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A bloke writes: The barber, my father and a short back and sides

MY FIRST haircuts took place in a north of England barber's shop, where the burble of Jimmy Young could always be heard from the trannie. I waited with my father on a row of wooden chairs, he having taken the Sporting Life from the magazine rack and tossed me a three-year-old Beano. Then one of the two barber's seats would become vacant, the barber would thrash at it with his white towel to clear away the hairs, and I'd nervously step forward.

"Short back and sides?" the barber would ask my dad, and my dad would give the fatal nod. There was no question of consulting me. It was only my hair, after all. I tried to distract myself from the onset of this, the unkindest cut, by looking at the display alongside the mirror and wondering: what is a styptic pencil? Or I'd gaze at the haircare products on sale, which included Brylcreem and even more Brylcreem.

After ten minutes the haircut would be finished. "Alright for you?" the barber would ask not me, but my dad, who would look up from his Sporting Life and nod. What cause could he possibly have to object? The back was short and the sides were short. It was, in sum, a short back and sides.

I always hated short back and sides. It made your head look fat and, at my school, signified the fact that you were under your dad's thumb. This was the early Seventies, and the cooler you were the longer your hair, and vice versa.

When I was about 13, some of my increasingly randy and vain contemporaries took to visiting the barber clutching a picture of, say, Robert Redford. "I want to look like that," they'd say, the fact that they might be round, spotty and four foot tall notwithstanding. The outcome, of course, was predictable: a short back and sides.

I, also, started taking on the barber. I began asking him to leave it "halfway over my ears," for example, but he never seemed to pay any attention. Once, in despair, I sat down and gave him exceptionally detailed instructions concluding, "Look, I don't want a short back and sides, okay?" Ten minutes later he was proudly showing me the back of my head in the hand mirror. Yup. Short back and sides.

So, aged 16 or so, I started going to poncier hairdressers, where they offered you a cup of coffee, and actually washed your hair before cutting it (this was always particularly sternly insisted on in my case). The great thing about these places was that, although the process might take an hour and a half, your hair often seemed to be longer when you came out than it had been when you went in. (Now that's what I call a haircut.)

I've been going to hairdressers, as opposed to barbers, ever since, but I'm getting sick of all the chat. Hairdressers talk about your hair constantly, putting it under more scrutiny than it can possibly bear; and I know that, one day, I'll be told, "You do realise you're going bald, don't you?"

And they're always trying to flog you something. "What you need on your hair," said some stylist to me the other day, "is tea tree oil shampoo." How fortunate that there was a great stack of this expensive stuff right by her elbow.

No, I think I'm going to go back to barbers, where chat is confined to two subjects: where you (the customer) are going on your holiday, and where he (the barber) is going on his. But I think I'll have to draw up a written contract beforehand, whereby I needn't pay, should the dreaded S B & S start to appear in the mirror.