Walking to the Tube, I fall into step with Tony, the barber. Tony ticks all the right boxes when it comes to the men to whom I entrust my thinning, grizzled locks. He is very close by. He is not ruinously expensive. Fourteen pounds a go is all right, isn’t it? It’s half the price in Shepherd’s Bush, true, but then I don’t live there any more, and going nine stops on the Hammersmith and City Line to save a few quid would just be silly. He is nude of pate. I only trust bald or balding barbers. Experience has taught me that barbers who have lost or are losing their own hair are tenderer in their concerns for others’ than are their full-headed colleagues. And he is called Tony. I do not know why all barbers should be called Tony but there it is, just as all dentists should be Jewish. We are talking an ideal world here. I am prepared to admit the existence within the professions of non-Tony barbers and non-Jewish dentists but such barbers and dentists are for people with more flexible standards than mine.
Tony, though Lebanese and strong of accent, is otherwise as British as barbers can come. Maybe there is an international sodality of barbers whose members are taught the arts of mild banter, professional pessimism, preference for the Daily Mail or local equivalent and implausible claim. The customer forgives all these things while at the same time remembering the oldest joke in the world that still has something funny clinging to it: “How would sir like his hair cut today?” “In silence.” But you don’t want silence, not really, not forever. The implausible claims are either of the my-local-council-is-so-crazily-left- wing-it-banned-cheese variety or the Yeah, Elton-John’s-a-regular-here variety. My Tony falls into the latter category. I cannot recall precisely which unlikely celebrities I have failed to see in my five-and-two-thirds years’ experience of sitting in his chair or waiting to, but they are along the lines of Daniel Craig and the late Neil Armstrong, who popped in for a haircut during a lecture tour in 1978 and was so delighted by the experience that he kept returning.
“Why don’t you write about me?” he asks from time to time. I am, Tony, I am. I may tease but I hope it is clear that I like him. He is about my age and has three children about the same ages as mine. I have followed their progress. He drives a moped in from Ealing every morning, rain or shine, and works hard, unless the punters are failing to turn up. And every time I ask him how business is, he will without fail tell me it is dreadful.
Sometimes I have asked this after a half-hour wait while he clips away at several people in front of me. The first time he told me business was dreadful was in 2007. Since then he has assured me it has been getting even worse than the last time I had my Usual. (Another good thing about Tony, which I suppose I should have mentioned rather earlier, is that he does my hair Just Right. Some would say that this is an even more desirable attribute in a barber than being called Tony. I am not sure but I concede such people may have a point.)
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, falling into step with Tony. Now that we are not on his premises our conversation has less of the ritual about it. Even when he embarks on the usual Jeremiad, there is something keener, more felt, about it. And it is perhaps by coincidence that as we pass the shop selling Expensive Wank, he says “the area’s changing”. His tone of voice suggests that it is not changing in a way he would like. “Too many people with too much money?” I venture. Yes, he says. Exactly.
Something very bad is happening to a country, or a city, or a neighbourhood, in which the kind of small businessman who takes the Daily Mail, and not only talks the talk but walks the walk when it comes to working hard in an honest job, complains that there is now too much money coming into an area rather than too little. And I have seen too many small businesses close down round here to be sanguine about the future. But the local cheap barber really is the canary in the coalmine when it comes to the toxic effects of too much money. I look again at the shop selling Expensive Wank and reflect that while it may be all very well to have, as an expression of your taste and personality, a mounted zebra head on your wall (actually, it is not all very well in the slightest), such an artefact is not going to get your hair cut, or do anyone any good at all. Nothing good, or human.