It was never meant to be like this. I have become an alternative, counter-cultural hair-care consultant. The road from aspirant Cabinet minister to agony uncle of the hair and scalp has been tortuous, rarely appearing to lead where I now see it was always going. But there were glimpses. When a decade ago I wrote in the Times about stumbling (while camping in South America) on a great truth: that if you stop washing your hair with degreasants it begins to get less greasy rather than more — the lively and inquisitive response from readers should have alerted me to my future career path. But still I thought there was a role for me as a serious columnist, guiding and advising the nation on the best political direction for our country.
Even the job of serious columnist had represented a lowering of sights. Nearly ten years earlier I had entered Parliament with lively youthful hopes of one day becoming prime minister. Slowly these had faded. The moment of truth had come when, after nearly seven years on the back benches, a junior transport minister had recommended me to the British Tyre Retreaders’ Federation as an unpaid adviser. I shook the dust from my feet and left the Commons to replace Brian Walden as a TV supremo of heavyweight Sunday political interviewing.
Then came a further lowering of sights. Brian proved irreplaceable — at least by me. London Weekend Television helped me acknowledge this by axing the programme. When the then editor of the Times asked if I would write about politics, pride had to be swallowed before taking up light political journalism, and casting a wry eye over the legislators I had once hoped to lead. ‘Ah well,’ I thought, ‘maybe the pen is mightier than the ministerial red box; behind a mask of humour I shall subtly influence events.’
But I found the jokes were what readers wanted. Only the jokes. They could take or leave my views on the hubris of Margaret Thatcher, the misfortunes of John Major, the fatuity of Tony Blair or the idiocy of our latest military adventure in Iraq — but they always remembered the banter about Ann Widdecombe’s bust, Vulcans in politics, and the late Robin Cook’s amorous adventures. They enjoyed, too, my light columns about things like eating food after its sell-by date, or the pointlessness of pandas.
Looking back it is all so clear. Like that children’s party game where a blindfolded tot is guided to pin on the donkey’s tail, fate was calling ‘Warmer! Warmer! Colder! Warmer’. My seminal 1,500-word column on the urgent necessity of making buses free in London? Colder! My 25 years of enthusiastic advocacy of electronic road-pricing? Colder! My sketch about Virginia and Peter Bottomley’s pillow-talk when both were ministers? Warmer! My doubts about the deployment of British troops in southern Afghanistan? Colder!
And then that column about the pointlessness of shampoo. Warmer! WARMER! The donkey’s tail was hovering. My place on the career map should have been obvious. The gods of journalism were laying friendly hands on my shoulder, pointing out the way.
But still I resisted. There were columns about the future of the Conservative party. Nobody listened. There were urgent essays about the need to improve the means of storing electricity. Few cared. My treatise on the pointless extravagance of trams fell stillborn from the press. And from time to time someone would say, ‘Didn’t you write a column, ages ago, about not washing your hair? I’ve always remembered that. Were you serious? Did you keep it up?’
I’m not proud. So a couple of months ago, on the tenth anniversary of that hair-wash column, I wrote it again. My Times Notebook was able to bring readers up to date with a decade’s happy and successful experience of washing my hair with only warm water.
Letters flooded in. Outraged hairdressers protested. Scalp specialists were invited to comment. BBC Radio Scotland sent their man to a hair salon to interview coiffeurs. Jeremy Vine set me up with a specialist on his morning BBC Radio Two show. Andrew Marr declared himself for the Parris Method. Jackie Ashley, his wife, was rumoured to be unamused. In a television studio Francis Maude actually ran his fingers through my hair to see if it was as fluffy and clean as I was claiming.
One bittersweet morning, after an in-house politics conference at News International, my editor took me aside: ‘Have you any idea of the impact that column about not washing your hair has caused?’ he said, approvingly.
Indeed I had. And my impending holiday in Colombia was about to rub it in.
You can keep up with your emails almost anywhere these days, using internet cafés. So we had not been long in South America before the Times started forwarding messages and questions from readers. They were about hair. All about hair. One man in Dorset had been following the Parris Method for more than a month, and wanted me to know that after an initial greasiness (I did warn of that) things were on the mend. How long before the hair returned to normal, he asked? Had I any tips for his cold-water hair-wash routine?
Time was spent at a screen in Bogotá helping with this query. ‘There’s no need for the water to be cold,’ I found myself tapping on to the machine, ‘but you should wash the hair thoroughly just as with shampoo. Stand right under the shower rose throughout your shower so the hair gets a good, long rinse….
‘And remember to towel-dry as vigorously as you like. Incidentally, don’t imagine that stopping shampoo will end dandruff, but it won’t make it any worse.’
We were in Riobamba in Ecuador before his reply came. ‘Thanks for this advice. But in fact I should tell you the dandruff plaguing me when I used shampoo has almost disappeared.’ My spirits soared. ‘Great news,’ I tapped back, as Ecuadorian students on the screens beside me worked on their university theses or communed with internet friends across the world, ‘about your dandruff! Keep me posted.’
There was something on the wires about a new leadership crisis in the Labour party, and a failed Gordon Brown coup, or some such. Should I read it? Pondering this, I remembered I’d forgotten to tell my correspondent not to make the shower water too hot. I sent him a PS.
I’m sure this Iran sanctions business is going to prove a terrible mistake if it happens. And you don’t really think Tony Blair is going to hand the Labour leadership to Gordon Brown on a plate, do you? And I was right to sound a warning on all that fashionable nonsense about trams, wasn’t I? Buses are a fraction of the cost, you know…. But already your attention wanders. OK, OK, I get the message.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist for the Times.