Coming to a head

As a mere mid-20th-century male, I belong to that period and attitude which maintains there are only two kinds of masculine hairstyle -- the tidy and the untidy. For myself I prefer the latter (the phrase "well groomed" sends a tremor down my spine); going to the hairdresser's is a nuisance and warrants a considerable amount of avoidance.

Should circumstances or a wife prevail, however, then the technique is to go as an aristocrat to the guillotine, treating the whole affair loftily, as though it were a heroically inconsequential tragedy: as indeed it is, involving, with paradoxical complexity, both tremendous anguish and no anguish at all.

There have been long stretches of my life when I've managed to steer clear of the commercial hairdressers and get the job done at home. The hazards of amateurism seemed as nothing compared with the risk of entering the wrong sort of professional barber's shop. When I lived by myself in the country, and kitchen-haircuts were no longer on offer, what to do about it caused me many a long minute of indecision. These usually ended with the thought, "let it grow --in the end I discovered "Jennifer," whose reputation as the best cutter for miles around (according to one of my neighbors) had attracted quite a sizable male clientele, including one or two Yorkshire farmers you'd expect to prefer a male barber of the old short-back-and-sides school. "Jennifer" was quick and sensible with scissors. Her lack of fuss was everything one could ask for.

But then came the fatal mistake (from a hairy point of view) of not only moving house, but of moving to the big city and confronting me with something like a crisis. For a start there was a sudden flush of weddings, and although Glasgow is aswim with hair salons, hair artists, studios of hair care, trichologists, hair designers, hair craftsmen, hair stylists and hair specialists (though not a "barber" in sight), not one of them appealed to me.

Who in their right mind would go to a hairdresser called "Brothers Grimm," for example?

"Sweeney Todd's" didn't exactly grab me, either, though I do, naturally, have great faith in the Glasgow constabulary and feel sure they have an eye on this (highly popular, I'm told) establishment.

"One Cut Ahead" is a bit superior and could well be overfashionable and expensive; "Headway" is too chic by far; while "Cut-About" hints darkly at nothing less than dire recklessness. "His and Hers" and "Guys 'n Dolls," though I have no objection to "unisex" hairdressers, remind me of electrifying stories told of men seen sitting under dryers covered in curl papers.

And so it went. Wedding galore drew nearer, and hair galore grew longer, and all I could see were classy updates on the hairdressing theme, sleek interiors swathed in plate glass and stainless steel, fraught with terrible unknowns. I mean, it would only take an unguarded "yes" to a question you didn't quite catch , and half an hour later you could be out on the street with an emerald streak above the left ear, or a latter-day "hair creame bounce" a la Elvis Presley, or even, heaven knows, a bald and shiny patch up the back of the head like an early Frank. Get inside one of these places, and they've GOT YOU!

What I was really after was a safe old barber I could trust: a barber who calls you "sir" and asks if you want a little more off the top today before he actually takes a little more off the top today. At the last minute, I found one. Marvellous -- a barber without a sharp name, with an unpretentious shop, a dim interior, private cubicles. Better still: a nice steady-looking Scotsman, obviously with years of experience. Nothing to worry about here. "Yes, sir, please take a seat."

"Now you'll be shampooing it afterwards, I expect?" says he, clipping away magically.

"I thought I would," I replied, lying through my teeth.

"Good. In that case I'll use an old technique on you that you don't see much nowadays." His very voice filled me with trust.

But then -- what did he do but abandon his scissors and with matches and a taper proceed to singe every hair of my head. There I was, far from the land of my fathers, being set alight like a Roman candle. "Of course," he added as he deftly extinguished a conflagration near the nape of my neck, "hair burns with lightning speed. . . ."

It only goes to show that when it comes to things hirsutical you can't take anything for granted. I always knew it. Still, I thought, as I made my way home, I have lived to tell the tale, and at least I can be thankful he didn't leap at me with frizzing tongs, or shave it all off and sell me a wig. At least he didn't powder me, with gold dust, like one of Solomon's guards, or weave an 18th-century military pigtail into my back hair. At least he didn't enquire (as a barber in 1591 is supposed to have done to an unsuspecting client), "Would you like your love-locks wreathed with a silken twist, or shaggie to fall on your shoulders?" At least I only smelt like toast. There's a lot to be said for the 20th century.

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