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25 September 2019

At the risk of sounding like a creepy stalker, I like having my hair cut by a woman

When I was young “unisex” hairdressers meant “for women, and male children who have not yet achieved independence from their mothers”.

By Nicholas Lezard

I had a hot date and my hair was going a bit mad, in a Doc Brown kind of way, so I thought I’d better get a haircut. The problem was I didn’t have much time and so I realised I wouldn’t be able to go to the barber’s I’d discovered in Kemp Town a few months ago. I’d been strolling through this wonderfully louche area in June sunshine and saw what looked like a pleasing establishment, and went in. Just like that. Sometimes I am almost shockingly spontaneous.

The surprise, as I went to sit down, was that my barber was to be a woman. It’s been a long time since I’ve had my hair cut by a woman. When I was young, and getting my hair cut was arranged by my mother, this meant humiliating trips to the so-called unisex salon on the Aylmer Parade in East Finchley. “Unisex” meant “for women, and male children who have not yet achieved independence from their mothers”. One ended up, as one began, with a hairstyle that looked like that of a 1970s footballer, partly for the very good reason that this was during the 1970s.

When I was much younger, my father would take me to Trumpers in Saint James, because that was Where One Went, which involved an absolutely terrifying encounter with a ceiling-mounted rotary brush, like something out of Heath Robinson, and by “like” I mean “exactly like”. Readers who know their Tintin well may remember a similar machine invented by Professor Calculus in The Secret of the Unicorn which is designed to brush clothes, but which ends up shredding them, while their owners (in this case, Captain Haddock) are attached.

Also involved were cut-throat razors, talcum powder, hand-operated clippers that pulled the hair out rather than clipped it, and an agony, that seemed to last for weeks afterwards, of itchy bristles lodged around the back of the neck. So going to the gentler hands of the Aylmer Parade unisex salon was, for a while, a welcome relief.

But after a bit I got fed up with the place. There was something humiliating about it. When punk rock happened and I decided that my flowing locks needed to be properly shorn, they flat-out refused. “We can’t go above the neckline,” I was told, so basically I carried on looking like a a beardless Bee Gee until I went up to university and could take matters into my own, or a sympathetic man’s, hands.

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This wasn’t much better. For one thing, I was reluctant to have my ears exposed – they stuck out like the turning signals on a vintage car when I was a child – and for another, the electric clippers reminded me of the instrument of torture at Trumpers.

The barber in All Saints Passage in Cambridge in the early 1980s was famous for his exchanges with male undergraduates, most of whom were, of course, not getting laid, unless they owned a car, or Leicestershire. Leering: “Anything for the weekend, sir?” “No thanks.” “Sure? Nothing for the weekend?” Another ghastly leer. “No.” “Really? Nothing for the weekend?” “NO!” Pause; then in a tone of 50 per cent disappointment and 50 per cent contempt: “Well, have a nice weekend anyway.”

And then, a few years later, I discovered the Trendy Hairdresser’s in Notting Hill Gate. This cost a bit but I was earning money in those days, and, moreover, most of the staff were beautiful women, and I discovered the joy of having my hair washed by them. It wasn’t sexual, but it was very soothing. My favoured artiste was called Pam. One day I rang up to make an appointment with her.

 “Pam’s left,” they said. “But Steve’s free.”

“No, not Steve.”

“Well, there’s Robert.”

“Mmm, not Robert.” I was trying to give them a hint, but mainly hoping they’d work it out for themselves.

“How about Alan?”

I sighed, and replaced the receiver. (It was that long ago.)

Since then, it’s been old-fashioned male barbers, but cheap ones. In Shepherd’s Bush, this meant years of enduring a stream of racist comments, but at least I wasn’t paying through the nose for it.

And then I found Claudia, the wonderful barber in Kemp Town, who actually delivered the best haircut I have ever had. When I went there the other day she wasn’t working. And I couldn’t ask when she’d be back, because it would have made me look like some kind of creepy stalker. So in the end I went to somewhere much more local, in Seven Dials (which has, literally, more hairdresser’s than food shops), and got my hair cut in silence by a man my age. And the hot date never materialised. 

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This article appears in the 25 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace