I’ve had a haircut and I’m off to London, where my struggles with mask etiquette begin

The problem is that, when I get on the Tube, the proportion of people who know how masks work seems to be about 50 per cent. 

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It was lovely to see Claudia again. The last time I’d seen her must have been in late December, when I’d asked her to give me a haircut that would show New York that Brighton was the world leader when it came to cutting middle-aged gentlemen’s hair. That’s almost eight months of hair growth to deal with.

I have erred, if that is the word, on the side of caution when it comes to going to shared public spaces; I mean, I haven’t even been to the pub yet. But, as previous columns have said, ad nauseam, I am sick unto madness of my locks, and will risk much so as to restore order to them. And I have to go to Claudia’s, for not only does she understand my hair, but the studio she co-owns (Eighty-eight, on St James’s Street, if you’re interested) has a pleasant vibe. Claudia is also rather good-looking, which I must admit, if I’m going to be really honest with you, is a factor in my repeated patronage of the place, but as she is gay, married, and God knows how many years younger than me, she has nothing to fear from me. (Also, she thinks I’m called “Mick”.)

As for the haircut… well, if the other ones had been good, this one was special. I normally preen at my reflection in the shop windows after a haircut there, but this time I gave my vanity full rein, and it took me an hour to walk home (it’s a 25-minute walk normally).

I was also having my hair cut because I was going to London for the first time since March. This is a big deal. I am going to see my friend A—, the one who keeps giving me advice, and I thought it would be fun to be given it in person over lunch. I see her as Florence Craye to my Bertie Wooster, and if you don’t get the reference I can summarise it as follows: Florence Craye keeps trying to improve the young, carefree flâneur, Bertie Wooster, telling him to read serious books and stop drinking, prior to their nuptials. No nuptials are on the cards with A—, but she doesn’t drink and thinks I shouldn’t drink either.

“It’s ethanol! You’re poisoning yourself! You’re drying yourself out from the inside!” For some reason, the masochist or self-flagellant within me, I can’t get enough of this. She can’t, though, tell me to read more serious literature, as I’ve read loads of it (I glance guiltily at the Lee Child thriller beside me: I am meant to be reading The Leopard for a Radio 4 book programme, but I need to find out what the sinister millionaire born-again Christian Jerry Thurman is up to in his metal recycling plant in Colorado). What she does instead is tell me to write books.

I tell her writing books is boring, and hard work, and no one will read mine anyway. Also it will take at least a year, and drive me mad in the process. This is unwise, as she has written books and likes doing it.

“Rubbish! Just do 500 words a day, and before you know it, you’ll have a book!”

Anyway. It’s off to the metropolis. The train, I notice, has about 19 carriages, which is a larger number than all the passengers on it. I have a reusable mask which is, as people have complained, uncomfortable and makes my glasses steam up, but that is a small price to pay for not passing on the virus, and besides, I know that by wearing a mask I am irritating the deeply challenged columnist Toby Young, and irritating Toby Young is incredibly easy: all you have to do is do something sensible. (Toby Young calls masks “mandatory face nappies” and says he won’t vote Tory ever again if they’re made compulsory, so the whole thing is win-win.)

The problem is that, when I get on the Tube, the proportion of people who know how masks work seems to be about 50 per cent. Claudia was wearing a clear plastic visor, and didn’t ask me to put a mask on even when I volunteered; I now have heard that these visors are more or less useless, but at the time of my haircut neither of us knew that. But on the Tube half the people wearing masks were leaving their nose uncovered, and while I am no doctor, I’m pretty sure that this renders them more or less useless.

The question is the etiquette about how to address this. Does one merely glare, like the British used to, or does one break centuries of conditioning and Actually Say Something? By the end of my stay in London I went to the loo at Victoria station (I’d had a glass of ethanol at lunch) and saw a fat, pink-faced man older than myself wearing a mask that was failing to cover his nose. I hesitate to use the words “gammon” or “boomer”, but really, this guy was straight out of central casting. I couldn’t help myself.

“Do you know how masks work?” I asked him.

“At least I know my left from right,” he said, which baffled me until I realised I’d gone the wrong way round to the one way indicated. My God, this country is doomed. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 24 July 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special

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