Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Musings From Underground: Having A Haircut

Ian Mole on the cultural language of haircuts. Illustrated by Harry Wareham.
I’ve twice found myself sitting in a barber’s chair in Greece trying to explain to a man who didn’t speak any English exactly how I’d like my hair cut. I spoke very little Greek so by maximizing this and using a good deal of gesturing, pointing at a few models’ photos on the wall and making a big wish I walked out of there looking just like I’d wanted to. Come to think of it, a lot of barbers in London are of Greek Cypriot origin so I wasn’t really straying too far into unknown territory but when it comes to haircuts, you don’t get a second chance.

I’m a child of the Sixties and so I’ve always had an aversion to getting my hair cut. I recall my brother returning from the barber’s in 1967 to be greeted by my dad’s angry voice “I thought you were getting your hair cut!”. “I’ve just been” came his smug reply as he dared to preen a little before the mirror. I used to dread the inevitable day as my hair was just growing nicely over my collar when dad would issue his terrible command that I had to get it cut. If it wasn’t him, it was our school headmaster, Sid, who hated long hair even more. One morning I was walking up the steep bank near our school when I felt a sharp poke in my back. I turned to see Sid’s odious face – he’d poked me with his umbrella – and he ordered me to get my haircut. A year or two later he told a mate of mine to do the same so he came in the next day with his long hair in tiny ringlets. He got a good bollocking for this so the next day he came in with his mother’s wavy ginger wig perched above his thick black sideburns. There mustn’t have been anything in the rule-book against this as he was allowed to continue in this mode for the rest of the year until he left.

Getting your hair cut when I was a teenager was usually the cue for all of your mates to take the piss, even if it looked okay. “Kiss yer baldy crop!” was the phrase used as you slapped the freshly-shorn victim on the top of his head. Occasionally someone would come to school with a severe crewcut and in those pre-skinhead days this was cause for much hilarity. One kid I remember claimed that everything was going fine until a car screeched to a halt outside causing the barber to jerk his arm and shave off half of his hair. The only course of action was to go the whole hog and whip the rest of it off. Looking back it does seem very doubtful and to be the stuff of comics. Sometimes as you trudged mournfully to the barber’s, friends would dog you and then as you sat blushing in the chair they’d leap above the level of the frosted-glass window and hurl abuse. It didn’t exactly add to a perfect afternoon.

When I was at university for four years in the early Seventies, I finally had the freedom to have my hair as long as I wanted. It reached its zenith of around eighteen inches in the summer of ‘76 and when the harsh world of full-time employment reared its ugly head, I went to get it all chopped off.  The hairdresser was delighted, as anything over a foot long could be sold to a wig-manufacturer – this was apart from the sheer joy of cutting off such a length with a few fell snips.

The best haircut I ever had was when I was in St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington recovering from an accident in which I sustained multiple fractures. I ended up losing several teeth and having about twenty-five stitches in my chin, and my longish hair had a lot of blood in it too so you could say I was in need of a bit of a makeover. Luckily there was a barber who came round the wards and he was brilliant. He was a refugee from Hungary and incidentally he had no kidneys – he had some kind of portable dialysis thing going on in the pockets of his overalls.      

These days I’ve got two hair-styles; short and very smart a la David Byrne and what this looks like six months later, which is a bit of a mess frankly. When my hair keeps blowing into my face and is seriously getting on my wick, then I know it’s time to summon my resolve and get it cut. I tend to find reasons for procrastination and finally I have to take a deep breath and head speedily for the unisex hairdressers up the road. Once I’m in there I’m fine and I actually enjoy the pampering side of it; the shampooing and the whole gamut of sprays and lotions. I also like going to the dentist and to the blood-donors for the same reason, though I could be in a minority of one there.

I’m not a great one for chatting to hairdressers as they go about their work and after a few moments of panic as I try to explain just how I want it, and maybe a polite exchange about holiday plans, I’m happy to settle down to silent scrutiny of the metamorphosis taking place before me.

Every time I sit down and give myself a critical gaze in a hairdresser’s mirror I look bloody ancient but having my hair cut short at least seems to take a few years off me. As you sit there looking like Ken Dodd on a very bad night all you can do is cast a protective aura about you and cease to care, while hoping for the best. When it’s all done and dusted and I’ve nodded approvingly as the mirror is held to the back of the head for the rear-view – I’m not sure what I’d do if it was an unmitigated disaster; probably grin weakly and get out of there pronto – then I invariably feel rather elated and wonder why I hadn’t come earlier.

Luckily I’ve never had a disastrous haircut so out of relief, apart from anything else, I’m always happy to give the hairdresser a few quid as a tip. Then it’s back home and a quick once-over in the bathroom mirror to check that all is well. The first time I wash it though, the initial sparkle can wear off and bits start sticking up where they really shouldn’t.

Actually I’m really due for another haircut now so maybe I should gird up my loins and get round there while the mood is up.

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