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A Man of Yet a Few More Words - by Swan Morrison

The Barber's Shop

The barber’s shop in our village has remained unchanged for decades. Thirty years ago, George took over the business from his father, and he has maintained traditional barber shop practices to this day.

I and other men from the village have made our fortnightly pilgrimage to this establishment since boyhood. Barber shop rituals are thus our second nature:

One enters the small, one roomed shop and bids hello to George. Leather-upholstered, brown benches run the length of two walls, and one finds an unoccupied gap in which to sit. When seated, one makes a mental note of the others already waiting, such that one can occupy one’s place in the Chair in correct chronological sequence. After that, one might choose to watch the small, almost silent, wall mounted, television, or one might browse one of tabloid newspapers provided. Sometimes a broadsheet might have been left by a visitor not fully versed in correct custom and practice. This is always discretely removed.

All conversations are instigated by George. He begins by addressing the person in the Chair, known as the ‘Hair’. George asks the Hair a question based on a local or national news event. I usually take the precaution of reading a national and a local newspaper on the morning prior to visiting George, so I am not caught out by any particularly obscure opening gambit. This question is the prompt for the Hair to make a short and, if possible, mildly amusing reply. At this point, George might respond in one of two ways. He may reply to the Hair with a comment or another question, or he may glance at the others there assembled, termed the ‘Waiting’. If the latter, this is a signal that one, but only one, of the Waiting may briefly comment. Should any utterance be mildly amusing, then it is permissible for the Hair or the Waiting to vocalise subdued laughter. However, neither the Hair nor the Waiting must ever ask a question.

The process is then repeated as George poses additional questions to the Hair during the four minutes and twenty-four second duration of the ‘Cut’.

Thereafter, the Hair gives George five pounds with a fifty pence tip, and each bids the other goodbye. The Hair then quickly and quietly exits the premises, leaving the next of the Waiting to assume the office of Hair.

There are, of course, occasions when neophytes come in search of a Cut. I remember the day Sanjit first joined us. Having just arrived from India, he had no experience of British barber shop traditions. On sitting down, he immediately attempted to engage the Waiting in conversation. We were naturally compelled, rather self consciously, to ignore him. He clearly interpreted this as extreme discourtesy, and thus rose and left.

George beckoned for me to pursue Sanjit and bring him back. I caught up with him in the High Street where I explained the nature of his transgression, together with a brief resume of correct barber shop etiquette.

When we returned, George turned to the Waiting and requested that Sanjit be the next Hair. All nodded in agreement, knowing this would allow us to support Sanjit during his inaugural Cut. The tension in the room was palpable as we all silently encouraged him. Fortunately, India was currently playing England in a test match at Edgbaston, and George generously selected an opening question on this subject. Sanjit responded as if he had been visiting the shop all his life.

As he rose from the Chair, Sanjit anxiously glanced at me and the other Waiting as if seeking a review of his performance. Our smiles and subtle nods confirmed that he had fared magnificently. Indeed, those present might have given him a standing ovation had that not been strictly contrary to barber shop etiquette. In that moment we knew that he was to be one of us.

Sanjit is a devout Hindu, and it is often the case that those with strong religious convictions adapt most readily to barber shop practices, understanding, as they do, the significance of ritual from observance of their own faiths.

Such was not the case with Eric’s wife.

Eric had been coming to George for ten years. Unknown to any of us, his wife had developed an increasing dislike of Eric’s Cut and kept nagging him to ask George for a different style. Eric’s protests that George only did one style had gone unheeded until, one morning, Enid arrived at the shop.

Even George was taken aback by her entrance. Women were not specifically banned from the shop, but none had entered it since 1972. On that occasion, the young lady’s car had broken down and barber shop procedures had been temporarily suspended as all had joined in pushing the vehicle to the nearby garage.

Things were very different as Enid waved a photograph of Daniel Craig in front of George. ‘Why can’t Eric have a haircut like that?’ she demanded.

All were stunned. It was as if Richard Dawkins had turned up for Mass and disputed transubstantiation with the priest.

‘That’s not a type of cut done here,’ responded George, visibly shaken.

‘What types of cut are done here?’ she countered, sensing her advantage.

‘This one,’ he stammered, pointing to the Hair in the Chair. ‘It’s the same as those…,’ he gestured falteringly towards the Waiting, ‘…only shorter.’

We all pointed to our heads by way of further clarification.

‘Daniel Craig doesn’t have a haircut like that,’ Enid emphasised with uncomprehending annoyance.

‘He would if he came here,’ chorused everyone else in unison.

Enid never returned, and, sadly, neither did Eric, although, in the following months, there were reported sightings in one or other unisex salon – a tragic loss to an institution which still forms a central pillar of the heritage of Great Britain.

Long may George and the traditional British barber shop continue!