My patience was tested recently at the barber’s where I waited my turn while a teenager hogged the chair. He seemed intent that each hair on his head should be cut individually and the result carefully assessed in mirrors before the process could be allowed to continue. I know that this kind of anxious, self-conscious behaviour is common to all adolescents but I recall that the boarding school I attended had a very special way of dealing with it: a barber was imported, periodically, to cut everyone’s hair. He worked on piece-rate and had only one style option, so the outcome was always quick and we knew in advance what we were going to get. There was no consideration for angst or vanity, nor did it matter, since we were all in the same boat – unless, of course, there was a prospect of being seen outside the school grounds by a member of the public before one’s hair had a chance to recover from the devastation he had inflicted.
Nevertheless it was a simple and efficient process and just lately I have been hankering for a return to this unburdened approach to personal grooming. I have begun by sampling some of the dozen or so barbers who operate within a few minutes’ walk of my home. The problem, each time, is that I have to explain anew what I want. When the barber asks “How would you like it, sir?” there is a short list of possible answers: one is to give a confident, technically detailed brief which can involve quoting numbers relating to clippers. Another unambiguous option is to hold up a photo of George Clooney or similar. I seem, however, always to be caught out by the question, as if it were unexpected, so I normally resort to “Just a trim, please – not too much off the back and sides” which, naturally, leaves room for interpretation. I did once try to make light of my answer but the humour fell flat. Barber: “How would you like it sir?” Me: “Oh, you know, just make me look a bit younger and trendier”. Barber: “I’m a barber – not a bleedin’ magician”. Other customers (smirking and burying their heads in Autocar, out of date copies of The Daily Mail and the free Metro): silent. I suppose barbers have heard them all before.
Starting off in the ‘budget’ price band, so as to minimise the cost of the experiment, my research last led me to a red-and-white striped pole above an entrance to a mini-cab office. It was flanked by a row of fast-food outlets, computer-repair shops and a musical instrument emporium. The doorway sheltered a couple of smoking, off-duty cabbies. Past them and upstairs the barber shared the first floor with a Thai massage-cum-aromatherapy business while, on the floor above, a tattooist offered elaborate body piercings. The barber worked alone and, since he was not busy, we got into conversation. I discovered that he had previously worked in London at Geo. F. Trumper’s (established 1855) on Curzon Street, Mayfair so, on the basis of such credentials, I sought his expert opinion on a couple of barbering matters. How frequently should a man have his haircut? Answer: every three weeks. Why don’t you offer to shave beards? Answer: too much time and money involved. I didn’t get around to asking about his methods for interpreting the preferences of customers who are unable or unwilling to communicate them but, on the evidence of the perfectly satisfactory job he did for me, he must have some way. Perhaps he is a kind of magician?
My desultory research now includes attempting to guess at other men’s propensity to be assertive in the barber’s chair by (discreetly) observing their hair. It’s an imprecise science but, in the process, I have developed a degree of empathy for those whose untamed, natural hairiness suggests that they may have given up on being barbered altogether and settled instead for a life less stressful.