»  The Straggler, No. 8

June 16, 2003

  Short Back and Sides


Except for a brief spell when my wife took on the job, I do not believe I have ever had a satisfactory relationship with the person who cuts my hair. I have always felt ill at ease in the barber's chair. Having one's hair cut is, after all, the only context in which a male of modest station in life is attended to by a body servant for anything other than medical reasons. For anyone not raised in an environment of nannies and gentlemen's gentlemen, the intimacy of the thing is disconcerting.

My earliest tonsorial experiences took place in a barber's shop my father patronized in our home town. The shop stood in a dilapidated row of buildings (feed merchant, auto mechanic, pub) near the town's South Bridge, under which the river Nene makes its sluggish way to the distant sea. The sole proprietor was a taciturn fellow named Old Bill. While my father read Titbits and Reveille (the 1950s British equivalent of supermarket tabloids) off to one side, Old Bill would attend to my hair with a mechanical clipper. He had electric clippers for use on adult hair, but for some reason thought them unsuitable for small fry.

In the winter Old Bill's shop was heated by a kerosene stove. To this day the smell of kerosene summons up that poky, dim interior for me with Proustian exactitude. The single chair faced a large mirror from whose rear surface the silvering had decayed in patches. There were businesslike leather strops hanging from hooks on the wall at waist height. (His waist, not mine.) Shelves held a supply of lotions and unguents, jars of Brylcreem and Vaseline Hair Tonic, pipe cleaners and cigarette rolling papers. Old Bill had no tobacco license, but it hardly noticed. As well as trading in every conceivable smoking accessory, he had tobacco and cigarette ads all over the store: PLAYERS NAVY CUT, WILD WOODBINES, CRAVEN 'A' WILL NOT AFFECT THE THROAT.

Prophylactics were also heavily advertised at various locations on the walls and the mirror, identified by brand name only, so that a child could have no clue as to what was in fact being offered. I remember vaguely thinking they must be exhortations of some kind: ONA! DUREX! — though of course the exclamation points were my own mental embellishment. In England at that time prophylactics were sold only at pharmacies and barber shops. At the pharmacy one was liable to find oneself being served by a female assistant, or standing next to a female customer. The barber shop was therefore the preferred place to purchase this particular item, and the barber's loaded question to adult customers, as his fingers hovered over the keys of the cash register: Will there be anything else, Sir? was a reliable laugh-getter for British stage comedians of the lower sort until at least the 1980s.

(In this context, I note that the oldest recorded joke is traditionally attributed to King Archelaus of Macedon, who reigned 413-399 B.C. Asked by the court barber how he wanted his hair cut, the king replied: "In silence." I believe the king was expressing a majority preference. He was certainly expressing mine. I would much rather have my hair cut without any conversation, mainly because I have no interest in, or ability at, guyish talk about sports or automobiles. Unwilling to antagonize a person who is snapping stainless steel blades a quarter inch from my ear lobes, I do my best with the small talk, but my heart isn't in it and I can rarely keep returning the ball back over the net for the full duration of a haircut.)

Old Bill only knew one way to cut hair, the "short back and sides." When adolescence arrived with its attendant vanities in train, I decided that this somewhat unimaginative approach would no longer do, and began to patronize a tonier establishment in the town center, whose window sported headshots of Mediterranean types with their hair cut in different styles.

This was another one-man business, run by a dapper and very attentive fellow in middle age. I quickly grasped, however, that if not the factotum of the city, he was very well connected in a certain subculture whose existence I was just, by hearsay, becoming aware of. At our first professional engagement he asked me, while preparatorily combing down my hair rather more slowly than I would have liked, whether I attended the town's premier boys school. I said I did. "Ah," he purred, "Then you must know my friend Ronnie Douglas." My blood froze. I did indeed know Ronnie. Of all the school's forty-odd masters, Ronnie was the most obvious pederast. A middle-aged bachelor, his chief delight was to punish a boy who talked in class by taking him to a store-room and spanking him very slowly with a large gym slipper, murmuring the while: "Naughty boy. Naughty boy." I never heard that Ronnie did any harm to anyone, and he was of course a superb teacher, but even in those innocent days there could be no doubt where his inclinations lay.

By the time I got to university the Great Disruption was under way. Such antediluvian rigidities as barber shops staffed by, and patronized by, men only, were no longer part of the consciousness of forward-thinking young people. I dimly recall a long succession, across several years, of "unisex salons." I attended them dutifully, in the spirit of the age, but could never shake off the feeling that they were making far too much fuss about a very simple task. When, towards the mid-1970s, the waters of revolution receded at last, I was surprised to find that the men's barbers of the older style were still in business, and I returned to them gratefully. Traveling the world, I took some pride in locating the most minimalist barber shop — the Old Bill — in every place where I dwelt for any time. (In New York city, it was the one at the Port Authority bus terminal on 8th Avenue.)

All this comes to mind as a result of a recent trauma. I had been having my hair cut at an establishment of an agreeably Spartan decor in a nearby town. The place advertises itself with a large neon sign saying "5 BARBERS 5." After some experimentation I found the least garrulous of the five and things went along very well for a couple of years. Then, one day, I had to break a bill in order to tip him. The cash register was short, the change-making got complicated, I paid check and tip together, and on my way out through the door realized that I had, in my confusion, tipped my man precisely nothing.

I have no face to go back to 5 BARBERS 5, and have had to locate a substitute. On my wife's recommendation, I have been trying out a unisex shop in my own village. They don't make as much fuss as the earlier unisex places, and the prices are only a tad higher than at 5 BARBERS 5. I have found a lady who cuts my hair in the way I like, and whose interest in sport and cars is even less than mine. It may be that my life-long run of tonsorial bad luck has come to an end in the gentle hands of Rebecca. Only, I must remember to bring a suitable supply of loose bills to my appointments.