Monday, May 11, 2009



By Barry Ronge
May 10, 2009

To those of you who yearn for the old days of man-pampering before metrosexuals took over, here’s the good news

I remember, quite vividly, my first trip to the barber because it was not a happy experience. It was long ago, in the “short-back-and-sides” days, when long hair was a sure sign of gender impairment and the belief that “big boys don’t cry” carried the moral force of the 11th commandment.

The real reason I remember it so well is because it struck me as my first genuine parental betrayal. To be hoisted onto the huge chair that proved to be disconcertingly mobile, and to be draped in a sheet by an elderly stranger who then comes at you with a wicked, glinting sharp object in his hands did not inspire confidence. Worst of all, when you tried to escape this onslaught, your mother turned traitor and took the barber’s side.

That first formal haircut was one of those childhood rites of passage, like the first fall off your bike, your first trip to the dentist, your first day at school, etc, and once you discover that you won’t suffer or die as a result of that experience, it becomes a part of your life, something that you simply do because you have to.

As I entered my teens, however, I forsook the sturdy old barbers of the suburbs and trekked into Joburg to enjoy the more glamorous locations of the big city. In those barbershops, the clever cutters knew that calling a 14-year-old “sir” would get them a tip and a big city haircut was an event that began when the barber picked up an ornate spray bottle to wet your hair.

After the first invigorating whoosh of cool mist had moistened your locks, the cutter set to work, using a comb and a scissors or a razor. The feel of those cold metal blades snicketing through your hair, coming perilously close — too close — to your ears and neck, and the soft tickle of hair sifting over your cheeks was a sensuous and gratifying sensation.

It ended with the brisk rub of a towel (hairdryers only happened in women’s salons in those days), a dab of bay-rum and, if the client requested it, a singe. I wonder if they still do that anywhere in the world?

Some barbers had long sticks of cotton wool to which they set fire and they would sweep them over the ends of newly cut hair , saying that it delayed the new hair growth. I don’t know if it really had a purpose or if it was just a bit of theatre, but it worked.

That was the point of a smart haircut in a good barbershop: the luxury and the attention. It was a place where men could be vain about their looks without any sense of incongruity, and where they could enjoy a bit of self-pampering that “real men” in the ’50s did not like to display for fear of seeming effeminate.

But times changed and as stylist Vidal Sassoon observed: “The worst thing that ever happened to the world’s barbers was the arrival of The Beatles.” The mop-top “hair helmets” sported by the Fab Four and the Rolling Stones turned the barbershops of the world into a mini-micro-industry with an uncertain future as the “unisex salon” took over.

You may, at this stage, be wondering what has brought on this rather hairy trip down memory lane, so let me explain. I have found a great modern equivalent of that old-fashioned barbershop, a place where no women are accepted as clients. Female partners are welcome to sit and wait, but only men sit in the barber chairs.

You might wonder if there is any real difference, but after many years of having my hair cut in unisex salons by great hairdressers, there is a defined difference. It’s a relief not to hear in the next chair the monologue delivered by a suburban housewife exploring her personal angst about her husband’s fidelity; their timeshare in Ballito; the shortcomings of her best friend; and the exact shade of her highlights, which must look, “you know, like frost, but not grey”.

God forbid a man should go in for his monthly trim when a huge wedding party is in, all getting “done” — bride, bridesmaids, mothers-in-law, grandmothers and all. The hanna-hanna is enough to make your hair fall out at the roots, which is not the look you came in for.

Crew in Sandton Square, in shades of brown and leather, does all the old-fashioned things: a piping-hot towel wrapped around the face and neck to soften the skin and a shave with a sharp, straight razor. When that is done, a cold, moist towel is wrapped around the neck and face to refresh and get rid of stray clippings.

They don’t offer you just water or lukewarm coffee. They offer a complimentary Jack Daniels on the rocks or a shot of Red Heart rum to sip as they clip. They’ll also do your eyebrows if they are scruffy, and its clubby atmosphere is not only a nice change, but for me it was a time-trip back to a Joburg that no longer exists in that form. It’s nice to know that some of the old things have transferred elegantly to the new city.


Barry Richard Barber said...
May 25, 2009 at 6:44 AM  

Nicely done.