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Nick Lezard: Something had to give – and it was my robust indifference to shampoo

Down and Out in London.

So, I’ve finally done it. I’ve bought a bottle of L’Oréal Elvive conditioner because it said “age-defying” on the front. My excuse? I thought it was a bottle of L’Oréal Elvive shampoo with “age-defying” on the front. I’m always doing this: mistaking conditioner for shampoo. The bottles, you see, are similar in design. And once you’ve squirted some conditioner on to your hair and discovered that it’s not lathering, it’s too late for you to go back to the chemist and exchange the conditioner – one of the great cons of the age, in my experience – for something that actually cleans your hair. Even if your chemist is the wonderful Meacher, Higgins and Thomas, which has been around for 198 years so far.

Round the corner from me, along a small stretch of Gloucester Place, are plaques advertising the fact that at various addresses lived Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Anthony Trollope and Wilkie Collins. Did they all live there at the same time, I wonder? And did they pop in to Meacher, Higgins and Thomas for their laudanum, or maybe to try and exchange a bottle of conditioner for a bottle of the shampoo they’d wanted to buy in the first place? We shall never know. But I like to think they did.

Day of the products

All of which rather obscures, intentionally, from the initial admission: that what I’d wanted was something “age-defying”. One of the things men used to do when they saw a beauty product for women advertised on the telly, with lots of sleekly animated ping-pong balls wheeling and clustering to the rescue of a magnified human hair, or skin pore, suffering the ravages of neglect or time, was to laugh it and those gullible enough to believe in such nonsense, to scorn. The implicit suggestion is that men would never fall for it. Oh no. We just want something manly to clean our hair with. We’d do it with bars of soap, or Fairy liquid, or our own urine, if it worked.

And then, as we all know, something happened to men. No one knows why, although I favour some kind of alien invasion, in the manner imagined by John Wyndham in his excellent sci-fi novels, but with only risible consequences. (So far.) Men started “grooming”. They started putting “products”on their hair and skin. As it happens, I do not groom myself in this way. Women, who already groom themselves like crazy because the patriarchy demands it, had only one place to go when affected by this alien menace: they stopped buying soap in bars and started buying it in dispensers, even though they contribute to landfill and are umpteen times the price. What the hell is that about?

But something, in my case, had to give and what gave was my robust indifference to shampoo. True, a significant part of my decision about which shampoo to buy still resides in how much it looks like it will stand up on its end without leaking so that you don’t have to wait five minutes before the last bits come out of the nozzle; but I have also started looking a bit more carefully at what claims are being made for each bottle.

As it happens, in the Hovel, where two men and two women regularly shower, though not together, there are about 12 bottles of hair things ranged around the bathtub. I shall, for purposes of space, restrict myself to the L’Oréal Elvive products. The Nutri-Gloss shine shampoo contains, we are told, “the secret to glossy shine”. Full Restore, although now mostly full of water, is for “weak, limp, damaged hair”. (I bought this one and I think my hair got a bit offended, and then depressed, by the description.) Then there is Colour Protect “caring conditioner”, but that rather suggests that other conditioners are uncaring, does it not? They give your hair a rushed, distracted condition and then piss off, leaving it feeling cheap and used.

What’s the damage?

Then there’s the age-defying conditioner, already mentioned, which buys your hair a sports car and gets it a younger girlfriend. Finally, the Damage Care shampoo, which was the only one on the rack at the chemist’s that looked like it had any common ground at all with the age-defying conditioner. It’s got to this point: that I’ve now started worrying whether my conditioner and my shampoo will get on with each other. (My daughter, marvelling at the array of different kinds of shampoo for different hair types in Waitrose the other day, asked, “don’t they make any shampoo for dirty hair?”)

And is my hair any better? No – but I suspect that’s because, paralysed by choice, I haven’t washed it for two days now. I suppose what
I should be doing is thanking my lucky stars that I’ve still got any hair – damaged, weak, old, limp and grey though it is – to put shampoo
on in the first place.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.