Root Menu

Alan Cooksley

In conversation with Christopher Whalen


That’s the worst moment I ever spent with my father. Without any shadow of a doubt.When he said those words to me – about three months or so before he died. He actually said to me one day that the reason he was so ill was because of me…and the stress that I had put upon him through a lot of my youth. He told me afterwards that he was in immense pain at the time and that he didn’t mean it. I was pissing on someone who I thought very much about. I never really considered it – I just thought he was an old man; he was my father, a parent. I never really appreciated it until he said that to me – he swore that he didn’t mean it, he didn’t mean it in that manner, anyway – but it was probably true to a degree. I had got myself in a few scrapes from time to time: I had been a bit of a shit and I’d let my family down. I didn’t try to make up for it at the time – later, yeah. I was slowing down my drug intake then anyway because they had made me incredibly ill, and killed a friend of mine. That brought home a great deal…The down side of taking drugs. That was why I was living at home at the time. They were a brilliant family: very middle-class, very nice, always there for me, no matter what. I can remember turning up on my parents’ doorstep without having any contact with them for four or five months at a time – turning up absolutely penniless with no clothes and no money in my pocket, no job. Each time, they just sort of said, “Come in, eat, your bed’s upstairs, we’ll talk tomorrow. Are you okay? What can we help you with? You can stay here as long as you like.” They would lend me money to put a deposit on a flat to move out again or buy a car to travel to work. I was being terribly selfish – I didn’t realize how much I was hurting them at the time.

I had a horrendous time at school, I didn’t enjoy it – I was quite severely dyslexic. The problems started when I was about twelve or thirteen. I moved from Richmond up to Cambridgeshire and it was like moving twenty years back in time. I never settled there – I hated it. We only lived there for a few years. The type of education available in Cambridgeshire at that time was very much the Three Rs system. There was no such thing as a drama unit and the technical subjects were working in a metal forge place, bending bits of metal over an anvil. We’re talking about the sixties here, not modern school. They didn’t have the facilities or the ability, and also, having changed from an old-fashioned boys’ grammar school into a co-ed comprehensive in the space of two years, all the masters could do was discipline. The cane was a daily occurrence for someone like me because I always rebelled against it – probably to cover up my inferiority. I was always a very rebellious person anyway – frankly refused to do the work as opposed to looking embarrassed by not being able to do it as well as other people. I couldn’t project myself properly and express myself properly on paper. People tried to explain dyslexia to me, and I had many, many tests done. But in the mid-sixties, they knew nothing about it – they didn’t know any of the side-effects or any of the other problems involved in any way, shape or form. There wasn’t any help available – it was just to do the best you can. I couldn’t wait to get out of it. It wasn’t the school where you could play truant, so you had to be there. I left just before I was fifteen. I think there were only one or two boys in the entire year that I was in who left at that age. They agreed to allow me to leave as long as I had work to go to. I actually wanted to go to drama school – my parents were supportive of that. My father was more concerned with earning a living – I think it was more him than anyone else, not so much me – and he convinced me at the time to get  some sort of trade or something behind me which I could fall back on if I wasn’t successful with drama.

I don’t think I missed out on my adolescence: I didn’t grow up when I left home, I just left home! [Laughs.] My parents worried to death about me leaving home at that age. My mother still talks about it now as a great big gamble. They thought I was streetwise enough to be able to protect myself. It wasn’t like leaving home in that manner: they rented the place for me to live, I was meant to go home every weekend. I was going home, to start with, every weekend, but that lasted for about six months. And then I wanted a social life as well. I discovered that with the Red Star parcel service, I could put all my washing on the train on the Saturday night and on a Monday, my day off from work, I’d go to the railway station and pick up this suitcase with everything neatly washed, a food parcel and an envelope with money in it… [Laughs.] That’s more embarrassing! [Laughs.]

