The Times – June 29 2007
– Ginny Dougary

When Titian-haired Ginny Dougary wrote a choral piece celebrating redheads, it brought home to her how much ‘gingerism’ there is in England

Click here to listen to Ginger Chorale by Ginny Dougary and MJ Paranzino, performed at the Royal Festival Hall, June 2007

Jenny McAlpine
Photo courtesy Red and Proud

The e-mails from the choir built up to a great clamour in the days leading up to the Overture Weekend – the grand-scale reopening celebrations of the Royal Festival Hall earlier this month. “Have you heard . . ?” “Can you believe it?” “Talk about timing . . .” This was in response to the news about a family in Newcastle who had suffered three years of abuse – smashed windows, graffiti, physical attacks – forcing them to decamp from one council estate to another on two occasions, now pushing for a third move, and all on account of their red hair.

One of the more arresting details was that a council officer had apparently discussed the possibility that the family invest in a few bottles of hair-dye. As a ginger-ninja myself, I was appalled at the idea that the solution to being bullied was to change yourself rather than to correct the behaviour of your tormentors.

The news of a redhaired family’s travails was indeed quite timely since this was the week that a choral piece I had first thought about writing last autumn was to be performed, thrillingly, at the Royal Festival Hall. The title was Ginger Chorale, the story of a bullied ginga (or gingette) who ends the song feeling triumphantly special, after hearing the rollcall of all the amazing redheads who have existed throughout history, and a paean to the wonders of diversity.

There was to be a double-high to the event since I would be singing alongside my fellow choir members of the Brighton City Singers and South London Choir (around 150 voices) who were among a group of 15 choirs throughout the UK picked to perform on that day.

There is something weirdly Zeitgeist-y about gingerism – witness this week’s news about the ginger-haired waitress, Sarah Primmer, from Plymouth, who was awarded £17,618 after suffering “lewd and embarrassing” comments about her hair – but I was totally unaware of this when I was first smitten by the auburn theme.

So what prompted the piece? Well, I have to say that although the elder of my two sons is a redhead, neither he nor I, happily, has been victimised because of it. However, my son is a composer and it was partly considering his musical future that made me think about the ginger theme.

The idea came out of a flippant conversation in which we were discussing how to market his talents and I said something along the lines of “So what’s your unique selling point? Who’s going to be interested in a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ex-public schoolboy? – the only thing in your favour is that you might be considered ‘different’ because of your hair colour.”

It seemed to me that taking redhairedness as a route of addressing the whole issue of prejudice could be fruitful in that you could make a strong point in an unexpected and inventive way.

It took some persuasion, however, to convince my musical writing partner, the composer MJ, that this was a worthwhile project. She is American and in the United States red locks are something to be admired, apparently, rather than derided. The notion that anyone could be bullied because of his or her hair colour seemed utterly incredible to her. This was echoed in the Times Online response to the Chapmans’ story with American readers clearly reeling in disbelief. Jerry, from Phoenix, Arizona: “Anti redhead? Totally unheard of in the US. Come to the USA. Folks, you will be welcomed.”; Lisa, from Ohio: “Being from the US I have to say this baffles me. There is a lot of stuff that is wrong with my country but I can at least say that redhaired people can live peacefully here.”

It seems that England may be the only country in the world, in fact, to indulge in ginger-baiting. In May, just as we were doing a final polish to the song, I switched on the TV and found myself watching a most entertaining documentary called F*** off I’m Ginger, the personal investigation by a young redhaired (and very cute) comedian, Dan Wright, into why it’s so problematic being a ginga in this country. He believed, for instance, that it was his hair colour that prevented him from getting a girlfriend at university. One of his interviews was with a copper-haired, freckle-faced copywriter who found that his colouring was a magnet to women in France and America where he had lived for some years (he is now married to an American), but the reverse was painfully true for him in England. So are the English simply less tolerant than other nations? I don’t think so. Perhaps it stems from an atavistic hostility towards Scotland which has the highest proportion of redheads (13 per cent of the population have red hair; 40 per cent carry the recessive so-called “ginger gene”), with Ireland coming a strong second.

From the outset, I wanted part of the song to be dedicated to the names of famous redheads and thought that the internet might provide some helpful sites.

Well, what an eye-opening and cheek-blushing revelation this turned out to be . . . let’s just say that there seem to be plenty of men out there who have a positive fetish for scantily-clad Titian-haired beauties.

The most useful (and wholesome) source was one called Red and Proud, which gives an annual award to celebrated gingers (past recipients include Charlie Dimmock and Anne Robinson, whose face adorns one of the club’s T-shirts – “Not a Redhead? You are the weakest link”). Other sassily self-confident legends include: “Ginger Genius”, “Redhot Redhead Ready to Rock”, and “It’s a Redhead thing . . . you wouldn’t understand”.

It fell to MJ to fit these redheads into a musical form and although she found the exercise exasperating in some ways – beating out name after name until she got the right rhythmical combination, she also got a kick out of coming up with absurd juxtapositions such as these: “Ginger Rogers, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, James Cagney . . . Rita Hayworth, Charlie Dimmock, Sarah Bernhardt, Prince Harry”, and her favourite, “Oliver Cromwell, Woody Allen, Lord Byron and Kiki Dee”. I thought it was important to use accessible language and terms, with a few exceptions, that most kids could understand . . .”

It’s a smack,/ a knife attack,/ when you sneer,/ when you jeer:/ Oi ginga, you’re a minga,/ stop you’re whining little whinger . . . and so on.

Our first performance of Ginger Chorale was at the Brighton Fringe Festival in May in front of an audience of a hundred, before the big event a month later at RFH which was attended by thousands. It’s hard to know when you sing something for the first time what impact it will make: you worry whether people will hear the words and – more importantly – will they hear the message?

It seems that we had touched a nerve when, after our debut, a beautiful strawberry-blonde young woman in her early twenties came up and told us that the song had made her cry, remembering how she had been singled out and slagged off in her early teens. If only her classroom tormentors had been in the audience.

While it may seem faintly comical to some to equate gingerism to racism or queer-bashing, a punch or a taunt is as cruelly felt regardless of what makes the victim different, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

One of the most troubling parts of the Chapmans’ story was that their son – only 10 years old – was having suicidal thoughts. Two years ago a Premiership footballer – Dave Kitson of Reading – said that fans who made fun of his red hair were as bad as racists.

But how dull if we were all the same. As we sung on our big day: “I’m cool, I’m smart – my red hair’s a work of art . . . Don’t berate, let’s celebrate our existence, vive la difference, our good luck, what the f***, this crowning glory my red hair…” I haven’t managed to catch (redhead) Catherine Tate’s sketch about the refuge for Gingers, but as it happens, two members of the South London Choir almost didn’t make the performance at the Royal Festival Hall because they were attending the West End premiere of her new feature film, Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution. Its director, Bille Eltringham, and editor, John Wilson, arrived minutes before we were due on stage with a message of support from their star who was “chuffed” to be counted among our illustrious redheads.

It is hard to convey the excitement that we choir members felt on the Big Day. But it was an unforgettable experience. Some of them said that it ranked among the best moments of their lives, and I would have to agree. But it was also thrilling to sing our Ginger Chorale to such a receptive crowd and see the looks of amazement and engagement on so many people’s faces as the message of the song sank in. The best compliment we received was hearing that at least one of the other choirs wanted to include the song in their repertoire. Ginger power!