The Red Headed League

‘Every shade of color they were – straw, lemon, orange, brick, Irish-setter, liver, clay; but, as Spaulding said, there were not many who had the real vivid flame-colored tint.’ (‘The Red-Headed League,’ Arthur Conan Doyle, 1891)

In one of Conan Doyle’s shorter ‘Sherlock’ stories, Watson arrives to see Holmes and finds him talking to a ‘stout, florid-faced, elderly gentleman with fiery red hair’ called Mr Jabez Wilson. Wilson relates how he recently noticed a job advertised on generous terms at an organization called ‘The Red Headed League,’ for which ‘all red-headed men who are sound in body and mind and above the age of twenty-one years, are eligible.’ He applied and got the job, apparently because he had the reddest hair of any applicant. But the advertisement was in fact a scam: with Wilson’s regular offices vacant, the confidence tricksters used them to dig a tunnel to the bank next door. It doesn’t take long for Holmes to see that the key to the case is Wilson’s vanity. Elementary you might say.

I remember first reading ‘The Red Headed League’ at the age of twelve and not finding it very convincing. I still don’t. There’s something so unlikely about any redhead, particularly a male one, not smelling a rat here. At that age I was very careful not to even stand close to another redhead, let alone form an association with them. In part this was to avoid the obvious visual, but I also feared the more subtle insinuation that somehow redheads need each other’s support against a hostile world. Surely the whole point about being redheaded, I puzzled, is that there is no such thing as a ‘red headed league’?

I’ve always attached irrational significance to people with whom I share certain features. I’ll think: oh, that person is left-handed or was born in February. But while I have a list of famous left-handers from whom I derive an obscure pride, I don’t have any ginger role models. It is telling that, beyond Conan Doyle’s story, I know next to nothing about the history of red hair. A cursory dip doesn’t make for pretty reading. It starts at the beginning, and I don’t even mean The Bible, but Gilgamesh. Redheaded she-demon Lilith, essentially a more evil and sexually-charged prototype of Eve, traps men in an eternal purgatory between arousal and satisfaction. But that is not to draw focus from The Bible, which I would hazard is the most scurrilously anti-ginger document of all time. As an appetiser: it is a widespread belief that God chose to mark Cain as a murderer for all time by giving him red hair; gullible Esau, cheated out of his inheritance by his younger brother Jacob, almost becomes another ginger fratricide. And there are others. Such as, oh, Judas. Put it this way: wherever there is a Daddy’s boy with long brown locks, you’ll find a copper top counterpart, itching to betray him.

Many of my English literary heroes line up to stick the boot in: the red beard of Chaucer’s Miller, ‘like any sow or fox,’ tells us all we need to know about this notorious rogue. In As You Like It, Rosalind has to overcome her misgivings about Orlando’s hair that is of ‘the dissembling colour.’ How depressingly familiar. An irascible Dryden derides bookseller Jacob Tonson’s ‘Judas-coloured hair.’ And I suppose Conan Doyle is getting in on the act, although he’s got the wrong end of the stereotype.

But anyone with red hair knows that the stereotype is not quite as simple as this. Lilith is no Judas. Boudicca is no Shylock. The distinction crystallizes around the question of nomenclature. I won’t call myself a ‘redhead.’ A redhead is Jessica Rabbit, Julianne Moore, Joan from Mad Men for goodness sake, Redhead captures the seductive, sometimes dangerous, and exclusively feminine aspects of the melanocortin receptor gene MCR1. ‘Ginger’ is the scrappy little brother, fighting with the boys from across the road. Ginger is Ron Weasley, Chris Evans, or Just William’s metonymic pal. These are tendencies, admittedly. Certain girls are undeniably ‘ginger,’ though if there’s a man who could describe himself as a redhead I’ve yet to meet him. Mostly it’s obvious, but a few are hard to pin down. Rebekah Brooks springs to mind: redhead or ginger? Perhaps when the Boudicca of the red tops was toppled, she was relegated from one to the other. About myself, my preference is to say I have red hair, while using ‘ginger’ often enough to persuade others that I don’t mind being called it (I do). It’s the synecdoche that you want to avoid, the definition of the whole by the part.

Whatever you call it, there is infinite variety: the merest murmur in a head of sandy blond in certain lights heats up to a strawberry blond, flashing over at the thermonuclear core of ginger, before oxidising to a burnt orange, cooling into copper and fading into auburn. I’m at the coppery end of the spectrum. This makes me undeniably ginger, but also thankful that it’s not worse. In a sense I can relax in the knowledge that I could never claim not to be ginger. There’s an uneasy point somewhere around ‘strawberry blond’ that can easily breed defensiveness. And then there’s the red beard brigade: some sheepish, some oddly proud.

