An Irishman's Diary

Fri, Jan 11, 2013, 00:00

I was settling into a barbershop chair recently, having completed the usual negotiations about what needed doing. As usual, these were wilfully vague on my part. I had uttered the time-honoured phrase “not too short”; had dodged the standard question about parting (“I don’t comb it at all, really”); and had agreed that, yes, “a general tidy-up” would be good.

Then a man sat down beside me and asked for a “number five”, which appeared to circumvent all other discussion.

I had been dimly aware that there was a numeric scale of haircutting. But not until the barber explained it did I realise there was a number for every current taste; from one – the shaved-head look – to eight, which leaves about an inch (or 2.5 cm if your hair is metric) to spare.

Of course, even the numbers are negotiable. You might request a general number three, for example. But – in EU summit speak – you can insist on a half-inch derogation for the bit above your ears, or have bilateral discussions around the fringes. None of which the man beside me did. He just asked for a number five and left it at that. I had to admire the decisiveness of his approach, which seemed so much bolder than mine.

And yet my life-long refusal to be specific to barbers is in its own way a deliberate strategy.

It stems in part, no doubt, from having grown up in the 1970s and 80s, when a scale of one to eight would have been entirely inadequate. Not just for hair-length, either. That was a time, remember, when many white people thought that a Michael Jackson-style Afro could look well on them too, with tragic results. As well as having to specify the length on such occasions, you might have had to discuss the circumference.

But complicated mathematics aside, I think I also knew, even then, that this was a dark age for hairstyling in general. That what might look briefly good in 1978 or 1987 might be exquisitely embarrassing in later years when immortalised in a photograph on a wall somewhere.

Of course, one couldn’t risk being completely out of touch with contemporary fashions, either. The fear of being laughed at by your future children was, after all, less pressing than the fear of being laughed at by their potential mothers, at audition stage. But the hope was that you could steer some happy middle course, coiffure-wise, balancing your own judgment with professional advice.

There are ways in which, anyway, you are never completely competent to make decisions about your own hair. For one thing, you don’t have the full, 3-D picture. Or at least you shouldn’t have, although most barbers will insist on trying to share it with you.

Personally, I believe there are certain things a man should never have to see, and that among these are the back of his own head.

Luckily, whenever barbers invite me to study mine in a mirror, they usually forget to suggest I put my glasses back on first.

So the view I pretend to admire is a kind-of French impressionist rendering, in which my rear head shimmers like one of Monet’s haystacks (it’s roughly the same shape too).

And that’s why I avoid being very prescriptive to the haircutter. Because with his more rounded view of the problem, he may also have a more valid opinion.

Essentially, when I say things like “not too short”, I am allowing the barber’s discretion while also invoking his trust.

What I’m saying, really, is that I’ve arrived at a certain accommodation with the way I looked on the way in, and that I’d rather not look dramatically different on the way out, but that I’m still open to improvement, and that if the barber thinks he can make me appear even slightly more reminiscent of, say, Don Draper, then it would be churlish to prevent him trying.

I haven’t found a barber with those skills yet, unfortunately. On the plus side, neither have I encountered one like the old-timer I’ve heard of who, if customers don’t give specifics, will always administer an army-style cut as default.

It is always a risk that one man’s idea of “not too short” might be another man’s plucked turkey. Even so, in the establishment I’ve been patronising recently, most people still don’t ask for numbered haircuts. What the more established customers do, I’ve noticed, is specify which of the barbers on duty they want. And I suppose that’s the same thing.

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