I read somewhere that the average man grows about ten yards of hair during his life, so I guess I’d look like an Afghan goatherd if it weren’t for generations of barbers and hairdressers who’ve washed, cut and dried my hair.
And what an incredible cast of characters they’ve been. I can't remember my very earliest haircuts, but the first barber I recall, long ago in the mid-1930s, had a shop on High Street in our country town in Southeast England, between a pie shop and a movie house. He was a dapper little man with a neatly trimmed mustache and, believe it or not, his name was Mr. Tidy.
Mr. Tidy’s barbershop was always busy. His customers sat in cane chairs along a mirrored wall, reading newspapers that my father, a staid and serious man, would never have allowed in our house. These reported little real news, but spicy stories about society divorces, or bishops running away with actresses. But for me there were also comic strips and, when I could read, I met Dagwood Bumstead and Popeye, and Dick Tracy.
Mr. Tidy’s barber’s chair was a miracle of chrome and leather on a swiveling pedestal that could be pedaled up and down, and had the words ‘Made in America’ emblazoned on a panel in its ornate silver filigree. When it was my turn, Mr. Tidy put a wooden box on the seat and lifted me onto it. He worked quickly and I watched, fascinated, as the hair clippings fell on the floor around the chair. When he’d finished, he’d stoop and lift a wooden trapdoor by its tiny brass doorknob, and sweep the clippings under the floorboards.
When I was eight, I was sent to a boys-only boarding school about seventy miles from home, and later to another much bigger one. At both schools, barbers came from the town at regular intervals, carrying their equipment in black leather suitcases, and set-up shop in the sports changing rooms. After the quiet orderliness of Mr. Tidy’s shop, these sessions were rowdy and boisterous. The visitors clearly didn’t think enforcing discipline was a part of their job, and the older boys fought on the floor and elbowed the younger ones aside in the waiting line. For the smaller, younger boys, having a haircut could be an ordeal, and often took a long time.
At Sandhurst – Britain’s equivalent of West Point – there was a full-time barbershop among the stables and stores tucked away behind the Academy’s elegant buildings. Haircuts were free, probably because the authorities thought we’d mutiny if forced to part with real money to have our hair cropped like convicts. It was little comfort to know that distinguished former graduates such as Sir Winston Churchill, Field Marshall (‘Monty’) Montgomery, the king of Jordan, several members of the Royal Family and celebrities had sat in those very same oak chairs.
The years passed and I suffered the attention of regimental barbers in half a dozen countries. But at least we were now officers, and could grow our hair a bit longer and indulge in a little individualism.
Later I left the army, I joined a London public relations firm as a trainee. By then I was at last allowed to pick and choose whoever cut my hair. But on a monthly salary of 41 pounds – today worth about $62 – my choice of coiffeurs was limited to men who practiced in small back rooms behind tobacconists’ stores. The result was often little better than the clumsy attentions of a regimental barber.
But in 1959, on my wedding day in London, I had the most exclusive trim and shave of my life. I’d spent my last night of bachelor bliss at the apartment of a friend of my father-in-law who was shaved daily at Harrods, the venerable store that sells anything you can imagine at unimaginable prices to unbelievably wealthy people. In its low-lit, walnut paneled barbershop, respectful only-speak-when-you’re spoken-to professionals shaved my host and me with badger-hair brushes and cutthroat razors. We lay side by side on what seemed more like operating tables than Mr. Tidy’s chrome, all-American barber’s chair back in the 1930s. There were hot towels and cologne to follow, and a massage of the neck and shoulders. The faintest sound of baroque music drifted from invisible speakers.
Nearly twenty years later, in the late 70s, came haircuts and shaves that were at the same time a wide-awake dream of fair women and the best barbering of a lifetime. South East Asia has turned a normally humdrum experience into an all-but erotic fantasy. Men’s hairdressing shops in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are a blend of an Arabian Nights harem and an Upper East Side beauty shop. It’s not that there’s any back-room impropriety going on, but simply that – however sexist this may seem four decades later – the dozen or more geisha-like young women in these places are recruited as much for their beauty and vivacity as for their tonsorial talents. Their deft, perfectly manicured hands seem not so much to work on one’s head and face, but almost to caress them, and any full-blooded male’s pulse quickens with their warm proximity. I wonder whether, now that I’m in my eighties, their welcome would be half as seductive.
Nowadays, accompanied by my wife, I take my graying head to her hairdresser in Greenwich Village. Kathleen, a charming and attractive Irish lady, now cuts my hair. She has a graduated son and plies her art better than anyone has ever done, but the place somehow lacks the mystical sensuality of the Orient. And, in place of the racy daily papers with their comic strips in Mr. Tidy’s shop, there are mostly magazines, and books about hairstyling.
Things have changed. But so, of course have I.