July 31, 2020

Brylcreem – a little dab will do ya! 
Use only if you dare; 
But watch out! 
The gals will all pursue ya!
They’ll love to run their fingers through your hair!

My father died eleven years ago. He was 96 years old. I was 56 years old. On the day he died he had more hair on his head than me, and less grey hair than me.

My father used Brylcreem on his hair every day of his adult life. And there was always the same sharp parting. It never shifted. It was there on a photo I have of him at 16. It was there the morning he died.

If this Covid-19 had not happened I should be driving across Europe right now, in a white Ford Transit van with my colleague Tracey Moberly. In the back of the van would be The 25 Paintings. I would have been heading for Kurdistan in Eastern Turkey. To be more precise – to the city of Bingöl.

This is where I was to be doing this year’s leg of The 25 Paintings twelve year world tour. It was to be in Bingöl because that is the home town of Metin my barber. He has his barber’s shop on Albion Parade within 50 strides from the front door of my flat in north London. Brylcreem is not an option at Metin’s barber shop. But of course, Metin’s is also on lockdown.

When Beatlemania swept the nation, in the Autumn of 1963, the sale of Brylcreem plummeted. And it never recovered. For the previous one hundred and sixty years men in this country had used oil on their hair, to hold it in place. Brylcreem was not introduced to the men of the land until 1928, which was just a few months before my dad turned 16, and that photo of him that I refer to was taken.

But back in 1803 when the craze for men oiling their hair was first sweeping the nation, it was an oil called Macassar that they used to keep their hair neatly in place.

It might have looked fabulous, the gals might have pursued them, but there was a downside – this Macassar oil soiled the headrests of upholstered armchairs and sofas.

This was not so nice.

Something had to be done.

So, our Victorian relatives came up with the idea of draping the headrests of these upholstered armchairs and sofas with pieces of cloth. Pieces of cloth that could be removed and washed at ease and then replaced back on the headrests.

Over the years, these pieces of cloth became refined fashion accessories for the house-proud. They were crocheted and embroidered to the highest level.

They no longer looked like something that just existed to stop the headrests of armchairs and sofas, becoming soiled and stained by bi-products of man’s vanity.


They had already been given the name of antimacassar. And the name stuck long after the men of the land had moved on from grooming their hair with Macassar.

Macassar was made from coconut oil and Ylang Ylang oil and maybe a couple of other oils.

And while we are at it Brylcreem is made from water, petroleum and beeswax.

When I was a boy in Newton Stewart, everybody had antimacassars on the headrests of their armchairs and sofas, like everybody had ashtrays on their coffee tables.

But then…

Yesterday, my almost mother-in-law, who is being shielded from Covid-19, temporarily moved into the furnished flat downstairs from where I’m doing lockdown.

She brought with her a couple of throws to cover the sofa and armchair in this furnished flat. They were of a very light cotton with hand dyed Indian designs. They weren’t actual antimacassars, but something clicked.

The first handwritten draft of the book I’ve been working on is nearly done. Lockdown has some time to go. The only physical aspect to my work that I have access to here are my knitting needles and a box of balls of wool. These being for The Million Stitch Blanket that I am working on over The 25 Paintings twelve year world tour.

Maybe I should knit an antimacassar using the wool I have access to. This antimacassar would be made up of 25 A5 sized knitted rectangles. Each of the 25 rectangles representing each of The 25 Paintings – as in each of the 25 A5 sized rectangles knitted in the colours of the painting they represent.

I reckon I could knit one of these rectangles a day, between my home-schooling and domestic responsibilities. And after all 25 are knitted I will sew them together to make an A1 sized antimacassar ready for work.

And ready for me to take on a budget airline later in the year to Kurdistan, where I will find an armchair in Bingöl, in need of an antimacassar. And while there I might not be able to do all the things that I usually do on each leg of The 25 Paintings twelve year world tour. But I could write a very short play, where this hand knitted antimacassar is not only the prime prop in the play but could be the male lead. The female lead of course being another antimacassar, but one that is Kurdish and been there on the headrest of an armchair for the past 100 years.

She would have observed the vanities of men, expressed through their hair grooming, over those hundred years. Whereas my hand-knitted one would be young, arrogant and brash.

The stage set would be just two armchairs facing the audience each with…

Look anyway I can get to all that later when I actually write the play.

For now, all you need to know is – up until I was ten years old, I could have occasionally been witnessed helping myself to a dab of my father’s Brylcreem. This was to help coiffure my hair before heading off to one of those loathed birthday or Christmas parties I was made to go to.

But after the summer of ’63, and the Beatlemania that swept the nation, my father’s jar of Brylcreem, never again had its lid surreptitiously un-screwed by my fingers.

And Elvis Presley’s hair looked ridiculous from then on.  

Time to get knitting.

Antimacassar waiting on the beach at Sizewell B.