Helen Shapiro, whilst ‘Walking Back to Happiness’, said her hair was her crowning glory. It’s certainly how a man might make sense of his inner self, but crowning glory? As a child, hair was central to how I saw myself. Ginger knob or curly top were the two school nicknames by which I was known and I hated them. As I cringed, so they were used more and more. Yet my red curls, if not the hairstyle, was coveted by female relatives. I’m told we need a dose of the red hair gene from each parent, so it’s likely one of my sources was great grandad and great grandma Malone, immigrants from the west of Ireland where red hair is relatively common. I’m happy with that bit of myself. Incidentally, I also hated my freckles and the attendant serious risk of sunburn. Not any more; I stay covered up, sitting in the shade, keeping up with fluids, plenty and various.
There are guys who hardly ever get shorn. Rastas and Sikhs for example, totally in tune with their culture and presumably with their inner selves. For those that do, managing the hair is an intermittent lifelong task. Maths was never a strength, but for the sake of argument, assume we live for 70 years and have 10 haircuts per year, each lasting 30 minutes including the wait. You can only go during the day and not on a Sunday, so multiply by three. That’s 6 weeks out of the life. A long time. So where, who with and how do we spend that time? Do we stay loyal, or do we flit about? Who or what influences our style? How do we know it’s been a success? The amount of hair on the floor perhaps? Not going too often is on my list. Do you look more like your old self or are you continuing to fool most of the people most of the time? Do you look more like someone else would like you to look, maybe the wife? They say you are only a two or three days away from getting back to normal after a dud haircut, so why worry anyway?
History tells us that attending the barber’s was an important social and medical event in addition to a hygienic routine. Barbers were dentists and surgeons, famous for blood-letting as immortalised by Sweeney Todd. Thankfully, the Royal College of Surgeons took over that function in the late 19th century. Barbers retain however, an important role in STD prevention.
The golden age of barbershops began in America around the 1880s. Men popped in daily for a chat, to listen and help create public opinion, regardless of whether they wanted a shave or a haircut. Premises were sumptuous and the aromas rich. It was a club. The decline of this companionability began with the invention of the safety razor in 1904 (Gillette) when a shave at the barber’s turned into a special event, much like today. D0-It-Yourself haircuts began in the 1920s, popular with my dad in the 1950s and could even still be around. Then came the fashion for long hair, pioneered by Goliath and continued by the Beatles. Finally the haircut itself came under assault by the advent of the hairstylist, stereotypically a camp artiste who uses scissors rather than clippers, and who includes a drink and repartee in with the experience.
You can trace a life through your haircuts. As a nipper, Dad decided when I needed it cut and did it in the kitchen, on a buffet surrounded by newspaper using mail-order diy clippers. No electric here, hand driven, not especially sharp, pulling hairs out by their roots and mighty sore. A verbal slap if not a backhander if I complained. I finished with a short-back-and-sides and looked like a ginger coconut.
Early teens, when a paper round gave me some independence, enough eventually became enough. It was time for the barber’s, beginning with Raby’s at Waterloo opposite the cinema where we went every Saturday night. It was a hut really with stained glass windows which signed his name in colour. The price turned my dad pale; probably well less than five bob in old money, but at least I didn’t look like a coconut. I asked his daughter out but she was always doing her hair. Ran in the family I suppose.
Next was a hairdresser up Imperial Arcade in the town centre. You still had to queue so it was a barbers really, but posher than a hut. It was popular with college boys because one of the staff was still in school doing a Saturday job. He lived up the road from us and took his lunch in a briefcase. This choice had something to do with girls. More expensive but more couth; a proper hairdresser, value for money and romantic impact. Difficult to judge that last one, but not too powerful in my case.
1967-8, the first few years at university we used the union barber. He had a massive comb-over reminiscent of Donald Trump. When we moved out in the field we went where you could. Backstreets of Liverpool somewhere. Never comfortable surviving on a grant, I also sent off for a diy razor which I scraped across my scalp, until a bare patch appeared one day. I had to cover it and my embarrassment with an elastoplast, cruelly referred to as a colostomy by one of my flatmates.
Most of the 1970s, in Cardiff, I had a silly haircut with massive sideburns, a bit like JPR Williams, the Welsh rugby player. It would have been a nightmare for the barber, whoever he was.
Around 1980, aged 33, I’d graduated to a parting by the time I worked in the centre of Manchester. I had my hair cut in the shadow of Maine Road, home of Manchester City. Two chairs in the front room of a terrace house. Antonio and Anellio’s. Italians. Always full, the queue and the conversation were heated and entirely predictable. I happened to mention once that my haircuts were getting more frequent, was he leaving my hair a little long? I left scalped and chastened. For goodness sake, City hadn’t lost, it was only a haircut.
I can’t remember having a haircut in Northallerton (1982-85).