I suppose people don’t really think of being grown up until they are sixteen or so you don’t start thinking about other people, you’re just in an incredibly selfish period of your life in your early teens. Between nineteen and thirty years old, I probably saw my brother about four times, maybe five. Then when we started to see each other a little more regularly – again it was only about once a year – it was like having two teenagers in the room. [Laughs.] It’s true! It wasn’t that I disliked him…You know that if you’ve got a brother there’s always a competitive thing when you’re growing up – we were doing this in our thirties and arguing like school children! We had never had that gap when we could treat each other as adults and know each other as adults – we were kids.

I don’t regret leaving school at all because I learnt a great deal about myself from it. I was actually about twenty-one before I came to terms with it. Up until that point I had missed out, but after that I don’t believe I have missed out. I had to sit there and convince myself that number one – it wasn’t me that was the problem, it was a situation that was already there, and that I wasn’t inferior to other people. I’ve done quite a lot of work with dyslexic people since then. It’s one of my opinions that with education at the moment they’ve still got it wrong, because now they’re making allowances for people, but the real world doesn’t make allowances. The most dangerous aspect of being dyslexic – as I have found since then by speaking to many other people who have dyslexia – is the stigma that people who have it attach themselves with; the frustration and anger and violence that comes from it. Until the mental approach for the individual who is suffering is addressed, there is no way they can go forward. You can do exams orally or give them three times longer than other kids to do it, but it’s actually making them worse because it’s making them different. You have to accept it yourself.

One of the decisions I made when I was very, very young was that I was never going to work with machines, use the written word or paper. It was always going to be with people – that’s what I enjoyed most. I probably am a computer-phobe, but it’s the keyboard that frightens me more than the computer! [Laughs.] You can’t get a response from machines – they’re soulless creatures. This wasn’t something my parents taught me: my father was an engineer! [Laughs.] All my life, I’ve always enjoyed human company – I find it stimulating. I prefer people. I like design, but I don’t like manufacture. You use a machine to manufacture a chair; you can come up with a brilliant idea to make a better chair, or a better machine to manufacture it; but working with this machinery is boring. You wouldn’t feel like you’re getting anything back from it. But I’m a selfish person, so I want to take things from it.

It was actually through a friend of my brother’s that I met a hairdresser. He was about thirty, thirty-six at the time. He had a very beautiful twenty-one-year-old wife, a Mercedes, a little black Mini Cooper, and he always appeared to have money in his pocket. So that wasn’t a bad idea at the time! After I left school, I started hairdressing and went on from there. It was only meant to be a stop-gap until I was eighteen – I would have to be trained by then – and then go to drama school. My parents were prepared to support me through two trainings, as opposed to just one. I actually did four and a half years of hairdressing, and I did enjoy it immensely.

Pint & paper

I still try to live my live to enjoy it. That’s what I’ve always done, really. As I get older, I do find that you start looking further forward. I’ve started to think about what I’m going to do later in life, whereas the first thirty years of my life I was living more for that moment rather what was going to happen. So I suppose I’ve become more responsible – sort of more responsible. It’s only recently that I have started to look at financial things for the future. I never really worried too much about that, up until about five or six years ago. Those sorts of things are becoming more pressing in my life now – thinking about what I’m going to do later on. What happened to change that? I got older! Hit forty. I also got married three years ago which maybe makes you more responsible for someone else as opposed to yourself. I’d lived with several women before – but then I was younger. Each of the women that I lived with, it was circumstances and situations that brought us together as opposed to a conscious decision about “Let’s get a home together.” My relationship with Laura was very similar when it started – it was quite a long while ago: we’ve been living together for quite a few years – but I feel more comfortable with her. We used to work together and we got together. It was just one of those bad situations, particularly as I had a rule that there would be no staff relationships! [Laughs.] I don’t know what’s different about this time. I don’t think it was a sudden decision – reached forty, or got married, or whatever – but suddenly I started thinking: “What the hell will I do when I’m sixty?” I don’t think ambition diminishes but it certainly takes a different swing, different priorities. My ambitions when I was twenty, compared to now, are entirely different. Then I honestly believed that I would end up with a large chain of businesses and good influence, my work, my trade. I didn’t mean to be a hairdresser, I sort of fell into it. Again, most of my life, very few times I’ve actually made conscious decisions to do anything – it’s always just sort of happened.

