Thursday 30 July 2015

The Kindest Cut Of All

Kraftwek as a barbershop choir
The strange world of mens' hairdressing

Our body hair is generally pretty disciplined, but the hair on the head is one of the most insubordinate parts of the human body. It grows too much, acts strangely when damp and as you get older, it starts going a funny colour and finally, begins to disappear.

Could you imagine the chaos if any other part of our bodies acted like that?

This is why I’ve always been suspicious of hair. As a child, I learned that it was something that needed to be dealt with firmly. My first haircuts were performed by my mother, who had the art of cutting as I squirmed in the chair, trying to escape.

When I got a little older and it was more difficult to keep me restrained whilst wielding the scissors, and with an ever increasing likelihood that she would cause an injury sufficient to alert the child welfare people, I was packed off to a professional. A barber. This is where my relationship with my hair got a lot stranger.

Meet the professionals

The barbers I was sent to had one thing in common; price. The first one I went to, until I was around 16, had a small narrow salon in a cellar. I noticed something very strange about it. Every surface was covered in photos and news clippings of Prince Andrew, the Queen’s second eldest son. I asked the barber about it and he sang his praises for the half hour it took him to cut my hair, but I still didn’t get it. Now I am older, I can recognise homoerotic fixation, although the choice of Randy Andy is still a mystery. To Fergie as well, I expect.

It wasn’t a pleasant experience, sitting in front of a dirty mirror as a strange man poked about your head whilst chain smoking, while being stared at by minor royalty.

I later moved to a village with only one barber. Most locals happily travelled far away to get their hair cut, but I was more loyal to local tradesmen. The barber, Johnny, was certainly a man of conviction. Several in fact. Apparently all related to missing items of ladies underwear from clotheslines.

He had a simple approach to his trade. When you sat in the chair, he would ask, “Much off?” A yes would mean a number two cut, a no would make him, reluctantly, bring out a number three razor. He approached his task as a farmer approaches sheep shearing. Apart from the concern about animal welfare.

Not only did he actually hate hair, something that would stop a normal person from becoming a barber, he had an attitude to customer service that Basil Fawlty would find shocking. He also wouldn’t allow women in his shop. I’ve even see him chase a poor tourist’s wife out with a broom more than once. He would break off occasionally mid-cut because he had a sideline in selling walking sticks and spotted a potential customer.

The advantage was that I always paid less than €3 for a cut and when Johnny cut your hair, it stayed cut.

Since then I’ve lived in Africa and had my hair cut on a stool in a car park, with only a broken wing mirror to guide the barber, or man with blunt razor blade, as I thought of him. I had better cuts by a river in West Africa and more relaxed cuts in the souks of the Middle East.

Then I moved to Brussels and my then girlfriend let me use her electric razor. Call me naive, but I wondered why a woman who went to the hair salon every month needed one. The penny eventually dropped, but I’d got used to cutting my own hair with it by then.

Together editor offers salvation

James Drew was listening to me explain why I had never paid more than €3 for a haircut, when he turned to me, with a look of real pity and concern, and passed me an envelope. “Here’s a voucher for a serious haircut at Alexandre de Paris. Go and have a proper cut and tell me about it.”

That is how I went for my first ever real haircut. Naturally, I prepared myself for this brave new world of styling. I waited for my hair to grow. Eventually it got too long to tolerate and I phoned up the salon. I got an appointment for the next day, so quickly and easily I found it a bit anticlimactic, to be honest.

As I entered the salon, everyone welcomed me and sat in a very comfortable chair as my hair was washed - how do they get the water temperature exactly right? Then the shampoo was massaged into my scalp and a rinse. By then I was so relaxed, I was in some type of zen calm.

Andre, with over 20 years of experience, looked me over and asked what cut I wanted. I had no idea, only having the concept of ‘short’, so I told him to do whatever he wanted. I felt comfortable with that as Andre had a manner that inspired confidence. I watched him begin to cut my hair, seeing the idea he had take shape. I was surprised at just how gentle it was. Having had decades of people hacking away, it was just a delight to see what a light touch could do. There were times when, if I couldn’t see him in the mirror, I wouldn’t have known he was at work.

Andre also has the ability to look focused and relaxed at the same time. I can’t explain it, go see for yourself. At the end, he had done exactly what he wanted. He gave me the best haircut I’ve ever had. He talked about how much he liked his clients, as they were professional and knowledgeable people who were interesting to talk to and he said that many were very busy and a half hour visit to Alexandre de Paris, was a chance for them to relax and take a time out.

That’s when I understood. Previously, getting my haircut was a chore, an intrusion, something I felt had to be done. It had never been anything actually enjoyable, something relaxing.

That’s why I’m going back to my friend Andre, nobody else is touching my hair ever again.

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