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Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Hair That I Grieve

In memory of my Dad, who was one on his own!


I blame Gil.

Those of you that know me (or have seen my picture leering from this Blog, or elsewhere), may have noticed that my hair is getting a little thin on top.  Actually, “a little thin” is something of an understatement - dangerously anorexic might be nearer the truth.  I have done all of the self-deprecating jokes, like “well, who wants fat hair anyway” but they don’t disguise the plain and simple fact that I am now a fully paid-up member of that gloomy fraternity who always are among the first to know when it is raining.

It wasn’t always like this.  As a child I was blessed with thick, wavy hair (now it just waves goodbye, I warned you about the self-deprecating jokes) which was regularly attacked with thinning scissors by our local Gents’ Hairdresser, a genial Geordie named Gil (short for Gilbert, I imagine).  To see great lumps of hair being apparently dragged from my scalp was pretty alarming even then, when there was plenty more to take its place.  If I knew then what I know now, I would have been begging him to leave well alone.

Gents’ barbershops in the 1950s and 1960s were pretty much an exclusively male refuge, on a par with Bookies’ Shops and Pub Bars.  In fact, they often combined the worst elements of both establishments.  Gents’ barbershops usually consisted of one room in which one or (in more optimistic establishments) two barber’s chairs were arranged facing a wall adorned with mirrors and a shelf containing all of the equipment, unguents (in the form of sprays, tonics and hair cream) and peripheral items for sale (such as hair tonic, hair cream, razor blades etc.).  The rest of the room consisted of a series of benches and/or chairs arranged around the edge of the room for those awaiting their turn in the barber’s chair. 

The benches were almost always the same as would be found, in those days, in any Public Bar.  These could be wooden, with diamond-shaped holes punched in the backrest and the seat curved in an ‘S’ shape.  An unfortunate side effect of this design was that small boys had to first surmount the deceptively shiny front curve and then either perch on the edge or allow themselves to slide to the back of the seat where they would be doomed never be able to get back down again without the humiliating help of either their Dad, or, worse still, the Barber.

Alternatively, there were the more luxurious leather (or similar) seats padded with horse-hair, where the precipitous slope could be in any direction depending on the glacial movement of the stuffing over time.  Presumably these furnishings had been bought second-hand in the first place (or first-hand in the second place), as the stuffed seats were almost always ripped, with the innards erupting from the green or black leather like the boils that frequently graced the necks of the clients of the shop.

By the way, whatever happened to boils?  (Those of a nervous disposition should look away now).  It seemed at one time that every man or youth (and some very unfortunate girls and women) over a certain age sported one or more of these protuberances.  They were a cross you had to bear and no-one thought anything of them (I didn’t think much of them myself).  Obviously, those who were plagued with such blemishes in more biblical proportions, tended to attract some attention and comment (which, in those non-PC days, tended not to be of a supportive and caring nature).  I suppose the Great British Boil finally succumbed to a combination of greater personal hygiene, improved diet and broad-spectrum antibiotics but it made us what we are today, pock-marked and paranoid to a man.  However, I digress.

The benches and chairs comprised the customer waiting area.  This was something we were rather good at in those days, waiting.  You have to remember that ‘customer service’ at that time meant that you, the customer, would be served by them (shop assistant, barber, doctor or whoever) as and when they felt like it and not a moment before.  I think the Second World War was mainly to blame for this state of affairs, because the rationing system transferred power from the customer to the supplier and it has taken decades for us to get this mind-set out of our collective system.  (Sorry, in my other life I’m a lecturer and it’s difficult to resist the urge to pontificate).  If you’ve got a better theory, let me know. 

To get a haircut on a Saturday you had to (a) be at the shop at the crack of dawn, or (b) have the patience of a saint, or (c) pop in to the shop at regular intervals in the hope of seizing on a quiet moment.  My Dad was a past master at (c), by which I mean that he could make not going for a haircut into an art form.  Typically, he would commence not going for a haircut toward lunchtime on Saturday.  Arriving at his chosen barber’s he would pop his head around the door, whereupon the massed ranks of putative customers would lift their heads from their copies of Sporting Life, Titbits (always a disappointment to the uninitiated) or Reveille and view my father with varying degrees of pity, hostility or bemusement. The barber would turn from his current customer and the conversation would go something like:

Dad:   Heyup [Gil, Bob, Dave or similar] how long do you think it will be?

Barber (shrugging shoulders and, with a sweep of his arm, indicating the shop full of hopeful punters) Could be a couple of hours at least, Bill.

Dad:   Right, I’ll see you later.

