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Hairdressing at Home

We were obedient children. This was the late 1950s, a period of apparent certainty, before the Profumo affair, before the Cuba missile crisis, and we lived in a suburb to the south-east of London, a place of apparent stability. In addition, our parents were evangelical Christians who had committed their lives and their destiny to God: the ultimate fail-safe guarantee. Their trust even meant (as my father told me much later) that they left decisions about the generation of offspring to the Almighty. He would guide the sperm to the egg, or arrange for the former to bypass the latter, according to His infinite wisdom. The result was that mum and dad found themselves the parents of four boys, in quick succession, by June 1957. (Their last child, an adored girl, did not arrive until 1963, causing me to wonder, once I was old enough to understand these things, whether perhaps they had decided to give God a helping hand, by some means or other, in coming to His decision.)

And we were happy children. Our parents loved us and we loved them. Our mother was the dominant force in the marriage. That is not to say that our father was a wimp or a weakling. It was just that his manner was quieter, and he was less inclined to express himself dogmatically on matters of theology, morality or social convention.

Our lives were regular. We three eldest boys attended the primary school at the end of the road. We all worshipped at church and Sunday school every Sabbath. We played cricket, football or hide-and-seek in the park most Saturdays. On Saturdays too the four of us were issued with our weekly pocket money. It was understood that we would spend it immediately in the sweet shop opposite the school. As the eldest, I was entrusted with the responsibility of seeing that my younger siblings did not ‘waste their substance with riotous living’, which in this case meant bubble or chewing gum. Certain confectioneries (liquorice allsorts, lemon drops, ‘fruit salad’) were acceptable, others not. I visited the public library twice a week to change my library books. Our summer holiday was spent at our maternal grandparents’ house in Portsmouth. The years passed.

Dad was a scientist. Mum was a qualified teacher, but had given up her job as soon as she got married in 1950 (and didn’t resume teaching until the mid-1960s). So, although we children wanted for nothing, I can understand now that with the need to pay the mortgage and feed and clothe four children on one income — admittedly a professional income — money was tight. And in those days short haircuts were obligatory. So, once a fortnight, the four of us were led down to the barber in the high street, sat in the chair, and shorn, one after the other. Our parents bore the expense as an inevitability, until one day the vicar at our church (where dad was a churchwarden) mentioned to them that he owned a set of haircutting tools, with which he had for years cut his children’s hair. Those children having now grown up, he had no further need of the equipment, which he generously offered to the churchwarden and his wife, who gratefully accepted the gift. The prospect of saving ten shillings a fortnight was welcome.

Because we were obedient children, we accepted without protest the instruction to sit on a chair in the kitchen, have a bed sheet tied around our necks, and submit to our parents’ best efforts. At this distance of time, I can’t remember whether mum or dad wielded the instruments, and which of us went under the knife, so to speak, first. But I do remember that we all emerged from the ordeal with a lot less hair on our heads, having experienced a level of pain with which, in our comfortable lives up to that point, we were unfamiliar.

The silver scissors and clippers were blunt, and mum and dad had no means of sharpening them. It’s true that a man occasionally came bicycling down our road, calling out ‘Knives to grind!’, and that a spinning appliance on the back of his machine, driven by the man turning one of the pedals, performed this useful service. But his appearance had not coincided with our need. The parent wielding the tools — since every profession requires training — had not understood that, once a length of hair has been cut, it is important to open the teeth of the cutting instrument before pulling it away, to avoid the risk of yanking the growth still attached to the head and causing the skull to be dragged violently to one side, attended by intense discomfort at the root. My mother in particular believed that people shouldn’t make a fuss about nothing, and I think she thought, at least initially, that we were doing precisely that.

There are some activities where, once you have put your hand to the plough (a second Biblical reference, this) you have to plough grimly on. Haircutting is one of them. The shearer couldn’t leave a child’s head hacked on one side but not the other, or fore but not aft, and so, for better or worse (worse, in this case) the job had to be completed. Nor did it seem right to impose this torture on only one of the unfortunates: we were always treated equally. The result was that after a couple of hours of anger, howling and misery, the four of us looked like slum children.

(An aside on the equal treatment point: our godparents departed from this excellent principle, for reasons I could never understand, and have not understood since. At Christmas I, the eldest, received five shillings, my next brother four, my third brother three, and the youngest two. Until a few years ago, when my grateful youngest brother reminded me, I had completely forgotten that I instigated a system of socialist redistribution, meaning that all four of us ended up with three shillings and sixpence each.)

It may be (here I invent, rather than remember) that the damage thus inflicted was disguised, once we boys were next paraded in public (probably at church the following Sunday), by the liberal application of a grease called Tru-Gel, which my father used. (Brylcreem was regarded as lower class.) This kept the spikes which had survived the onslaught more horizontal than vertical. What is certain (and here I remember, rather than invent) is that when, a fortnight later, our parents proposed to repeat the treatment, there was a revolt, in which I, the eight-year-old tribune of the plebs — the most biddable set of plebs imaginable — simply told our astonished parents that we were not going to sit in that chair in the kitchen again. None of us. No argument, no negotiation. We were solid. And the management, confronted by this unprecedented display of shop-floor unity, relented. Back we went to the barber in the high street, who perhaps was appalled, perhaps entertained by the rescue job he was called upon to perform. Ten shillings left my mother’s purse that morning, and every fortnight thereafter until we were old enough to make decisions about hair length (and hair style) for ourselves.

I look back on that moment of defiance, and on our parents’ good-humoured acceptance of defeat, as an early and innocent shadow of doubt cast on the certainty and stability which, in their youth and optimism, and trusting in God’s guidance, mum and dad believed would be lifelong.