‘Went and had a little haircut.’
—Helen Garner, 1986
I keep thinking about Helen Garner’s hair. Her short, scraggy, square hair. All through the three volumes of her diaries there are small (but somehow … immense) moments when she thinks of her hair. Or when others think of her hair. There she is on the cover on the third volume, her hair magnificently square, just edging now into mullet territory. She is looking out to sea from the rail of a ship, turning away from and towards the camera at the same time. I doubt she is thinking about her hair in that moment. Though maybe she thought about it briefly when she looked at the photo later.
In all of the drama and wrench and beauty and howl and fantastic ordinariness of the writing contained in these diaries, why should I be thinking about Helen Garner’s hair? Because I love this hair. The hair, too, is a part of all of that drama. And it is drama all of its own. Its stubborn squareness, its slight blokeishness, its practicality, how it must be chopped on a regular basis. It is my form teacher’s hair in 1996, my maths teacher’s hair in 1997, it is my mother’s hair and all of her friends’ hair. It’s the hair of going swimming and the hair of a rough towel-drying. It’s the hair of walking briskly from place to place. The hair of time passing and the parts of us that stay the same.
And because Helen Garner’s hair means something. It was a shocking realisation to me, that this should be so. That someone whose power is in looking at the world should ever be looked at and coolly appraised by the world. Whose hair should ever be looked at. And whose sense of self could ever be rattled by the business of getting a haircut. In one scene she gets her hair cut in Chicago in 1996 by a guy called Benny Casino: ‘As usual a haircut removed, distorted and replaced askew my self-image. When he finished I said, ‘Can I take your photo?’ This restored my power as looker.’ Being looked at – and looking at her own image – its Helen Garner’s kryptonite.
Helen Garner knows her hair means something, too, whether she wants it to or not, and this is why she feels a lot about it. Why sometimes she’s protective of it, defiant; why sometimes she is despairing, feeling herself masculine, not womanly enough. In a 1987 entry, she and some friends have a long conversation about hair and whether ‘P’ should have hers cut or not, and suddenly Helen breaks in, wondering whether all this talk about hair is neurotic, but ‘P’ disagrees. ‘“No!” said P. “It means something. A circle means something different from a triangle. The shape of your hair affects the outline of your body, where it connects with the rest of the world.”’ Of course, I agree with this and I also find it almost unbearable, because it goes both ways: Helen Garner’s hair is one of the many places where the rest of the world meets Helen Garner. Here it comes, with its unasked-for opinions and subtle scoldings. 1984: ‘Yesterday the diplomat asked me if I’d like to have my hair cut at her hairdresser, “so you won’t have to worry about it.” I politely declined, but I knew she really meant “Your hair looks awful.”
I will admit it. Many times, as I read, I would think: please, Hels. Go to a good hairdresser and get a haircut that you really like, and learn how to style it. Stop getting these bad haircuts. Don’t go again to that hairdresser who is clearly ‘freaking out’. (‘He cut it dry, a thing he’s never done before.’) You are so good at noticing beauty in the world, you even notice ‘the subtle beauty of a subjunctive, the tiny shock it administers’. A subjunctive, for god’s sake. Your powers of seeing are immense, yet here you are, missing out on the beauty and wonder of a good haircut. I can’t be alone in thinking this.
But this misses the point and only goes to show how indoctrinated I am by certain ideologies (I should point out that, despite this, I don’t even have a good haircut). It’s not about what Helen Garner’s hair looks like. It’s that she wants to be left alone with that haircut. It’s that she doesn’t want her haircut to send any message at all. She desires a no-haircut, I think, a haircut that transcends haircuts (I would argue that actually her haircut gets pretty close to this; in style it exists outside of time. I realise now that it is, and I don’t use this word lightly, badass). Why should she even have to think about the difference between a bad haircut and a good haircut; why should it make any difference as to how she is seen as a woman?
