We all know the high street is on its last legs. But there’s one sign of life left in the old retail dog — and that’s the barber shop. And it’s not just trendy London. In the small Scottish Borders enclave of Duns (pop. 2,700) where I spend a fair bit of the year, Chris the Barber has taken over premises in Castle Street, meaning that for the first time in recent memory there are now two scissor-happy merchants in town. Or, rather, clipper-happy.
I dare say Chris will quickly discover that (forgive me) it’s a cut-throat business, but barbers are having a moment at both the traditional and absurdly wacky end of the market. What they share is a general agreement that male grooming is not just the preserve of pretty boy-bands and Premier League footballers who sculpt their pubes and shave their chests as if auditioning for a slot on Love Island. Male vanity is everywhere.
Mind you, footballers have long been a barber’s best friend. Whenever David Beckham changed his hair style, legions of blokes followed suit. Today, Becks looks staid in comparison to the current crop of overpaid prima donnas. I can just about cope with the ‘varsity’ side parting and the popular pompadour look but can do without the ‘high fade comb over’ and all forms of the ‘undercut’, where the patient (sorry, customer) is shaved violently up the side of the head with some thickish hair left on top as if stuck on as an afterthought.
We’ve come a long way from the short back and sides — although the parting has gone full circle. As a 15-year-old, I regarded partings (like the one sported nowadays by Jacob Rees-Mogg) as a symbol of turgid establishment nonsense and longed to walk into a groovy hairdresser’s and ask for a Beatle cut. That moment came circa 1969 halfway down Beauchamp Place in a place called Sweeney’s (not to be confused with Sweeney Todd’s) but, to my shame, I was accompanied by my dear father (proper parting but balding) who attempted small-talk with the long-haired ‘stylist’ but struggled to compete with the loon pants and blaring Led Zeppelin music.
Fast forward almost 50 years and I’m in St James’s Street next to the Carlton Club at the oldest barber shop in the world, waiting for ‘master barber’ Michael Symeon to wash my hair, cut it and then round everything off with a wet shave, my first experience of such a thing because I’ve always regarded it as turgid establishment nonsense, too.
Not any more. Frankly, I’m all for this male grooming lark when it involves a visit to Truefitt & Hill, which opened in 1805 during the reign of George III (himself a customer) and which has held a Royal Warrant ever since. It’s a beautifully appointed shop with pictures of the Battle of Trafalgar and polished wooden shelves displaying all manner of lotions and potions.
William Gladstone, Alfred Hitchcock, Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Oscar Wilde, Dicky Attenborough, John Major, the Duke of Edinburgh, Sting — they’ve all been here, although Michael politely declines my request for some take-away gossip to go with the shaving cream and aftershave balm. ‘What I will say is that we are getting more 30- and 40-year-olds coming in,’ he says. ‘There’s a growing retro movement when it comes to hair and we’ve never been busier.’ Indeed, barbers have never had it so good, with some outlets reporting a 300 per cent growth in business over 12 months.
Michael and I chat about Brexit, parking in London and the fourth series of The Affair. But what I really want to talk about is shaving.
‘Do you shave against the grain?’ he asks. Of course I do. ‘That’s sacrilege and ultimately bad for your skin. Keep going and you’ll end up looking weathered.’
Then he gets to work. First he applies a pre-shave oil, then places a hot flannel over my face followed by more oil, another flannel. ‘Always use a badger brush because it holds the heat,’ he says as he lathers up before applying the soap and finally shaving in long, fluid motions.
We’re done but not finished. He seals the pores with cold water and then on goes a soothing after-shave balm, followed by a moisturiser and natural crystal alum block that sterilises the surface of the skin.
Yes, this sort of male grooming is more expensive (Michael charges £50 for the wash and cut; £50 for the shave) than what Chris the Barber (£9 for men, £8 for boys) is offering up north, but my goodness it’s a treat.
Walking back up St James’s Street, I can’t resist looking at myself reflected in shop windows and realise to my horror that I’m just as vain as those footballers. Perhaps more so.