In the days when I had more hair – a thick russet-brown thatch of it, I used to ladle on the Brylcreem whenever I needed to make myself presentable. Nowadays I stare at my cranium in the bathroom mirror and marvel at the amount it needed back then. Today my scalp is like patchy white moss on a weathered brick wall. The only preparation I use on it – the only feasible one, is whatever stabilises the dandruff and keeps it off my shoulders.
It’s hard to recall that unless you passed the 11+ and got streamed into the right classes to go on to college or university, you left school at 14 to work in a factory, dig a trench or trundle a wheelbarrow around on a building site. There was no shortage of building land in the form of bomb sites, once the owners could be discovered, many of them being either dead or fled. However enough bomb sites trickled onto the market to be turned into banks and petrol stations, keeping in full employment the armies of young men who were no longer getting put in uniform, shorn of their Brylcreemed locks and mustered into platoons to be shot at.
As a young working man of 14, school was a thing of the past and girls disappeared altogether during the daytime, turning into a nocturnal species. On Saturday night you squeezed your tortured epiphyses into winkle-pickers, smeared on a handful of Brylcreem and carved it into corduroy waves with your bug rake – a regulation black nylon one from Woolworths. Only dog handlers and queers used steel combs, the latter letting them peep from the top pockets of their chocolate brown suits.
In these times of social media – nowadays even singles bars are passé – one scarcely remembers that in the dusty grey 50s it was difficult to meet girls socially. Yes, you could go along to the youth club to meet the girls there, if you cared to face down the gangsters swaggering around the joint. And there were girls at school of course – but I mean real girls. Pretty girls – “smashers”, in the parlance of the day. To see those, and maybe get to talk to one (if you could pry her away from her pals), you had to go along to the Palais on Saturday night. Every town had its Palais – without one there wasn’t going to be a next generation.
You never saw “smashers” in the street. My friends and I decided they must all stay at home during the day helping their mothers. The idea eluded us that the pretty girls we saw at the Palais might be the same nondescript females we passed in the street, but we were too young to entertain such an improbability. As boys, not welcome in our parents’ or sisters’ bedrooms (as they weren’t in ours) we were not privvy to the mysteries of face powder, lipstick and false eyelashes. Pretty girls were heavenly beings and only deigned to mingle with mortals when there were bright lights to blush beneath and rock ‘n’ roll to jive to.
Mind-you, not that we used to jive all the time at the Palais. Those few who could manage it commandeered their stamping ground, and you risked life and limb straying onto it when fetching another bottle of coke from the (unlicensed) bar. Not only from accidental collision but from irate dancers, who much preferred the phalanx of a dazzled audience to the passage of pedestrians where there was no right-of-way.
It was normal to stand around the walls – girls as well as boys – until the evening got going. The smashers never stood around for long, if at all: they were speedily snapped up by the gangsters, leaving only the plain janes, on whom no self-respecting boy would bestow a second glance. This meant you could be propping up the wall for a long time before you gave it up as a bad job and went home to listen to your parents’ shellac records on an old-fashioned gramophone needing no electricity. If you stuck it out at the Palais, it felt less like boy-meets-girl and more like a flock of vultures eyeing arid pastures, waiting for someone to drop dead.
Once the crowds arrived and serious dancing was impossible, things became more relaxed because they were more anonymous. You might pluck up courage to ask a girl for a dance, and she – preferring it to becoming a wallflower – might accept. Your only worry then was the boss. The rule was a simple one: while your feet were moving you were dancing. otherwise you were doing something else – and for decency’s sake needed ejecting from the premises.
I used to love the smell of Brylcreem, and I suspect that was its chief attraction, apart from its seedy resemblance to something that went with boys in the raw. Vaseline was cheaper, went further, and gave a superior sheen. In those dismal days some household products were known only by hearsay from your granny: you could reach manhood without once encountering a sample. Beeswax was one such product. Honeycombs were unobtainable unless you knew a beekeeper, and all honey was pasteurised and blended, indistinguishable (except for a slight musky taste you couldn’t detect if you smoked) from Lyle’s Golden Syrup, the essential ingredient of the steamed pudding and the crystalline lunchbox sandwich.
But Brylcreem, like George Orwell’s 1984 synthetic gin, was abundant and freely available from every chemist and barber’s shop. As I recall it didn’t smell of beeswax. To me it is beeswax that smells of Brylcreem.