Red’s not dead

Becoming extinct, fiery temper – and just a bit weird. Who better to lay the myths about redheads to rest than Emma Jane Unsworth?

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I regularly get (over)excited about books, but I can’t remember the last time I was quite so excited as I was about one that came out earlier this month. Jacky Colliss Harvey’s Red: A Natural History of the Redhead studies redheads throughout the ages – from Boudicca to Benedict Cumberbatch. 

When I saw it mentioned on Twitter back in summer, I pounced. One of those real “that’s for me” moments. Come to think of it, maybe it was even more than that – maybe it was one of those “that IS me” moments. Because having red hair is a funny thing. Colliss Harvey, a redhead herself, describes it as “the single most defining characteristic of my life”. I know where she’s coming from. When you grow up with red hair you feel different, and that’s not always a positive (at least it wasn’t in Bury during the 1980s).

I devoured the book. Red is an engaging read, playful and smart, packed with facts but never boggy with them. It is both a study and a celebration. It is also the perfect gift idea for any redheads in your life (you’re welcome). If you’re a redhead, you’ve probably gathered a few facts over the years – snaffled them when you can. We are the last to go grey. Our individual hairs are thicker. We require larger doses of anaesthetics and are more resistant to pain-blockers (I’ve often blamed my redheadedness for the amount I have to spend on wine). We are not – contrary to popular internet belief – becoming extinct. However, in terms of providing an encyclopaedia of all things ginger, Red takes the biscuit. While I was reading it, I was struck by how astonishing it is that the history of red hair hasn’t been chronicled before – which is the mark of a good idea, I guess. Colliss Harvey, who works in publishing, describes the conception of the book as a “red-lightbulb-over-head” moment.

“I was sitting in a sales conference watching another publisher present their history list and was amusing myself by seeing if I could come up with ideas for suitable titles for them,” she says. “I came back home and had filled three notebooks within a month. There was a fascinating, time-travelling, multicultural detective story here, and I was determined to tell it as well and in as authoritative and definitive and graspable a way as I could.”

“There was a fascinating, time-travelling,
multicultural detective story here.”

“Multicultural” is interesting. Red hair is due to a recessive gene (a faulty version of the MC1R gene, or melanocortin receptor, that sits on chromosome 16 – bet you’re sorry you asked) and occurs in just 2 per cent of the global population. It is more common (2-6 per cent) in northern and western Europe, or in those with that ancestry. In Scotland and Ireland the frequency is as high as 13 per cent and 10 per cent respectively. Red hair likely lay dormant in early human populations, coming to the fore and flourishing as recently as 20,000 years ago under northern skies, where pale skin was more efficient at synthesising vitamin D when there was less available sunlight. But it is found all over the world – in Afghanistan, Morocco, Iran, China and many more places that have native populations of redheads. There’s a hotspot in Russia: the Udmurt population on the River Volga, who are said to possess the “reddest hair in the world”. It is a unique international community.

One of the themes of the book is the idea that red hair is, well, a bit weird – and worse than that, a bit ugly. Colliss Harvey traces a direct line from the red-haired clowns of today (see Ronald McDonald) to redheaded Thracian slaves in the ancient world. She goes on to connect anti-redhead feeling to the Vikings, as you might expect, and then to some things you might not so readily expect, such as anti-semitism, and sexist stereotypes in religious art. The way this became gendered, largely through depictions of Mary Magdelene, is something we still see played out today in the likes of Joanie in Mad Men. The sexy red lady can be a tempting diversion from the negativity, but ultimately that kind of stereotyping does all women a disservice. Redheaded women who don’t make an effort to be “sexy” – and redheaded men – aren’t granted such social luxuries. It’s complicated – and personal.

Emma Jane Unsworth

“The colour of my hair determined so much of how the outside world responded to me, and how I reacted to it,” Colliss Harvey says when I ask her about her experiences of growing up. “It sometimes felt as if my hair belonged to everyone else but me. Nature versus nurture in a redhead – it’s practically indivisible.”

