Being 'settled' with a gentlemen's barber is not as cosy as it sounds
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is Man Booker-nominated 'J'. He has also written 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.
Saturday 31 July 1999
My actual barber explained the difference to me just recently. "A hairdresser, Mr Jacobson, looks after the hair. A barber looks after the whole man."
It's because he has suddenly started to make such remarks that I want to talk to you about him.
I have always been in awe of barbers. All the women I know hate going to the hairdressers, resent the time they have to spend in there, the small-talk, the expense, the anti-climax of what they look like when they come out. But resentment isn't awe. This might be another difference between hairdressers and barbers. Barbers inspire fear. But then barbers attend to men, and men are more easily frightened.
My own fear of barbers goes back to childhood. Everywhere was embarrassing then, but nowhere was more embarrassing than the barber's chair. Nowhere to hide, you see. No way of covering your shame. First you were raised on a little barber's plank: a contraption which combined the dishonour of the ducking-stool with the mortification of the stocks. Then you were fastened into a sort of monk's cowl or icing-bag whose primary function was to funnel every last hair down your neck, but which also served to render you immovable.
Dare to twitch a finger and the barber made as though he were wielding shears on a lurching deck and could no longer answer for your safety. "Want me to take your ear off?" I remember being asked. Of course I wanted him to take my ear off. I wanted him to take everything off. If I couldn't hide my face, having it removed protuberance by protuberance was a reasonable alternative. But I knew to shake my head. Another mistake. "Keep your head still, kid, or I'll be putting your eye out."
How still was it necessary to be? Today, in the establishment I frequent, I see old soldiers and retired Cabinet ministers seized with the staggers in the barber's chair - throwing convulsions, some of them; twitching and jerking like a procession of the palsied on the road to Lourdes - and yet the barber is barely incommoded. Sometimes he judges it prudent to wait with his scissors open for the shakers to fall back between the blades of their own accord, but otherwise he registers no disquiet. It's all in a day's work.
So why is an infant threatened with decapitation if he so much as sighs? It can only be that barbers take the long view: scare the living daylights out of the boy and you will own the man for ever. The psychology doesn't bear looking into. But, as the Marquis de Sade understood, it works.
By the time I was old enough to be picturing forth my life as a man, I couldn't imagine not having a barber. He was an urban necessity, on a par with a gentleman's club and your own table in an upstairs restaurant that knew your name and served only Dover sole. A civilising amenity, in other words. Someone who rescued you from nature.
It is no picnic, being a natural man. Hairs sprout from your throat, your nostrils, your ears. Your skin hardens and turns florid. Bits of you flake off. A barber takes care of all that for you. He cranks you down in the chair - for now you are grown up you need no longer be hoisted up on a little plank of shame - and smothers you in hot towels. The first time I saw hot, scented towels dropped on to a face, I knew they were for me. The smell of lime, the steam, the momentary blindness, the passivity, the aristocratic softness of the skin that emerged after. All a man needs to know of urbanity is contained in those towels: you go under snarling and you come out refined.
My barber is called Adam. The perfect name, wouldn't you say? The old Adam. Except that my Adam is young. Young in years, that is, because of course the antiquity of his profession confers an unimpeachable gravity upon him. Which might be why he eludes my understanding. There is something ambiguously Dickensian about Adam. He looks and moves like a Clerkenwell scrivener, circa 1840, but when he whispers in my ear it is to tell me of the fleshpots of Sidcup where he dances away his nights. Is he trying to torment me? Sometimes I cannot decide whether the bend in his narrow body denotes servility or irony. It is possible he finds me risible. Or effete. The other day, for example, after reminding me that he had met "Mrs Jacobson" once, when she'd called to collect me - an event I was unable to remember or to fathom, for I am not, as a rule, a collectable man - he said: "Yes, a lot of wives, once their husbands have settled with a chap, like to come and meet him."
"Settled with" in what sense? Meaning that I'm satisfied with him? Well I am, but why would a wife come purposely to check on that? Surely he couldn't be saying that we've "settled down", or worse, "settled in" together! Is that what submitting the whole man to a barber entails? Are we a couple?
I've asked my wife what she thinks, but she won't say.
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