‘You suit red hair,’ some will say encouragingly. Others, particularly men for some reason, will confide that their mother has red hair. They’ll ask, ‘Are your family all ginger?’ My response, that no one else in my family has red hair, makes me feel as though I’m assuring them that it’s not infectious. That’s the guiding metaphor: living with a condition. It’s very much how I think of it. Of course it’s much easier than it was. Compared to how it used to be it’s a walk in the park. I can go for days without really thinking about it. But then I’ll find myself sitting in a pool of particularly acrid fluorescent light and remember. Or I’ll notice a carrot top making a spectacle of themselves somewhere in the public eye and wish they’d disappear from view.

There have always been a disproportionate number of ginger politicians. I suppose living in the vague Hibernocracy that we do, we should expect as much. There’s also the inside track on dogged self-reliance – showing the bastards – that comes with the territory. There are Churchill and Thatcher, of course, but also Cook, Kinnock, Kennedy, and now Danny Alexander. I find Danny Alexander tough, and I say that as a member of an even more exclusive and despised club than gingers: Lib Dem voters who approve of the coalition. Could Alexander ever be leadership material? Is there a point at which there might be concerned mumbling, as there was about the blind David Blunkett, about his suitability for high office? Sure, there were some objections to Harriet Harman’s description of him as a ‘ginger rodent.’ It was the first time the consensus was unequivocally with the ginger nuts. But I’d wager that this was no watershed. I have a sneaking suspicion it had more to do with how people feel about the unpopular (and dully brunette) Harman, than about equal treatment for redheads. I’m sure ditzy blond Boris Johnson would have got away with it.

More disquieting than a Ginger Media Moment of this kind is the freckly spectre that accompanies it: the Ginger Solidarity Group. With a name such as ‘Seeing Red,’ they emerge, slathered in factor 50 and squinting into the glare, to say that, frankly, it’s just another form of racism. I have always found this excruciating. It’s the thin end of a very embarrassing wedge, which conjures images of, maybe twenty years down the line, something like a Ginger Council of Great Britian, with Blairite-style Community Leaders. Nicholas Witchell, perhaps. Anne Robinson, I would imagine. Ron Weasley as patron. I don’t want there to be ginger politics, and if there has to be then I don’t want to be a part of it.

If you choose the quiet life – up in the hills, along the dirt track – they’ll mostly leave you alone. But whatever precautions you take, you will always be vulnerable to the newspaper stories. Every few months or so I am Tasered by a headline, most recently The Daily Telegraph’s ‘Sperm Bank Turns Down Red Heads.’ According to the head of Greece-based ‘Global Sperm Bank’ Cyros, supply of ginger sperm is massively outstripping demand. However you put it, and no one is putting it too tactfully, it’s hard to avoid the implication: no one wants the product. Apart from the Irish apparently. Another excited report claimed that scientists had cracked a conundrum: why, given that red hair is self-evidently so unattractive, had the gene not died out long ago? Well, apparently men find redheaded women vulnerable, and therefore want to protect and impregnate them. Where this leaves redheaded men I’m not quite sure: stuck in an endlessly perpetuated genetic cul-de-sac I suppose. I would feel sorry for them if they weren’t so ginger.

The Telegraph article was the ‘most read’ on the site. It’s a schadenfreude-rich story, for sure, but there’s something else going on. Because redheadedness is not a skin colour, not quite an ethnicity, it is just on the side of being acceptable to talk about in this way. I would hazard that you wouldn’t read in a national paper how many white women have asked for the sperm of black men, though it would certainly make for a piece people might want to read. There’s no public interest defence for an article of this kind. It does sting rather, particularly given that redheads have a lower pain threshold. I’ve never donated sperm, but I’d rather be quietly ushered to one side at the clinic than be humiliated in public, even if it did mean going to Greece.

In the course of my recent ginger education, I was surprised to learn that, in the Middle Ages, anti-ginger sentiment became closely bound up with anti Semitism. Judas’ red hair was inherited by Shylock. I found it strange: while there are some red headed Jews, surely there aren’t enough to make red hair a defining derogatory feature? But there’s a clue here. In the final analysis it’s not really about hair at all, but about a community’s urge to define itself in opposition to outsiders, a convenient group of whom there are enough to notice, but not enough to truly be a threat. I have begun to feel that, rather than maintaining an honourable resistance to being co-opted by an embarrassing group, I’m really being rather cowardly in my rejection of my pilary identity. From this day forward, I resolve to be ginger and proud of it, and not instinctively avoid sitting next to fellow ginger nuts on the bus to avoid the ‘Duracell’ quips. Conan Doyle was onto something: a Red Headed League is exactly what the world needs, with Kinnock as our leader, shouting, ‘We’re alright! We’re alright! We’re alright!’