Southerly by David Haywood


In Praise of Arthur

When you find a good barber, you stick with him. I've been going to my current barber for a dozen years now, and I daresay I shall remain a customer until one of us dies.

You know where you are with a barber. You turn up; you get a haircut. End of story. There's no pre-arrangement of visits. You may have to wait for a few minutes, perhaps even an hour -- but that's all part of the process. In the meantime you can do something manly, such as reading the sports section. Appointments are only for the sort of people who go to hairdressers.

A proper barber has a proper bloke's name. My barber is called Arthur. He has never offered to shampoo my hair. Nor has he ever asked what sort of haircut I would like. When you sit in his chair, and he says "Short back and sides" -- it is a statement, not a question.

Conversation is according to strict protocol. Suitable topics include: the current fuel efficiency of your motor car, the contemptibility of all politicians, the sports results (except for soccer, obviously), and the most reliable type of potato to grow in your vegetable garden.

Departures from protocol are rare, but occasionally do occur. In my pre-Arthur days, I frequented a barber who once made the mistake of mentioning his sex life. He was describing his holidays when he dropped the bombshell.

"I had a fling with an Eskimo lady while I was in Canada," he blurted out. Our eyes met in the mirror. "Of course, they prefer to be called Inuit, nowadays," he added.

But it was too late. We both knew that the unwritten protocol for conversations had been broken, and that I would never sit in his barber's chair again.

I found another barber's shop in the yellow pages. This caused unexpected complications when it turned out that there had been a recent change of ownership, and that the establishment had now become a 'unisex hair salon'. I only discovered this when the teenage hairdresser asked me what style I preferred.

"Just short-back-and-sides, please," I replied.

"Oh," she said. "I'm not sure if I know that one."

I wouldn't have believed it possible for anyone in the hair business not to have heard of this hairstyle, nor to produce a haircut less like short-back-and-sides. Her final result was an alien-esque bouffant hairdo of the sort worn by people from flying saucers. It looked as if I'd had my hair styled by falling feet-first down a lift shaft.

The sheer awfulness of the haircut -- and, I suppose, the expression of increasing surprise and incredulity on my face -- affected the hairdresser so much that eventually she began to weep whilst operating her scissors. In the end she locked herself in the toilet, and refused to come out. One of her more experienced colleagues was called in to attempt a haircut intervention, and proffered her opinion that the disaster was my fault.

"You're using the wrong type of product," she told me. Seeing my puzzled reaction to the word 'product', she asked impatiently: "What do you use to wash your hair?"

Even as the word "soap" left my lips, I realized that it was probably the wrong reply.

A barber is a man you can depend upon. Although that's not to suggest that there aren't good female barbers, or that a barber's shop is a male-only establishment. My barber has a woman customer whom he refers to as "that nice lesbian lady". They play golf together. "She's given me some good advice on my swing," Arthur told me recently, "I'm driving about 20 yards further these days."

In more enlightened times, barbers used to perform minor surgery. When my dentist told me that I needed my wisdom teeth out, I asked Arthur if he'd consider the job. He got me to open my mouth, and peered inside. "No, you're alright," he said finally. "Leave them in." I took his advice, and they've never given me a twinge. I don't know why I ever bothered with dentists.

A trim from Arthur costs fourteen dollars for a full head of hair, but only ten if you're balding. The last time I went for a haircut he charged me twelve dollars. I don't know if he has a new pricing regime, or whether I'm entering a new stage of follicular deterioration. But, either way, I know I can rely on Arthur's support.

He's a man you can trust.

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