At which point, Dad could now head for the pub with a clear conscience having at least tried to “go and get something done with that hair of yours” as Mum had instructed when he left.  It always struck me that the estimated time given by the Barber unrealistically depended on no-one else joining the queue in the intervening period.  Therefore, when father prised himself from the pub, mid-afternoon, and again popped his head around the door, the shop was still full of patient customers, albeit mostly different ones from those who had witnessed the earlier conversation.  As it was clearly unlikely that a haircut was to be purchased in the near future, there was nothing for it but to bide one’s time in the Bookie’s.  With careful planning, Dad could spend weeks not having a haircut, but thoroughly enjoying every Saturday, until the domestic pressure reached such a crescendo that he was forced to spend a good chunk of his weekend shuffling along the horse-hair sofa toward his date with the electric clippers.

Dad was required to accompany me to Gil’s Barbershop on Anglesey Road (opposite the Cooper’s Arms) not only to get me down from the bench and up onto the barber’s chair but also to translate for me.  Gil had a really thick North-East accent and, for me as a small child, he might as well have been speaking Serbo-Croat.  Therefore, his instructions had to be translated for me and small talk was impossible (so he would never know where I went for my holidays) but he did keep up an incomprehensible (to me) dialogue with my Dad whilst my head was turned this way and that, great lumps of hair were removed by the thinning scissors and the electric clippers reduced any remaining hair between the nape of the neck and halfway up the back of my head, to stubble.  This procedure finally concluded with the obligatory view of the devastation via the hand-held mirror positioned at angles to one’s head (I’ve never quite known what this is supposed to prove or what range of responses might be open to the customer, other than the standard “oh yes, that’s fine”). Then the question “D’ye want some of this on it?”, the “this” in question being a yellow liquid of uncertain origin contained in a sort of giant perfume bottle (as they used to be) with a nozzle and a tube leading to a rubber bulb.  As it was free, and I was always a great one for getting my money’s worth, I always opted for this and was then enveloped in a fine, odd-scented mist that clamped what remained of my hair to my head for the rest of the day.

It can’t be a coincidence that most barbershops of that era were within staggering distance of local pubs.  The pub often acted as a sort of overspill waiting area for prospective clients (you could check the queue for Gil’s from the bar of the Cooper’s) but also must have provided a degree of temptation to the barber, who had to endure long periods of boredom punctuated by sessions of intense activity.  Some barber’s even formed a sort of symbiotic relationship with the local hostelries, ‘Cracker’ Law in Uxbridge Street comes to mind, not only as a provider of scalp-threatening haircuts but also as a maker of traditional dart boards (by which I mean not the things with treble bands that adorn every pub today but the traditional boards of this area, with boxes for the 25 score at around the ’10 to 2’ position on the edge of the board, and just the Bull in the centre.  Now that was real darts).

Barber shops also sometimes had even more in common with pubs.  One of my favourite traditional barber’s used to be in Union Street, in that row of houses and shops that used to exist where Sainsbury’s car park is now (diagonally opposite the Union pub).  What used to intrigue me about this particular barber’s is that it had what, for want of any other description, could be called an ‘outdoor’.  This particular barber, had a thriving business in the provision of latex contraceptives (not just in odd packets but in wholesale quantities), in the days when such things had to be obtained discreetly.  From time to time, as he attended to your hair, a knock would come on the obscured glass window that opened out onto the lobby of the shop.  The barber would slide the window open a little way and a sotto voce conversation would ensue, money would change hands and a box of condoms would be handed over from under the counter.  What always intrigued me (apart from anyone having need of a box of such things) was that I never once saw anyone at the window when I was either inside or outside the shop.  All that I was aware of was a distant voice and perhaps a hint of a shadow.  The barber would complete the transaction, say goodbye to the invisible customer, and then return to his labours with a knowing wink to the part-clipped client and the assembled throng waiting their turn behind him.

As I sit today in my non-gender specific hairdressers, waiting for my appointment, so that what is left of my tonsure can be rearranged in a style that at least fools me into believing that something approaching a full head of hair is up there (a belief regularly shaken by any holiday photograph or unexpected reflection, despite Lynn’s heroic endeavours), I can only think wistfully of locks cast down on the floor of the barbers of yore and wonder, what the hell was in that yellow stuff, and is it finally having an effect!

“Yes, just a trim please.  No, I don’t want conditioner, thanks, if it gets in any better condition, it’ll recede faster than I can run backwards to catch up with it.  Oh, just the Isle of Wight for a few days, how about you?  Who cut my hair last?  Now, that’s a long story, first there was Gil…”

The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format for just £0.99 at Amazon UK and Amazon USA and as a paperback at Paperback Version and now read the new bumper collection of stories, Crutches For Ducks  also at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com , at the special price of just £1.99.

