feel kind of unique.

      • Callipygian

        Well, I can understand that. I’m naturally curly-haired and even though it’s not the same thing, it does influence the sort of ‘look’ that I convey: polished like stone and every-hair-in-place is not on the menu for me. Rebecca Brooks has both distinctions: a redhead with extreme curls. It makes a striking impression and possibly it helped her career.

  • Brogan75

    Redhead girls are hot

    • ViolinSonaten b minor.

      Does it depend on the shade of red ? from Strawberry Blonde ( which is pale red)
      to Chestnut Brown ( the colour of autumn leaves- still red) or aren’t you fussy and
      those with green eyes apposed to blue eyes ? or aren’t you that fussy 😉

      • Brogan75

        not fussy at all 🙂

  • uberwest

    If ordinary humans are descended from chimpanzees, gingers must be descended from Orang-Utans.

  • Suriani

    Rameses II had red hair and pockets of the type exist among the Berbers and Syrians.

  • CatoYounger

    If you’ve every deeply loved a redhead in an affair for the ages, you know without a doubt they are different. I’ve dated many women over the years of all kinds. There is only one who swims through my dreams, who I still smell on the air sometimes even when I’m alone, who I hear when I’m driving, who fired the passions beyond anything dreamt of before, who pushed me to new heights of achievement and ambition, and who broke my heart so utterly it is still being stitched back together. And you know what? I wouldn’t change a thing.

  • CatoYounger

    Russia literally means land of redheads.

  • My lovely red headed son was bullied at school by the headmaster. He never mentioned it to me, one of his schoolmates told me long after they’d left.

  • Mnestheus

    How long before the reds at the Tate mount a restrospective of Udmurt Socialist Realism?

  • Stephen Wigmore

    I was much more redhaired as a child and it was an important part of who I was, but I’ve gone steadily more boringly brunette as I grew up. I now think of myself as a redhead, and as that being my community, but I don’t actually have the red hair to prove it anymore! A very sad state.

  • Jon

    Ooooh! I want one!

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