All you ever wanted to know about ran­gas

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - The Spec­ta­tor

‘‘Gen­tle­men pre­fer blondes,’’ Amer­i­can writer Anita Loos fa­mously pro­nounced, ‘‘but gen­tle­men marry brunettes.’’ Quite what they do with red­heads she never re­vealed (and I’ve of­ten won­dered).

In Red: A Nat­u­ral History of the Red­head, Jacky Col­liss Har­vey sets out to dis­cover ev­ery­thing: what it takes to make a red­head, where in the world they come from and why they ex­ist at all; whether red­heads are ac­tu­ally dif­fer­ent or just treated dif­fer­ently; how they got their rep­u­ta­tion, what that rep­u­ta­tion might be and whether they de­serve it.

The history be­gins about 40,000 years ago, we are told, when the gene for red hair was car­ried from ‘‘the grass­lands of Cen­tral Asia’’ to Europe. We en­counter the bones of red-headed Ne­an­derthals in a Span­ish cave, red-headed Thra­cians de­picted in an­cient Greek art, a red­haired Boudicca, red-headed Scythi­ans, vil­i­fied red-haired Jews in me­dieval Europe and so on across the cen­turies un­til red­heads are pock­eted at their high­est den­sity (of 13 per cent, com- pared with fewer than 1 per cent world­wide) in Scot­land, Ire­land, Wales and the Ud­murt Re­pub­lic (at the top of the Volga).

This is a history of mi­gra­tion, the au­thor con­tends, un­til it reaches these corners ‘‘set apart from the great ebb and flow of the hu­man ocean’’ and the ‘‘lim­i­nal pop­u­la­tions’’ in those re­gions. At this point the ‘‘fix­ing of red hair among these lim­i­nal pop­u­la­tions’’ be­comes “a phe­nom­e­non that ex­ists log­i­cally and ob­vi­ously’’ — that is, a num­bers game.

A red­head her­self, and feel­ing her char­ac­ter de­fined by that ac­ci­dent of ge­net­ics, Col­liss Har­vey’s pro­ject is per­sonal: she is in­ves­ti­gat­ing a tribe of which she is a mem­ber. When she cat­a­logues the red­heads of history, art, literature, cin­ema and fairy­tale, she com­mu­ni­cates a feel­ing of in­tense sol­i­dar­ity with her sub­ject. She is not just a per­son with red hair, she is ‘‘a red­head’’, and be­ing a red­head, she says, ‘‘is the sin­gle most sig­nif­i­cant char­ac­ter­is­tic of my life’’.

As a re­sult of this at­tach­ment, Red is a memoir as well as a study. But that doesn’t make it un­in­ter­est­ing, only a lit­tle bit ful­some — a paean to its sub­ject. Lon­doner Col­liss Har­vey found ‘‘grow­ing up as a red­head’’ to be ‘‘deeply con­fus­ing’’, not least be­cause ev­ery­one had some­thing to say about her hair (and some even wanted to touch it). ‘‘It some­times felt,’’ she says, ‘‘as if the last per­son my red hair be­longed to was me.’’

Now, how­ever, she is rec­on­ciled to her spe­cial­ness: in the last chap­ter she trav­els to The Nether­lands to ad­dress a gath­er­ing of red­heads at a fes­ti­val called Red­head Days. When some­one asks, ‘‘Where do red­heads feel they be­long?’’ her an­swer is, ‘‘Right here.’’

There is much about be­ing red­headed of which I was ig­no­rant. I had no idea, for ex­am­ple, that ‘‘any scent or cologne will smell dif­fer­ent on a red­head’’; that a red­head’s ‘‘unique bio­chem­istry’’ means she or he will ‘‘feel more pain than blondes or brunettes’’ (and ap­par­ently re­quire 20 per cent more anaes­the­sia to be knocked out) or that ‘‘red­heads are also much more likely to be stung by bees’’. I did not know that ‘‘red hair has been in­dis­pens­able to the im­age of the in­domitable, fe­ro­cious and usu­ally volup­tuous fe­male bar­bar­ian’’; nor that ‘‘in me­dieval art red hair in men … [is] vis­ual short­hand for a bru­tal char­ac­ter’’.

This is, for me, the most in­ter­est­ing as­pect of the sub­ject: not red hair per se or the ex­pe­ri­ence of red­head­ed­ness but the mean­ing we have as­cribed to ‘‘the red­head’’ (as we have con­jured a per­sona for ‘‘the blonde’’) over the cen­turies. Mary Mag­da­lene, the orig­i­nal flame-haired temptress; Ju­das Is­car­iot, the orig­i­nal red­haired vil­lain. In cin­ema, as in art, red hair is used as a sig­nal: you have been warned. Jes­sica Rab­bit — red hair, red lips, red dress — protests, ‘‘I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.’’ (‘‘Coloured in that way’’ is what she means.) Thelma and Louise are both red­heads. Both! So what can you ex­pect? No less than a pair of trig­ger­happy, in­sub­or­di­nate ru­n­aways whose hair gets big­ger, wilder and red­der as the film goes on.

This is hair colour worn as a la­bel: blonde, brunette and red­head are not de­scrip­tive terms so much as cat­e­gories into which per­son­al­i­ties are ex­pected to fall. And if I sound like a typ­i­cal feisty red­head, well, that’s be­cause I am one.

Su­san Saran­don, left, and Geena Davis are both red­heads in Thelma & Louise

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