I’ve tried many village barbers in Huddersfield. First Crosland Moor. Convenient and never seemed to have a queue, at lunchtime anyway. The boss ran a big car and went on holiday a lot. He also cut the hair of one of my colleagues – another coconut sadly, an Indian one this time. Two in Honley. One always had a pint of lager on his sink. Whilst a fashionable man and wife act, the other had outrageous prices. Chris, my son the trainee pilot, continued with them long after I’d changed.
The same spot my wife went came next, a unisex hairdresser in Meltham, run by two gay men, the only place I’ve ever had to book. Good service and plenty of outrageous banter. They used to open their garden to the public in summer. It was a period in my life when I needed the professional look. Besuited, groomed, sleek, gelled, moustached. My wife hated it. I think I did too, but I didn’t admit it.
Since moving to Holmfirth I’ve attended three hair establishments, with a one-off in Hebden Bridge. The first was an archetype, part of the communal male unconscious complete with barber’s pole. The queue resembled the gp’s waiting room back in the 1950s. Quiet patient possibly morose men, sitting in line on cushioned benches next to a low coffee table full of magazines and newspapers, knowing who’s come in after you, but who is in front? It’s life on a knife edge. Posh people, of course make an appointment at a hairdresser. And don’t go in the school holidays, it’s mayhem. It was also my first time at an all female barbers. Common enough today.
What decides you to go? Scalp itchiness, spots even, complaints from the wife, having to comb it or maybe you simply don’t look yourself? Having decided and endured the queue, it’s the dreaded ‘What are we doing today?’ The reply in hushed tones, so no one in the queue will detect that you actually care. There are certain middle-aged guys that give easily-heard detailed instructions, usually followed by a barely audible ‘plonker’ from the queue. The most animated it gets.
I once went early in the icy cold, wondering if they would open. I met the head honcho outside the Picturedrome where she didn’t reply to my enquiry. She actually ignored me, walking straight past across the bridge. I shouted ‘Oy,’ which she heard. ‘Yes, we’re open,’ she said. After the haircut, Sheila, my wife, came to pick me up and as we were leaving head honcho said, ‘And my name’s not Oy, it’s Tracy.’ We got on well after that. Bubbly, enjoyed her films and away days in Goole and Manchester. Apparently there is a massive market in Goole where all sorts of things fall off lorries. Tracy always asked that dreaded question, despite my 4-5 years of patronage. I once said it didn’t matter what I asked for, it always came out the same. She slapped me. And she loved to do eyebrows.
Of course you can’t have the same girl every time. One said she thought narrow boating was boring. Another droned on about her horses, dogs and cats. Yet another gave me a lecture on paganism. I moved on.
The second Holmfirth establishment was a modern take on the 1880s American barber. Two willowy women hairdressers, a monumental polished wooden island. Four chairs. A short uncomfortable pew for the rare queue. Coffee and a loyalty card. Beer on Fridays. Must book for shaves, increasingly popular, especially for stag parties as part of their pre-wedding spruce up. I was also given a job, to act as chaperone; sadly one of the girls had an unwelcome admirer. I was asked to sit until he went, at least two haircuts for the price of one and not quite bald. She liked eyebrows as well, and hair where it’s not supposed to be, like ears.
One Saturday when we were visiting Hebden Bridge, I took advantage of a special offer, £5 advertised in chalk on a blackboard outside what looked to be a ladies’ hairdresser. No queue. ‘That’s for me.’ I said. Very pleasant ladies, no coffee. I got some instant feedback from Sheila, ‘You don’t look any different.’ I had to admit there wasn’t a lot of hair left on the floor.
I continued with the willowy ladies for a while after they’d employed a third well made unwillowy girl. I began to notice that guys arriving after me had their cut before me. So I got the one in the middle – no rapport and not a brilliant job. You had to book, obviously. I moved on again.
I decided I was going to have a no. 4 all over, eyes and ears. No one can ruin that, surely. My third Holmfirth spot, recommended by Chris, captain with Ryanair, was a single barber. No booking. No problem. Nice Chesterfield sofas for the queue. Funny ads on the mirror. Reasonable chat. His assistant took over when the boss left for Derbyshire. Business increased. Three and four chairs, regularly full. Queue on wooden planks supported by scaffolding. Spartan decor resembling a doctor’s surgery without trimmings. Final insult on my last visit. Only one guy cutting hair. “Have you booked?” “No”. “We’ll try and fit you in.” I couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say and sat down. A likely middle school truant eventually came out of the back room. Took him five minutes, £1 a minute including eyebrows.
Wary of the Hebden Bridge experience, I’m just going to go when and where. A no.4 should cover it. When the childbride says it’s ready or my dermatitis gets too itchy. Where there is a barber without a queue. Back to ladies away from home. Stornaway on the Isle of Lewis and Scarborough – £5, £6. Home in Huddersfield town centre and £3. Man in town with accent and colour – not a clue where from; lovely bloke who said he had many Holmfirth clients. At £3 why not? He did my neckole with a cut throat razor and I needed a scarf. Nothing beats a warm neck. It was midwinter.
So this is what it boils down to: neat, tidy and incapable of arousing offence or even comment. The neutral solution. Anywhere there is no queue.