Monday, 4 June 2012

By Hook or Bye Definition!

A few more examples of the idiocy that began in Bye Definition:

camembert:  the charred remains of a camera

catalyst:  providing a series of important points for your feline

catastrophe:  pointless exercise of trying to teach a cat the correct use of an apostrophe when compiling the above

catamaran:  even more pointless exercise of calling your cat a moron because it cannot understand the correct use of an apostrophe

ornament:  beginning of a pathetic attempt to explain to the 6' 6" x 4' driver of the car in front of you why you felt the need to sound your horn when he did not move immediately the light turned green.

parasol:  nickname for a paratrooper named Solomon

Rupert:  quite attractive young kangaroo

rhubarb:  pointed comment from the above

toilet:  a little effort

Friday, 1 June 2012

The Queen and I

So, I've been racking my brains (or what's left of them) trying to think of occasions when the Monarch and I have encountered each other.  Not unsurprisingly, these events have been somewhat distant, few and far between.  However, there is at least one and it features in Steady Past Your Granny's (see below)


“When I was a child, I thought like a child…”

It came as quite a shock the other day to discover that I wasn’t ‘fair of face’!

I don’t mean in reality.  A quick check in the mirror would have disabused me of that notion long ago.  No, I was always convinced that I had been born on a Monday; hence ‘Monday’s child is fair of face’.  However, apropos nothing in particular, I was trawling back through an electronic diary when I had nothing better to do and discovered, to my delight, that you can view the calendar right back to the beginning of the last century.  Being of an egotistical bent, I naturally trotted back to the year of my birth, 1954, and there I found that August 30th fell on a Tuesday.  I would have bet good money on it being a Monday, although it always seemed to me that the evidence of my own eyes tended to wreck the predictive validity of the rhyme.  I suppose my confusion arose because I remember being told that my Mum was ‘doing the washing’ (bearing in mind that this was still an all-day chore for a Monday) when nature decreed that I would make my presence felt.  I imagine, in my childhood naivety, I assumed that the onset of labour would be almost instantly followed (after a few brief moments of discomfort, I wasn’t that na├»ve) by the arrival of me.  Until now, when I realised that my arrival was obviously a lengthy affair culminating some time the following day.  And that’s another problem, I have no idea when I was born!  Not for me the definitive astrological chart, pinning down the exact position of the planets in the celestial firmament at the time of my deliverance in downtown Burton upon Trent.  As both of my parents have long since passed on to that other country where zodiacal predictions are of considerably less importance, I don’t suppose now I will ever know this crucial piece of information.

The point of all this rambling is really to do with childhood misconceptions and how they can follow you through life.  Is it really true, for example, that as a child in the late 1950’s living in Anglesey Road, I was held up to look through our front room window to observe the Queen passing by?  I don’t mean by this that the Head of the House of Windsor was ambling along to the Cooper’s Arms for a pint and a packet of Park Drive.  I just have this vague recollection of a black limousine sweeping past our house and I can’t imagine why I was being held up for this event unless it was some important personage whose itinerary could be predicted – hence my belief that it was the Queen.  Of course, I could have dreamed the whole thing up.  Childhood imagination is pretty fertile soil for the propagation of fantasies.

I remember watching a cartoon or some such when I was small that somehow instilled the notion in my mind that there was some awful nameless beast living in the toilet that was biding its time, waiting to capture unsuspecting children.  Somehow this notion then became contorted into the conviction that, in order to avoid the clutches of this horrific (and probably foul-smelling) nemesis, I had to get downstairs before the toilet had finished flushing.  Our bathroom in Anglesey Road (yes, we had a bathroom!  Posh, weren’t we?)  had been created by converting the back bedroom of what was, originally, a three-bedroom terraced house, and the toilet was at the far end of this room, by the window.  This meant, for the aspiring junior flush racer, a frantic pull of the handle, followed by a sprint across the linoleum, up two steps to the landing and then along the landing and down the stairs to the relative sanctuary of our living room.  This may not sound particularly daunting or challenging but you need to know that I was pathologically scared of heights (also widths, depths and just about any dimension you can imagine) and was desperately trying not to make my way downstairs by sliding from step to step on my bottom.  Timidity on the staircase does not fit well with panic-stricken flight and it’s a wonder that my childhood did not come to an abrupt end with me in a crumpled heap behind the stair’s door.

