In praise of red hair
Depressing news in the September edition of National Geographic:
Redheads are becoming rarer and could become extinct - some experts say the last redhead could be born by 2060. Others say the redhead gene can disappear for a generation or two in a family and reappear. But if it does disappear, it will, perhaps, have been inevitable.
Red has long been the rarest hair colour in humans, as it is the result of a mutation that occurred only in a small population of Celts in Europe many thousands of years ago. Given the manner in which Celts were pushed west, it makes sense that people with the red hair are mostly found in Ireland, Scotland and Wales (and, to a lesser extent, England).
The birthrate in these countries is historically low, especially compared with Asia and Africa, where infants generally don't have red hair. Thus, the proportion of the world's population with natural red hair is down to 2per cent. Never mind that redheads have friends in high places. Jesus loved redheads, according to tradition. By many depictions, Mary Magdalene was one. But they are on the way out.
On every level, that's surely a tragedy. Before we let this rare and precious species go, has anyone considered what it might be like to live in a world without redheaded women? As Lucille Ball, herself a redhead, said: "Once in his life, every man is entitled to fall madly in love with a gorgeous redhead." Bruce Springsteen agreed, saying, with simple honesty: "You have not lived until you have had your tyres rotated by a redheaded woman."
It has ever been thus. Botticelli liked redheads. He depicted the goddess Venus as one. That great lover of women, Groucho Marx, fantasised endlessly about redheads, as he once admitted in a letter to his ailing son: "I see on the wire that you are resting well and are being taken care of by a nurse. I hope she is beautiful and that she has red hair. "I don't know why, but whenever I dream of a nurse, she always has red hair. Red hair makes a man want to recover his health quickly, so that he can get on his feet and the nurse off hers."
Redheads inspire songwriters. Jack White, of the White Stripes, "fell in love, once and almost completely" with a girl with "red hair, with a curl". Bob Dylan? He was tortured by redheads. In Tangled Up in Blue, he recalls one of them:
Early one morning, the sun was shinin',
I was lying in bed
Wondering if she had changed at all,
If her hair was still red.
The song ends with Dylan quite desperate to "get to her somehow".
Redheads are tougher than blondes and brunettes, and that's a scientific fact. Extensive studies show they require a greater amount of anaesthetic to knock them out before an operation. Conversely, they need fewer analgesics to deal with pain. Redheads make excellent mothers, and not only because they labour easily. No amount of infant screaming, wet nappies or thrown food can trouble a redhead. They, more than other women, understand that there is no damage a martini can't undo.
Just as men with beards are generally regarded with suspicion, most people instinctively know that it's best not to mess with a redhead. As Anne, from Anne of Green Gables, put it: "People who haven't red hair don't know what trouble is." Sheer and entirely justifiable terror typically prevents people from joking about redheads in the way they do about blondes. In fact, there are some redhead jokes, but they read like tributes, oozing with awe. One example: What is the difference between dating a redhead and putting your hand into a blender? There is a 50-50 chance the blender isn't on. Another: If you love a redhead, set her free. If she follows you everywhere, pitches her tent in your front lawn and puts your new girlfriend in the hospital, she's yours. In the US, they say a trucker will slow down for a blonde, stop for a brunette and back up 500m for a redhead.
In an effort to celebrate the redhead before she disappears from the planet, a Hollywood magazine recently concocted a silly competition to find the nation's hottest redhead. The prize went to Kate Walsh, a former Grey's Anatomy star. Redheads should stampede. Walsh is not a redhead. She's a blonde who dyes her hair. The fakery is offensive and, in any case, pointless. One cannot become a redhead by dyeing one's hair, a fact that should be obvious.
Beyond that, the gene for red hair also affects the skin. A natural redhead is generously sprinkled with freckles and therefore comes with her own built-in board game, known as join the dots. Yes, they'll be missed. As Mark Twain put it: "While the rest of the species is descended from apes, redheads are descended from cats."