Although I have spoken quite a lot about my father, I was probably closer to my mother…wonderful woman. I don’t see my brother very often, but I’m quite family orientated. I don’t have any kids of my own, or anything like that…Do I want kids? That’s an issue – that’s probably why I’m growing up at the moment! [Laughs.] Laura and I have been married for three years now. She’s been of the mind that I don’t want them. I would be older than my father was when I was born. I’m forty-six now, forty-seven in a few weeks. She’s still got quite a few years left. If you had asked me ten years ago, it would have been an absolute “no”. The older I get, probably looking at the way other people are bringing up kids – the mess they make of it…I don’t know. [Laughs.] Some days, I would say, “Yeah, perhaps it’s not such a bad idea.” I don’t dislike the world the way it is: I think it’s what you make of it. You can live in Oxford or London, or the north of Scotland or Cornwall: if you want, you can find what you want here – or other countries: it is a big world…it’s a small world, really. I think – talking without experience here – if you have children, you create the environment they grow up in. I think – at least for the first few years – you have that control over them.

I think it’s more the changes in my life, which I might not be prepared to accept…A radical change in life. It is very difficult to discuss this sort of thing with Laura. Sometimes, I think she just sort of says, “Well, you know, is it such a big thing?” We’ve discussed it many, many times. Sometimes it can even end up as a heated argument, and I’m sort of like, “Fuck it,” and that’s it. Other times I’m more conducive to the idea. I suppose it’s like a lot of things in life: it depends what day it is. Some days I think it might be quite nice, but I find it difficult to tell her that, because I thought if I said, “Yes, I want to be a father,” she would hold me to it immediately. And maybe a week later…I mean there are so many times when you get a problem in life, suddenly you feel far more weighed down with personal burdens. The idea of taking responsibility for a child as well is…not a lot of fun, you know? It would just be too much; it would destroy your life. I still want to try to enjoy it…How would kids affect that? Lack of money! [Laughs.] What are the good aspects of them? I don’t know. I really don’t know…I don’t like children, I don’t like other people’s children, I don’t know if there are children I’ve ever liked. The only good thing is that when they are very small, you can dominate them entirely! [Laughs.] I can’t think of any positive aspect of that sort of power…immense responsibility, which is not just for a short period of time. Many friends of mine who have got kids tell me that it takes over your life; it becomes the most important thing. It’s sad, really. I think I’m the most important thing in my life…You look at some of the people who achieve having a baby, and the circumstances in which they are having it, you think: “This isn’t a miracle; it’s a bloody disaster area!”

Logically, I can’t think of any conceivable reason why I would want them…Maybe one: I can remember walking along the Thames at Richmond with my mother. I was about eleven, maybe ten. She was a very clever lady, my mother. We were talking about her relationship with my father – something along those lines. And I remember the words: she said that it’s the only love in your entire life you want nothing back from. If you love a woman, or another man, you demand something in return, to give your love for that person. The love that a mother has for a child is the only love that is unconditional, totally. I said that I didn’t understand all this as a ten-year-old, and she explained it by saying: “If a bullet was coming towards you now, I would step in the way if I thought it would save your life.”…And that stuck with me. It did make me think, and probably still does make me think, because I respect my mother – she was a wonderful woman, incredibly practical, the most practical person in the world: what could make someone have that kind of feeling? It’s not the only time I’ve heard this from parents. Do I ever want to have that sort of feeling myself? It’s a hell of a gamble to take, isn’t it? [Laughs.] It’s something which I don’t understand. It’s not like saying: “Well, no, I don’t get that feeling, and I’ll give it back.” Having a child is like twenty years of your life. As I say, if you didn’t have that feeling, or it wasn’t quite the buzz that you thought it was going to be – I’m sure it can’t be like that for twenty years, or sixteen years, or whatever…