Its funny how, as a child, you never share these nameless dreads with your parents.  Somehow you and this mystical fear are in cahoots against the adult world.  I suppose it boils down to an even stronger fear of being ridiculed (even though every fibre of your infant being tells you that the thing you fear is most definitely real).  For example, I was never afraid of the dark.  I simply avoided it.  Lying in bed with the covers clamped over my head, eyes tightly shut and thumb firmly fixed in mouth, I knew that the dark could not hurt me.  Imminent suffocation under all of those blankets, sheets and eiderdowns was far preferable to whatever lurked on the other side of my eyelids.  Now, I would never have dreamt of telling my parents about this.  I just assumed it was a fact of life, like those ancient maps marked with ‘Here be Dragons’, the map of my childhood world bore the legend, ‘Here be Nameless Dreads…and here…and here’.

Perhaps I had a particularly repressed childhood?  Could it be that my 1950’s compatriots were eagerly recounting their fears and fantasies to their understanding and sympathetic parents in an open, non-condemnational forum?  Somehow, I doubt it.  The post-war parents of the baby boom generation had, themselves, been brought up in a ‘children should be seen and not heard’ environment and whilst they might have progressed to a point where the sight and sound of children could be tolerated, full and frank discussions would have to wait for the onset of more liberated attitudes in the 1960’s.

So, I have to live the rest of my life in the knowledge that I am neither predicted to be, nor in reality, ‘fair of face’.  Now I have a new prediction to live up to, namely that I am ‘full of grace’ (whatever that means).  Cancel the plastic surgery and book me into a retreat, if I can get my inner child back our from under the bedclothes, I think its time for a session of self-discovery.

Smoke Gets in your Eyes


This is the latest article to feature in the Derby Telegraph (see Derby Telegraph):

Have you seen those new public service advertisements in which a child in the back of a car appears to be engulfed in a cloud of fumes?  Then it becomes apparent that the 'smoke' is, in fact, invisible and this is yet another dire warning of the dangers of passive smoking.  Memories of car journeys back in the 1950s and 1960s came flooding back on seeing this advert, as this is exactly what it felt like for me, only the smoke was all too real.

I mentioned last month about our epic journeys from Burton to Holbrook, which seemed like a distant land, far, far away in the days before dual-carriageways and bypasses.  More often than not, these journeys were undertaken in Uncle Jim's car, a green Ford Prefect, with me, mum and dad crammed onto the bench seat at the back and Auntie Vera responsible for navigation at the front. 

Uncle Jim's driving was more by consensus than anything.  Auntie Vera's role was to advise on the route, hopefully in good time to make the various turns.  Despite the fact that our path to Holbrook was pretty well trodden over the years, things could and did get a little fraught, with conversations ensuing like:

"I think you should have turned left there."
"Oh, for goodness sake Vera, where?"
"Back there, where there was that signpost."
"Well why didn't you tell me?  I'm too busy watching the road to read every signpost…"

And so on.  The problem was that Uncle Jim's vision was not all that great, which Auntie Vera knew but we didn't.  This was coupled with the fact that he had gained his driving licence in the Army in WWII when, as he said, you only had to be able to get a lorry from one end of a runway to the other to qualify.  As a consequence, his confidence in his driving ability was limited, as was Auntie Vera's. 

None of this would have mattered too much on the sparsely populated roads of those days, except for the fact that both Auntie Vera and Uncle Jim smoked.    As the level of tension rose in the car, and it usually didn't take very long, so did the frequency of cigarette lighting.  Auntie Vera would light cigarettes for them both, and Uncle Jim would then append one to his lip and breathe through it, so that his view was further obscured by a regular volcano of smoke, ash and sparks.

The ventilation system of the old Ford Prefect left a lot to be desired.   Opening any of the main windows just resulted in a howling gale and enough noise to wake the dead, so the only concession to any of my plaintive pleas for some fresh air, usually voiced by mum after frequent sotto voce pestering by me, consisted of the quarter-light in the driver's window being opened, which was as much use as nothing.

Another reason why the journey to Holbrook took as long as it did, was that Uncle Jim was not exactly a speed demon (which I suppose, in retrospect, was a small mercy) and hated having anyone driving behind him.  Therefore, as we wound our way around the various country lanes which seemed to form the bulk of our journey, we frequently had to stop and pull over to allow the traffic accumulated behind to overtake before we could continue.

Our stay at Auntie Mabel's in Holbrook was always considerably curtailed by the need to "set off while it's still light", as driving back in the dark would clearly be a bridge too far.  So the whole process would begin again, with rapidly rising tension in the front seats and a veritable fog engulfing the back.  None of this would have been a matter for particular concern, except that for most of my childhood I was dreadfully travel sick, and being transported in a mobile fog was not conducive to gastric equilibrium.  Why I started to suffer from travel sickness is a story in itself, as I'll tell you next time.