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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.