I do love Laura immensely, and I respect her as a person. She’s one of the most lovely, uncomplicated people I’ve ever met – that’s what first attracted me to her. She has this natural ability not to…she doesn’t have paranoia; she doesn’t have this self-doubt thing. I mean, yes, everyone has self-doubts, but she’s comfortable with herself. I find that very, very attractive in a person: she doesn’t have to pretend to be someone that she isn’t. I know she would like children, but every time we talk about it, the last line tends to be along the lines of: “It’s one hell of a gamble to take.” How can you gamble on something which is someone’s life? There are a lot of things which I still want to achieve in my life. The financial drain would mean that some of these things wouldn’t be possible – some of the places that I would like to go to, things I still want to do wouldn’t be realistically possible if you’re a responsible parent. But there is that aspect that if you didn’t do it properly…it isn’t something that you can have another go at. You have a child, and it’s yours, you know? You can’t say: “No, I wish I’d done it twenty years later, or five years earlier.” It’s there, it’s done. It is probably one of the most important things that anyone can do in life – far more than deciding what country you want to live in, or what career you want to do: all these things you have the option to change; but that one you don’t have the option to change, apart from to break up a relationship…and that is something I wouldn’t do. I was forty-three, forty-four when I got married. I don’t want to be divorced! [Laughs.]

I haven’t known anyone in my life – apart from family – for more than eighteen years. But then again I’ve moved a lot of times. The person who I’ve known the longest who is not a member of family is actually a client of mine – someone I met when I first moved to Oxford. When I moved here it was a pin in the map job: there was no reason for it – it was somewhere to live. I’ve got a lot of acquaintances, but not enough friends. Understanding between friends is something that has to be developed: you have to know the person to be able to understand them; and you don’t know anyone until you spend time with them. What turns people from acquaintances into friends is time, and going through emotional things – whether it’s them or me going through an emotional crisis, a problem in life. When you’ve got a problem, the ones who stick with you, who actually help you through it, I think are friends. There are a lot of acquaintances who you can have a good time with, go out for a meal, go to pubs, clubs, whatever – but if we’re talking if you want things emotionally from someone, not everyone’s quite so forthcoming in that way. An acquaintance is someone that you can pick up, put down; but a friend…trust isn’t the right word…There are probably less than half a dozen people in Oxford who I would call a proper friend. Some of the times that I’m with those people, I don’t actually enjoy their company, but I feel that as a friend I should be there.

I can feel lonely in a room full of people. I am quite shy at times as well. I’ve overcome that in different ways – half the time I’ve pissed people off: for several years of my life I was dependant on drugs, I abused alcohol for quite a number of years – I don’t any more – but in the past, I suppose that was a way of not liking yourself very much. There’s nothing lonelier than being with a lot of people if you’re not in the right mind – and that can be done through alcohol or drugs. It’s the loneliest I’ve ever felt in my life…probably not at the time when you’re on drugs or getting drunk excessively, but it’s afterwards that you feel lonely. It’s one of the reasons why I stopped taking them. At the time, you think you’re having a great time – but it is very lonely, because it’s not really you, you’re not really yourself…As an expert on alcohol [laughs], it depends on what you drink: different alcohol will affect you in different ways. If I drink a lot of scotch or brandy, I become aggressive; if I drink a lot of gin or vodka, I become totally different; if I drink a lot of beer, I just become bloated. There are drinks out there, which aren’t guaranteed to make you have a happy time, but maybe the drinks that remind you of having a happy time make you happier than the ones that don’t remind you of happy times. We drink alcohol to lose inhibitions and to cover up complexes. You don’t want to become an exhibitionist, but people drink alcohol if they want to go out, they’re at a party, they want to meet other people and they don’t have the confidence to walk up to somebody stone-cold sober and talk to them. A lot of drugs – particularly things like cocaine – make you feel like you are the best person in that room. All the inhibitions disappear, all the self-doubt disappears – you are great, you are wonderful, and everyone’s going to like you. You stand in a room and you feel wonderful – so it’s afterwards, the next day, when you start going: “Shit! I don’t know what I did, what I was last night. Did I upset people?” Self-doubts start coming in – that’s when it feels very lonely.

