Friday, 12 September 2008

Hairdressing: just say no

Moving back to England from abroad hasn’t been as smooth a process as I might have thought. One of the more surprising problems has been that it hasn’t proved straightforward to get my hair satisfactorily cut.

For years now, in common I imagine with most people, I’ve been using hairdressers. A light airy environment, a smell of perfumed hair products, piped music, a price tag suitable for an establishment with ambiance rather than mere atmosphere. They must be high emblems of our culture, probably ahead of cathedrals and concert halls: there are certainly a great many more of them and they reflect something fundamental in our ethos, aseptic, artificial and over-priced. It’s hard to imagine anything far further separated from the simple barbers of my childhood, with queues of men, the choice of only two cuts, long or short, the condoms on the counter, the humble appearance and prices.

It was something of a priority to find a new hairdresser once we’d moved to our provincial market town (obviously market towns are in the provinces, but ‘provincial’ just fits Stafford so well that I can hardly think of the town without using the adjective). It didn't take long to find just the kind of institution we were used to. Big glass frontage, pretty young cutters, inane conversation delivered as though both of us were interested in pursuing it. It took forty minutes at the end of which I was charged what I’d expected in return for a haircut which included what I can only think of as a ‘peak’, as in the kind of thing you get on the front of a peaked cap. My fringe stuck out rigid and horizontal from my forehead. Had there been any sun in Stafford since we arrived here, it would have protected me from glare; as it happens, it would probably have kept the rain out of my eyes had I not in a fit of self-loathing personally cut it off with a pair of nail scissors.

Not such a smart move. They do learn something in those hairdressers’ schools. It isn’t enough just to attack your hair with scissors to make it look any neater, and what I emerged with came close to making me miss my peak.

So over the last three weeks I’ve been waiting for my hair to grow enough to warrant another cut which might clear up the mess of the last one.

I enquired of a female colleague where I might go. It was a little disappointing to be told that the best place was the same one that caused the damage in the first place.

‘But,’ she went on, ‘my sons use a barber’s near the cinema. It’s men only so I don’t use it, but they’re prepared to travel quite some distance to get there. You could always try that.’

A barber? It felt like a throwback to a long distant, long vanished past. But why not? Of course he might not have the stylistic skills of a proper hairdresser but, hey, what did I have to lose?

I was up early on Saturday morning but decided there was no point in going into town before 9:30: no self-respecting shop opens before then. That was the first under-estimate I had to correct. This barber works from 6:00 till 2:00 on a Saturday. I thought I’d woken early, but he’d already been working an hour and a half.

I was concerned that I didn’t have an appointment. We had tried to phone the day before but hadn’t got a reply. Another mind-shift I had to go through: this isn’t the kind of place that has appointments – you turn up and wait your turn. Five guys all sat around the place, steaming slightly as the rain dripped off their clothes, and each one knowing who was in front of him. So when it came to my turn, the client after me actually waved me forward to the seat (yes, there’s only one seat, and only one person doing the cutting). There’s no barging: queue discipline is self-imposed and rigidly ahered to.

‘How do you want it cut?’ I was asked. ‘Reasonably short,’ I replied, delighting in the sheer nostalgia of it. The barber made small talk while he cut – it’s curious that in a room full of people, only the man in the chair and the man behind him actually talk. In any case, it was stylised, completely ritualistic talk in which neither makes any pretence of wanting to converse or being interested in the subject matter. Both parties know it’s just part of the rite, like the response in a church. You talk in the barber’s chair because that’s how it’s done. I remember nothing that we talked about, except that we must have touched on the weather, the mandatory subject in that context, and the only topic either of us cared about as we contemplated the waterfall outside.

At the end of the operation, which took just ten minutes, all trace of the peak and of my attempt to correct it had been removed. The cut probably scored five out of ten on the Vidal Sassoon scale, but who cares? It’s unpretentious, simple, neat. And the whole process, including waiting for my turn, took about as long as the cut alone took in the hairdressers’.

And the price? Under a third. I overtipped massively, simply embarrassed to take change from the pitifully small note I handed over (naturally, he wasn’t equipped for credit card payment). He accepted the note and the tip with quiet dignity – a nod of the head, not even a ‘thank you, sir’. No deference is due in that environment: this is man to man in a primeval relationship.

And the conclusion? It’s time to take a stand. The hairdressers have encroached too far. We need to draw a line and defend the barbers on our side of it.

After all, you might hear opera being mutedly played in the background of a hairdresser’s salon. But who would ever write an opera about a hairdresser? There are hairdressers now even in Seville. We need to act now to protect a hallowed tradition.

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