Redheads are often accused of having a fiery temper but, as Colliss Harvey points out, you would have one if you were teased often enough. They’re an easy target for bullies because even in the supposedly grown-up, adult world, red hair is a trait that often comes under fire in public. Just a few years ago Harriet Harman had to apologise for calling Danny Alexander “a ginger rodent”. (I’d say the rodent bit might be true, but that would be unfair to rats.) A few years before that, Lily Allen branded Nicola Roberts “the ugly one” from Girls Aloud. And who could forget Taylor Swift stating that she would “do a ginger”. Thanks, Taylor. PS: stand in line, bish.

In the 2011 series of The X Factor, the singer Janet Devlin received an onslaught of mean comments when she dyed her hair from blonde to red.

“Understandably, a lot of people just disliked the fact I’d changed it at all,” she says. “But what became paramount was the abuse I was receiving for the colour itself. It didn’t cross my mind when dying my hair that anyone would be so shallow as to use hair colour as an insult, but it was becoming ever more apparent that it was most people’s go-to insult for me.”

Devlin dyed her hair back to blonde for a bit.

“I did find myself actively saying things like, ‘I’m not really ginger’, which is quite sad to be honest because it shouldn’t matter whether or not I was a real redhead, as the comments were completely unnecessary. I found myself in a position halfway through the show where I wanted to go back to blonde and it was due to the mean things people had been saying.”

Then she realised there might be something positive to be gleaned from the experience, after all. “It was little things like kids coming up to me and saying, ‘The girls in my class love my hair now because of you.’ Just little things like that that made me realise it was actually doing something good.”

Colliss Harvey describes a similar feeling after the publication of Red. “One of the best things has been to watch parents buy it for their redheaded children – the next generation.”

All of this provokes a memory for me – a mini childhood victory. Visiting a Lancashire textile museum in the late 1980s with my family, we were told by the tour guide that mill owners bought the urine of mill-workers and locals, because urine broke down into ammonia salts, which were used to cleanse and whiten the cotton in a process called fulling. Payment for urine was usually a penny per pot, but for redheads there was a higher payment, since their urine was considered more potent. You cannot imagine how much I lorded this fact over my blonde younger sister afterwards. I HAD MORE POWERFUL WEE. (Sorry, Loobs, but, you know, you did generally have it easier.)

Silly superstitions aside, it’s important to embrace difference – and to clobber intolerance with defiance and hope. Devlin is still red, four years later. “I think the most important thing I learned from the experience is that people will pick on the most individual thing about you, and that’s inevitable,” she says. “So you may as well be brave and stand out rather than blend in and be boring.”

This sentiment relates to what Colliss Harvey calls the “real redhead dilemma”: we want to lose the pejorative associations of being redheaded – but we don’t want to stop being noticed. “There’s a balancing point – we’re working out where it is and negotiating our way toward it,” she says. “It’s part of becoming newly aware of ourselves as an international movement, no longer just as isolated individuals.” As she concludes in the book: “We want to have our ginger cake and eat it.”

And why the hell not? It’s only human to want to be noticed and loved at the same time. A crazy-impossible dream, perhaps (certainly while things like playgrounds and Twitter exist – and there are some glaring similarities between the two, don’t you think?). Still. Towards the end of Red, Colliss Harvey travels to Holland for a festival. Redhead Days takes place every September in Breda, and is the biggest annual gathering of redheads in the world. In 2014 there were over 6,000 attendees. I like the thought of all those gingers jostling for position on photoshoots. I wonder how it’d feel to be there, when often you’re the only ginger on the street.

I also wonder what the collective noun for gingers might be. A blaze? A freckle? Answers on a pre-Raphaelite postcard.

Red: A Natural History of the Redhead by Jacky Colliss Harvey is published by Allen & Unwin (£16.99). Animals (Canongate, £8.99) by Emma Jane Unsworth is out now in paperback

Photos: Rebecca Lupton

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