I love pub atmospheres, and I spend far too many hours in pubs. I can walk into my local pub and go to the bar on my own and sit down, within ten minutes, fifteen minutes, there will be four, five people that I’ll be talking to. At work, it’s a totally different thing because this is my environment, I’m in charge. If a client comes in, starting a conversation, I am the one who is on my turf, it’s much, much, much easier; in a pub, in a party, in a situation like that, you throw out a few lines if someone’s close to you and they’re not talking to anyone else. Depending on the response or the initial feedback you get…one thing you do learn in this trade – I don’t mean to say that I’m judgemental – but I don’t have to speak to someone for long to get a pretty good idea of who and what they are. If I feel that person sounds quite interesting or quite fun then I’ll get into a conversation. The conversation will take its own course: unless Chelsea have had a particularly good win that weekend, I won’t force a conversation on people! [Laughs.]

I don’t think it’s a compliment, but I’m told that I’m very open with people, and I will talk to anyone and everyone; I’ll also drop them very quickly if I feel that it’s not a conversation – and I know that is one of the biggest failings in my life: that I’m honest. I’ve actually stood in a bar where a stranger has come up and tried to talk to me – particularly if they have had a couple of drinks – many times people think that I’m so rude because I’ll just turn round to someone and say: “Hey, look: you’re fucking boring! Just leave me alone!” People say: “How can you say that?” “It’s how I feel!” I think life is too short to run around pretending things in life. I’ve always got along well with people from all walks of life: I’ve got friends who are bricklayers, I’ve got unemployed friends, I’ve got people in the universities, who run successful businesses – I treat them all the same, and they treat me the same.


Socially, I’m always trying to be open to new ideas, but within hairdressing…part of the job is entertaining people, but you’re actually trying to concentrate on cutting their hair, so you do regurgitate: the same shit comes out all the time and you just repeat the same stories, the same jokes. But the moment I get into a proper conversation, a deeper conversation, I actually put my scissors down and stop working for a while and actually talk to the people. I find that a lot of my views and ideas have been formed by talking to people. I don’t read a lot of books – you can imagine why – probably no more than about six or seven books a year is all I read. So the knowledge that I have obtained over the last forty years of my life has come mostly from other people. I’m very lucky – I find many of my clients really interesting, so when those clients are in sometimes I’ll run behind because they get on to a subject that I’m interested in. If they’re very knowledgeable about something, or even have a very valid opinion – I want to hear it. I do try to read newspapers every day of my life. I read for a minimum of an hour and a half to two hours a day, every day. If I stopped doing that, I think it would become very hard for me to continue reading. Writing – I can’t do at all: I still can’t do joined up writing, my letters are still jumbled. Reading a book is very hard work for me. I think conversations are better because it’s very difficult to ask questions to a book. You can think about what someone has stated in a book, but you can’t actually talk to the person who has written it.

I don’t think my tastes have changed that much over the years. I love interior design work. Everything around the salon I’ve designed myself – the colour schemes, the units, the shelving. I’m quite lucky that although I have trouble reading and writing, I can actually see things in perspective and see things in 3D. It’s very simple for me to sketch out a room just by looking at it. But I’m absolutely awful at drawing! One thing that I did develop through dyslexia – I shouldn’t keep coming back to that, but maybe it did influence me more than I thought – is that I strive for perfection in things. Whenever I’m working, it has to be perfect. There’s no such thing as “Oh, that’ll do.” You give it your best. I’m getting better as I get older: your best is good enough. When I was younger, my best was never good enough. Perfection was the only thing that I would accept. As far as art goes, it always used to make me very angry, the fact that it wasn’t the best, or I felt that it wasn’t perfect. I commissioned some work from an artist friend of mine four years ago, and because it was going to be in my home, we spent a lot of time at my home looking at what’s there, what I wanted, the feel I wanted to it. He looked at me and he couldn’t understand to start with, and then I explained why, and my frustrations of not being able to do things to the degree that I would like to be able to do things in life. He did two beautiful abstract paintings for me in an art-deco style using reds and golds and whites; then afterwards I asked him to take some red oil paint and ruin it, basically, splash it over the entire painting. That spoiling of something, that’s how I used to paint when I was younger because I would get so angry that I couldn’t do things to the degree of perfection that I wanted that I’d smash it or break it or rip it up. Throwing red paint across a predominantly black and white picture made me feel it was a little bit of my art, although he had painted it and signed it, I had an input into it – that’s how I felt when I used to paint.


