I’ve never cared for pampering. When I was a little boy, my dad took me to his old barber, a Mr Metcalf of Bensham, Gateshead. At four or five I was seated on a box and placed in a pump-up chair, giving me height and dizzying consequence for the first and final time in my life.
His was not an exotic establishment. Comb, scissors, a cut-throat razor sharpened on a leather strop; perhaps electric clippers? It was the 60s, after all. But of pastes and unguents and brightly-coloured phials I remember nothing.
How things have changed! My barber now (and how lovely that that old word has had a come-back, along with red stripy poles and the availability of wet shaves): well, it’s more like a night club than an agency of fairly functional male grooming. Black leather sofas line the walls and young people’s music (I’ve no idea what kind) boom-boom-booms into the room with no reference to the dozen screens that shine on us, emitting adverts and football, cookery and Sky, and music videos that would make sense, only they don’t match any of the music we can hear.
Three or four young barbers (all Kurdish) man the chairs (again, black leather), snipping and clipping and shaving with a concentration that knows that time is money. Their own beards are impeccable, full of dignity and eastern promise. For a moment, you could be anywhere between Thessaloniki and Cairo. Even the street outside takes on a Mediterranean bustle. You reach mentally for coffee and cigarettes. But it’s still just Croydon.
These men are certainly more skilful than ever Mr Metcalf was. Anything beyond a short-back-and-sides and I imagine he was stymied. But they must respond to all sorts of style requests brought to them on phones and briefly flashed before them. Into the close-cropped hair of boys and men they carve geometric lines, like engineers laying down train track. They set fire to the ear-hair of wild old men (briefly, to avoid a conflagration), and tackle their nostrils with hot-wax cotton-buds which they then yank forcefully out, harvesting two small clumps of hair. They chop and quiff my thick grey thatch, before covering me in lemon aftershave or a sickly-sweet pomade that sends me home looking and smelling like someone’s dodgy uncle, the president of a pariah state, or someone who could, in the right circumstances, be mistaken for Spencer Tracey.
But what’s the use, I’d like to know, of all this titivation? It’ll all just grow back again, as Billy Connolly memorably observed. A few more weeks, and I’ll be traipsing back with a tenner and a loyalty card, wondering if today’s the day I get my bottle of free cologne.
Far more useful would be a High Street shop that made changes that would last; calm my fears and order my desires; make me feel more rooted in the deep-down reality of things. A shop that could do something to tidy up my insides, now that would be pretty useful.
And then, when I come out, I see the spire, and I remember.