The Barber was a wizened and enigmatic character, his thinning hair Brylcreemed back, or sidewards in a comb-over if it was thinning too much. His face was haggard and he smoked; he looked a bit like a jockey. You didn’t want to piss this guy off: he could kick you out of the shop, or probably something worse.
My first haircut in New Zealand was in 1955, in Whanganui. I don’t remember getting it cut in England, but oh boy this was memorable. The shop smelled of Bay Rum, Brylcreem, and cigarette smoke. I was five. My Dad took me, and The Barber had this enormous wrought iron barber’schair. I was thinking, “how am I going to get up into that?”, when he produced a seat on a plank that sat across the arm-rests, and lifted me up onto it. It had leather padding and its own little arm-rests, and I felt really special. But the hand-operated clippers pulled at my hair and I squirmed. Eventually The Barber got so grumpy he whacked me over the head with the handles of the scissors. I didn’t dare cry, and Dad didn’t come to my rescue, such was the manly power of The Barber.
Later, in Tawa, The Barber’s became a regular ritual. You’d be dropped off there to wait your turn and get your hair cut, usually on a Friday after school. There was a long bench seat that ran around three sides of the shop, and you took your place at one end and shuffled along as each boy’s hair was done. Sometimes there were too many waiting and you had to stand until a seat became free. There were comics to read, and that was the best thing. We were only allowed “Classics” comics at home, which told the stories of Dickens and the like in comic form, but here was the real thing: Phantom, all the Disney characters, and best of all, war comics. Battler Britton, scrambled by an air raid during a cricket match on the village green, runs out of ammo over occupied France, and bowls the cricket ball he had stuffed into his battledress pocket to switch over the railway points and send the German ammunition train crashing into a horrendous explosion! We always drew Spitfires and Hurricanes on the backs of our school books.
The Barber had a big poster behind the counter. It was a kangaroo, leaping, with envelopes spilling out of its (her) pouch, and the caption “We post to Australia”. I sat and stared at this, and I still don’t know what it meant. I suspect it had to do with gambling; maybe the barber was an agent for Tattersall’s Lottery or something. It was all exotic and dark. Men, real men who smoked and swore, would come in, and the barber would leave off cutting hair and go behind the counter. There would be a quiet conversation and money would change hands, but I never understood what was going on. Later I learned that barbers sold condoms (we called them “Frenchies”), but I always suspected these clandestine transactions had something to do with the flying kangaroo.
After an hour or two of comics and shuffling along the bench, you’d finally get to have your hair cut. It was always a bit off the top and short back and sides, even if you asked for something else. When the cutting was done, he’d violently rub in some Brylcreem, slapping your head about in the process, comb and brush your hair into a bit of a style, flick the cut hairs off your collar, and finish off with a little spray of smelly stuff. Everyone’s hairstyle was the same.
By about 1964 we all wanted Beatles haircuts, long enough to be thought Fab, but short enough not to earn a detention. The barber never understood this; we all walked out with short back and sides, then put off our next visit as long as we could and combed our hair, what was left of it, forward as much as we could; making the best of a bad job, a bit like The Barber’s comb-over.
After the barber’s, if you were lucky, was fish and chips for dinner, and you could buy a classic comic at the bookshop, or a 45 rpm record. I remember buying “A Fool Such As I” by Elvis Presley. I’ve still got it somewhere. But no more barber’s for me; I don’t have enough hair any more.