My need for perfection was partially to do with my father, partially to do with the fact that I was dyslexic. He came from very humble beginnings and worked bloody, bloody hard to achieve what he managed to achieve in his life. He, too, was a person who wanted to do things properly. A lot of that must have rubbed off on me. He was forty-four when I was born, so there were almost two generations between us. He had come from nothing, but was able to give me a good solid education, a good solid background, a lot of help in life. He wanted me to appreciate it. I think we’ve all been through that one! [Laughs.] He was quite a talented man, in many ways. I remember there was a swimming gala once, and I came second in all of London. He did say “Well done” – he was very pleased – but he still had to drop in a line: “If I had the facilities and the help that you have now, I would have won that.” [Laughs.]

I never wanted to own a business. In a way, I’m pleased that I do; but many days I would give it away. The last time I considered walking out on this place or giving it to someone else, free, was about three, four months ago. I’ve put my heart and soul in here: I’ve put a lot of hours in here; but every time you feel like you’re hitting a brick wall, you think it’s not worth it, you would rather get on with more irresponsible things in life. I’m sure everyone has days when they just want to give up their responsibilities and be selfish. But I don’t feel that I have an alternative: that’s why I’m still here! [Laughs.] But I do have an alternative. There’s nothing physically stopping me doing that – only a sort of social conscience. But I also think that Laura would not enjoy some of the things that I enjoy in life. I do want to spend, hopefully, the rest of my life with her. If I wanted to march up a mountain in India, the sacrifices which I would have to make…Twelve years it took me to put this business together, twelve years with Laura as a partner: three years of marriage, and I was living with her before that – these are all the things that I would lose. I couldn’t just go away for three months, and come back and expect to pick it all up again. I think that would be really unfair. Running a business, I don’t have choices. I don’t make the rules, despite what everyone says. The rules are made by customs and excise, the tax man, St John’s College (my landlords) – there’s pressure on all the time to pay these people. There are more pressures from those groups than any boss will give you in an employed job. If you take a job, you have choices: when I worked for other people, I used to say that if I went to work for two weeks and didn’t enjoy one day in those two weeks, I’d change my job – I did that several times. Now I don’t have the ability just to change. I didn’t want a business. I only got into this by accident. I was working, managing a business in the centre of Oxford, very happily, very successfully, getting paid well, getting recognized well. The owner sold the business behind my back to a larger company; then he went to live in America. The new company I couldn’t work with. I tried for three months, but I really couldn’t work with them. I handed my notice in. I was approached by the person who owned this business, two other companies, two backers, to open my own business. He talked me into a partnership here. I put my own money into it, and I thought: “That’s not too bad: he can do all the business, take all the responsibility, and I can just carry on being a hairdresser.” We had differences of opinion. His life also changed: his wife died of cancer – that, and I just didn’t want to work with him, didn’t see any point: he had no ambition any more. So I had to buy him out, and all of a sudden, I had my own company. It was a horrible thought. I had always tried to avoid it. I really didn’t want the responsibility: that’s probably why I don’t really want children.

Do I think I’ve wasted much of my life? Oh yeah! But I don’t regret it at all. I did waste a lot of my life trying to be happy – and that is wasting it because you are not always successful. There are big periods in my life where I felt I was striving for something that I didn’t even want. I remember the first time seeing my name in magazines and newspapers – when I achieved that I really didn’t enjoy it: the cost of it wasn’t worthwhile, which was far too many hours, far too much work, making myself ill, trying to do too much, being too competitive. Now I can waste a whole day, but I don’t think it’s wasted. On a Monday, my day off, I can maybe have an hour’s worth of work to do – some banking or some phone calls – I can comfortably get out of bed at half past nine, ten o’clock, sit down with what’s left of the Sunday newspapers, plus Monday’s papers, and sit there until four o’clock without hardly moving, eating, drinking: just looking out the window, fantasizing about things, whatever’s going through my head. It’s not really wasted – I haven’t really achieved anything – but it isn’t wasted.