But it does make a difference, she knows, and in this she is all at sea, railing sometimes at the injustice of it, the injustice of ‘women’s position as regarded creatures’. So I come back again to loving this haircut and feeling tender towards it and wishing she could be immune to bastards with opinions. I love her hair (and her) most when she defends it. Again from 1984: ‘. . . Whatsername said, with that smile she gets when she’s about to be daringly frank, “I like your hair when it’s pushed back at the sides.” I felt like screaming, “I like my hair when it’s all shaved off! So get fucked!”’ Then, a single entry later, as if in retaliation: ‘I went and had my hair absolutely CHOPPED.’ Of course, the hair of the other woman, X the painter, is free of such violence, is fair and wavy, ‘soft hair waving about her brow’.
I have never met Helen Garner but saw her once, on her own in an art gallery, when she was visiting Auckland for the writer’s festival. She was looking at a picture (was it Fiona Pardington?), and she was in that moment just before you drift away from one thing and go on to the next one. It’s probably inappropriate even to mention her hair. The whole point is that we’re trying to rise above it. But I did notice her hair – in the way that you notice all the earthly details when you see a famous person in real life – and I thought it looked soft. I know: not that it matters.
I had a conversation with two men writers at a book launch sometime last year and we were talking about the diaries. I thought about mentioning the haircut, but hadn’t solidified my thoughts on it yet – and still haven’t, clearly: the haircut is a font of infinite mystery and intrigue and, yes, beauty to me; the things it stirs up in me keep growing and changing. But to the point, one of the writers suggested that Helen Garner would be ‘difficult to live with’. That’s a question I often find myself wondering about, more generally about writers: what would this one and that one be like to live with? But I was taken aback. Who is to say that she would be difficult to live with? Apart from ‘V’ (her ex-husband, the novelist Murray Bail), who would likely agree. But remember that ‘V’ is a man who, when Helen Garner shows him a photo of herself among the voyagers on a ship to Antarctica, studies the photo then hands it back and says with a laugh, ‘“You really have got a small head, haven’t you!”’ As someone also with a small head, this hit me on a few levels (and the part of me that’s been trained to find it funny, found it a bit funny). I couldn’t hold it straight, in my own tiny head, that someone could go to Antarctica, write the masterpiece ‘Regions of Thick-Ribbed Ice’, then be told off-handedly that they’d got a small head. What I’m saying is that ‘V’ was almost certainly more difficult to live with.
What we can definitely say is that Helen Garner sometimes found herself difficult to live with. In a heartbreaking entry from 1986, a friend shows her some photos of herself from the previous year. ‘I was shocked by my ugliness: spotted skin, lined face, ugly haircut, dark expressions. I mean I was shocked. I quailed at the possibility that I will be alone now for the rest of my life. That I will never turn back into a womanly being but will find myself stuck here in between, plain and dry in my manly or boyish little clothes. I was afraid of my ugliness.’ I was almost unable to continue reading. The loneliness of that passage, the starkness of it, all possibility seeming to be stripped away. Later, she tells us that she fears beauty too. ‘People like me, who aren’t beautiful, fear beauty because it seems to be a guarantee of love.’ The sense is that without beauty she is on shaky ground, constantly having to ‘summon up other resources’.
I thought how none of us can really be rescued from such feelings of self-loathing – how we have to rescue ourselves, over and over again. Often Helen Garner’s way of rescuing herself is to go out and be among people, turning her back and going on dancing when ‘V’ jerks his head at her. But this struggle in herself is what gives the writing so much of its beauty and intimacy. Amid all of that push and pull, she tries to get stronger than the power exerted by the gaze of others, so that her work can get stronger. At one point she tries to explain to the block-headed ‘V’ her ‘ideas about looking: how men have control of it, how in order to be an artist or a writer a woman has to overcome her sense of herself as an object, has to usurp something.’
I imagine her haircut getting even blockier as she usurps that thing. As she finally leaves her marriage, as she finally buys that blue sofa, as she writes and writes. The hair gets even shorter and scragglier, even worse – oh god, it is a terrible haircut, but now we see that it is becoming something else, something that is almost nameless and that can’t be called good or bad – as she grows in power, as if the hair were a hardy desert plant drawing upon some deep, ancient reserve, finally blooming.