Starcat 1 by my favourite artist

Sunday, 3 November 2013


Or: Turn on Your Shears Relax and Float Downstream.

Yesterday I was using the electric clippers – number one – on my Amazonian rainforest of hair (i.e. the total area covered is decreasing alarmingly, especially on the uplands). As I was doing great execution on the remaining vegetation I entered into a Proustian state of remembering. Here is the result of my musings:

First came to mind the comment of Victor, coiffeur of choice to Liverpool’s punk and new-wave, of cutting it “down to the wood”. Victor. A fifty-plus old-fashioned barber. He had his one-chair business in what I imagine had been in former times the porter’s lodge on the black and white marble-tiled mezzanine floor of a beautiful, 19th-century run-down office building in Whitechapel, less than 100 yards away from the NEMS music shop. If you were really lucky, he would show you the spaces between his fingers, encrusted with the hairs of the faces he had shorn and give them a squeeze, resulting in a satisfying ooze of interdigital pus.

In my memory (albeit rather sketchy due to the fact that I spent great part of the late 70s and early 80s in a confused state of chemical enhancement) the shelves jostled with the accoutrements of his trade and while you sat in your creaky, boil-inducing, leather trousers on an old bus seat waiting for the chop, you might find yourself sitting next to Robbo the massive, muscled skinhead – a gentle giant reputed to be an eight-times-a-night man or a suited gent, sporting a Masonic tie clip, from one of the offices above (what did they do there?). Victor’s was a place where people of all classes and conditions met and interacted.

Image courtesy of
At that time, my cut of choice was a flat-top[1] now, unfortunately, impossible. If I let my hair grow to a length of 1in.-plus, it forms a rather hestitantly ridiculous Robbie Williams crest. I am contemned to suede-headedness for the rest of my life, unless I decided to go in for a comb-over. Hell will freeze over first. Less, in this case, can indeed be more.

As the clippers continued to graze over my dome, my mind wandered further back. To the days of Les’s the Barbers. Les was a consummate hacker when there were only three computers in the whole of GB. All the boys in my primary and middle school went there for our monthly short back and sides, our hair hacked at and chewed up by Les and his blunt scissors. His scissors may have been blunt, but his hatred of kids was extremely keen; he brought a whole new meaning to the term slaphead. If we moved our heads, we would be cuffed around the ears and invited to “fucking keep still, yer little git”. And this in front of our dads! Dads, of course, were treated with great deference and their haircuts usually ended with a murmured ”Something for the weekend, sir?” at which point certain “surgical supplies” or “prophylactics” would be slipped into the dad’s top pocket. Such discretion! Now the properties of the London Rubber Company’s finest products[2] are trumpeted proudly on TV.

Granddads, in their turn, would obtain something even more mystifying and well worth watching: they would have the tips of their hair singed (even their ear hair!) once the ordeal of hacking and mangling was over. Now what was that all about? I suppose that, returning to the Amazonian metaphor, we could call it a minor case of slash and burn.

But back to the man himself. We were given our haircut money, plus a sixpenny tip, when sent
Similar to Thornton's - not quite the same but you get the idea. 

Image from the Web - sorry but I've forgotten the site. 
to get our hair cut. Obviously the wilier victim would hold back the tip and buy choccy next door at Old Mr. Thornton’s[3] (no relation). But such petty crime had its desserts. Miffed at not having received his Manegeld, your next haircut would be even more vicious. Oh, what a lark! Les was such a card!

He was also an enigma. Everyone knew at least something about everyone else in the neighbourhood[4], except about Les. He seemed to have no existence outside his den of torture. No-one, for example, ever saw him enter or leave the premises. No-one knew why he had one leg a good couple of inches shorter than the other. Motorbike accident? War wound? Birth defect? Why didn’t he get an orthopaedic boot? No-one knew. Everybody knew, however, who had had their hair cut at Les’. The layers in the hackee’s hair would be stepped corresponding to when he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

Of further, sociological, interest is the parade of shops itself. This formed the frontier between our neighbourhood of shabby genteel Victorian mansions and villas and the terraced housing, home to the rough boys who also went to my school – and Les’ Barbershop. I think all the kids on both sides enjoyed their first illicit encounters with alcohol (Bulmer’s cider) and ciggies (Woodbines) thanks to the rather liberal interpretation given to the law by Mr. Mackie, the owner and manager of the off-licence to be found at the end of the parade.

At the age of about thirteen I graduated to a Unisex salon, all chrome, black leather and smoky mirrors where, before it was cut, you would have your hair washed by rather attractive young damsels whose smocks always had the top two buttons undone. That is all I remember about that place – that and the large poster (changed monthly) of a naked lady stuck thoughtfully on the ceiling for the washee’s contemplation. Of little interest indeed compared with sadistic Les and, later, garrulous Victor whose décor and services (and in the case of Les, skills too) were basic, but whose ambience lingers still in the minds of all who went there for a haircut.

[1]  A rather tenuously-related anecdote. In the Beatles’ “Come Together” Lennon begins with the lines: Here come old flat top/He come grooving up slowly. He later revealed in an interview that they were from a Chuck Berry song. Berry promptly sued for part of the royalties. And won (obviously).
[2] Including the famous Easy-on. Yet, if they are easy to put on, wouldn’t it be correspondingly easy for them to slip off during the act? I myself was conceived in such a manner when the easy-ons didn’t exist (in the days of, ahem, hard-on, easy off?) but the easy-offs most certainly did.
[3] Thornton’s general shop sold everything from ciggies, home-made ice cream and bags of broken biscuits to paraffin from a large tank at the end of the row of biscuit hoppers. Imagine a shop like the Local Shop in The League of Gentlemen. Old Mr. Thornton looked like an (even more) irascible Arthur Lowe with a Hitler moustache. When he died the “young” Mr. Thornton (60+ years old) took over until he succumbed to Parkinson’s.  
[4] Like Old Joey from the pub, who somehow already knew in the mid-60s that micro-electronic devices could be inserted into dental work and dentures so that “they” could keep tabs on us. His first order at the bar was a pint of bitter and a half of mild in a pint glass, this latter being where he would drop his dentures until chucking out time when he would retrieve his gnashers and drain the rather unappetising gargle. Or vice versa. In all fairness, he did work on the Polaris nuclear subs at Cammel Laird’s shipbuilders and perhaps knew, and talked about, stuff he shouldn’t.


  1. Genial episodio autobiográfico. En cierto modo, podemos decir que somos lo que los peluqueros, a lo largo de nuestra vida, hicieron de nosotros.

    Un fuerte abrazo.

  2. Evidentemente, querido Moíses, somos producto de los caprichos de los peluqueros. Sólo he conocido a uno que no intepretara mis instrucciones - Victor. Era artesano, no artista.