For shear delight, I prefer today's barbers

Hair and hedges share an awkward habit. They insist on growing again after they've been clipped. Why can't they take the hint and desist?

I sometimes muse on how much better my bank balance would be if I didn't keep having haircuts. Fantasy, of course. My hair is against it. And so are the comments. But getting it cut seems such a waste of time....

It is, however, quicker and easier now that I have discovered Paris. Paris is a woman who runs a happily local salon next to the post office. Her establishment had apparently been there for several years. Somehow I hadn't noticed it before.

I had grown to accept my awkwardly distant hairdresser's. It involved a major expedition. So a haircut - which is exactly what I ask for and with no fancy extras - instead of being a few minutes' interruption to the day, was a big disruption.

I am aware that women have been known to actively enjoy the prolonged pampering and relaxed hour or two under the dryer and so forth that the word "hairdressing" signifies for them. I suspect that this may be the reason why traditionally hairdressing was not coeducational. It was a single-sex thing. So it may be that my impatience with the craft is to be blamed on questions of gender and upbringing. What I want is a quick fix.

After all, from an extremely early age, Dad carted us boys off regularly to the exclusively male sanctum of old-fashioned snippery and clippery in Brown Muff's, the large department store in Bradford, England, our nearest city. Today I suppose it'd be labeled male bonding or something self-conscious like that.

This only-too-regular visit to the barber made an impression on me. I clearly recollect feeling apprehensive about being lifted into the enormous (compared with me) chair and draped with an enveloping cloth, like a dust sheet, before the scissors and clippers started their work so dangerously near my ears. But if I felt vulnerable, I also felt grown up.

That's not all I recall.

I remember some large jars on a shelf immediately opposite the victim's seat filled with a translucent liquid that was a miraculous, indefinable color, neither green nor gold nor blue, but any or all of them.

And I haven't forgotten the waiting. Even for us men, going to the barbers always involved waiting. Waiting is not a small boy's forte. But this particular waiting was alleviated a little by a pile of old Punches. "Punch" was a humor magazine that had been coming out weekly since Victoria's day. I liked the drawings with joke-captions, even if, truth to tell, I secretly puzzled why these captions - which adults would laugh at immoderately - were supposed to be funny. To me they seemed quite serious.

The fruit of it, though, was that I have ever since subliminally associated Punch with waiting to get a "short back and sides."

Another clear memory is the barber's name. We always had the same one. He was Mr. Walton. He had a good crop of white hair like Dad. The two got along famously because they both keenly grew not only hair but also chrysanthemums. Only very recently did I find out that Mr. Walton's large allotment garden, which he cultivated every evening after work while attired in a special suit with waistcoat and tie, was famous among his fellow gardeners for being immaculate. The efficient Mr. Walton tidied hair by day, and plants by night.

Hairdressing has changed, of course. It has gradually become perfectly acceptable, for example, for a male to have his hair cut by a female hairdresser. Actually, I think this makes it a much more pleasant business; though around here there are still plenty of males, it seems, who disagree. Just three doors along from Paris's salon, an all-male barbershop has recently opened for the old school.

My specific reason for preferring a gentler touch (even if the scissors are still razor sharp) is that it is the perfect antithesis to the ethos of the school haircut. These were not nice. They made Mr. Walton seem like a favorite uncle.

The barber would set up shop in the Old School House, and we boys were marshaled like sheep before the shearer. Indeed, the procedure was not dissimilar. Not that we thought remotely of "style" or anything like it. Brylcreem-slicked coiffures like Elvis's or those of the street- corner Teddy Boys were not the kind of thing a proper private schoolboy would have considered nor his schoolmasters countenanced.

Beatle bobs were still a future trend. Hippie locks not even a glint in the eye. We terribly normal boys would have thought such things weird. We were schooled in uniformity. Nevertheless, those periodic haircut mornings were soulless routines, and all our heads were trimmed to a formula.

The Paris experience could hardly be more different. She always takes the trouble to ask how I would like it done, even if my answer is predictable.

"Just, you know, shortened so that my wife stops saying I look like an unhinged professor. But I don't want to look as if I've just had a haircut. You know what to do."

And so she does.

A man I know told me about a recent visit he made to his (female) hairdresser. It had involved an interesting coincidence. By chance his wife had booked to have her thatch seen to at almost exactly the same time. She'd told him, but on the day of the appointment he was sure he'd arrive before her. (She was coming from her job several miles away.)

The man walked in to find the salon unusually empty. There was only one other customer - a woman having a substance like lard toweled systematically onto her hair. It was a strange sight.

The hairdresser looked up with a smile. My friend thought the other customer wouldn't mind the joke, so he said: "Well, this isn't right, you know! I come to the hairdresser's to get away from my wife."

The customer made a whimsical face. The hairdresser said: "Take no notice of him."

"Don't worry, I won't," said the customer.

It was only then, when he heard her voice, that the man realized: This peculiarly larded lady whom he had never in his life seen before ... was, in fact, his wife.

He sat in the chair next to her and pretended he'd known it was her all along.

When his hair was done, and she still had hours to go, and the hairdresser held up the mirror behind his tonsure for his comments, he suggested she might angle it so the customer next to him could also give it her seal of approval.

"After all," he told me, "it is only for her that I spend good money to have my hair cut."

Just so.

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