LETTER: Memories of my childhood haircuts

A reader discusses barbers.

David Saunders, 38, from Cardiff, is seated in the barbers chair
David Saunders, 38, from Cardiff, is seated in the barbers chair

Peter Rhodes’s recent item on finally visiting the barber after lockdown triggered a few memories for me. During my boyhood days in Gornal (centre of the Universe) our local “tonsorial artiste” was an “Army barber” named Joe Guest. Older readers may recall that in the post-war years it was common practice for ex-squaddies to pursue in civvy street trades they had learned in the army, and Joe was one such. He charged half a crown for men, a shilling for boys and sixpence for a singe. Now there’s a blast from the past – when did you last see anyone have a singe? This was done with a lighted taper and was designed, so I believe, to seal the ends of the hairs after cutting to keep out cold air, thereby preventing the customer from catching cold after leaving the shop. NB shop, not salon! Joe only knew one style: the classic and formidable “short back and sides” and all his customers left the shop looking like recruits for the Foreign Legion. I was in love with his 10 year-old daughter Josie at the time, so I probably patronised him more than was necessary.

I also remember a late friend of mine, living in Stourbridge, who had a large family which included three sons all of whom had their onions peeled at the shop of one Mr Ballinger in Wollaston. However, not only was this bloke a barber but he also owned and ran a bicycle shop next door to the barber’s and, rather than employ an assistant, he insisted, somewhat bizarrely, on manning the two establishments simultaneously.

My mate said it was not unknown to be sitting in the chair when someone would appear in the doorway holding a bike wheel or an inner-tube and Mr B would excuse himself, dash next door with his new client and return ten minutes later with his hands covered in grease to finish the haircut. Hence the term “hair-oil”, I assume. Apparently, it sometimes took a whole afternoon to gather the hay of all my mate’s family.

I further recall an occasion when visiting my in-laws in Derby, I accompanied my late father-in-law Fred to his local barber, a Polish gentleman named Jan, pronounced “Yan”, except by Derbeians who insist that a J is a J. While Fred was having his trim it crossed my mind to ask Jan for a shave as I had never experienced a cut-throat job a la John Wayne, so when he had finished Fred I said, “Could you give me a shave please, Jan?”He looked at me in total incredulity. "A shave!” he retorted. "Wat for you want a shave? You go shave your self! Next!” Charming!

Finally, some readers may already know this, but I have only recently learned that that the currently fashionable total head-shave, which in recent years has ridden to the rescue of the balding and the “comb-over” brigade, is known colloquially as a “J9” in reference to junction nine of the M25 which is the exit for – where else? – Leatherhead!

Bryn Williams, Wordsley

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