As you approach the small Sussex town of Uckfield from the top of the hill, houses begin to give way to the old high street. As soon as I slow down for the 30mph speed limit I spot the small illuminated stripy pole, rotating red white and blue. Ray's barber shop.
Getting a haircut. It's such a simple thing.
My first memory of a barbers would have been when my dad was alive. Vague recollections, not so much of the actual event, but of the Wrigley's Spearmint Gum machine near to the shop. The bribe was my first packet of chewing gum, delivered from the slightly rusting metal vending machine, all powered mechanically from the moment the 5 pence piece was pushed into the slot.
For a while, my mum used to pay a lady to come and hack away all of her three sons' locks. We would be placed on a wooden chair in the middle of the kitchen. The lady would work her magic and we would emerge, sheared, and lighter headed. I don't remember her name.
A few years on and I had found myself at prep school, nestled in the countryside. Great Walstead housed hundreds of boys, most were boarders. Hair would grow and need to be removed. It would be impractical to take us to the barbers during school time, so once or twice per term, I would be summoned from my lessons and sent upstairs to the boys washroom. Here I'd be presented with a queue and then a row of four chairs with razor wielding men. More of a shearing station than anything else.
The barbers would cut over a hundred boys' hair in the space of a morning. It was an industrial operation. I'd be told to sit down as my turn came. There was no asking of style or how my day had been, or where was I going to go on my holidays. Simply sit, hairy sheet wrapped around my neck, the click and buzz of the razor and hair gone. The main barber would slowly limp around, his leg brace stiffening his movement. He smelled of cigarette smoke. At speed he would cut and brush. Proper speed. Mere minutes later I would be discharged, itchy hair stuck down the neck of my green nylon school shirt. But I was lucky. My friend had moles on the back of his neck. Many a time one of them was removed in the teeth of the razor. Rumours were that bits of ear had occasionally been sliced off in the haste of the great haircut days.
As you get older, relationships evolve and mature. So it was when as a teenager I had now moved to Public School, or boarding school for secondary age kids. Haircuts were now a really, really important mark of identity. They were not to be trifled with. So it was with good fortune that although the same barber I had been shorn by at prep school had also wrangled the contract to do the schools’ hair, the relationship had now moved to one of equals.
My hair took a lot of management. This was the eighties, a time of strong gel, quiffs, spikes and constant rearranging of follicles. Those trips to the sports pavilion at the top of the school grounds where the barber would appear sporadically were time to refine our distinctive teenage looks. I could turn up, request a little bit off the back, have the work carried out and then walk around to the school showers, rinse, restyle and then if not quite happy, return to the chair for a second go.
Ray's Barber shop had been an occasional pre-term visit even with the in-school hair cutting. But after school, as I turned into an adult, it had become a place of pilgrimage. I wondered if he was still alive as I drove past reminiscing. He'd surely be in his eighties now.
Everyone knew Ray. He'd started with a small shop, only about four people could squeeze in. Stripy poll outside and a framed print of a knife sharpener on the wall. As business grew he bought the nearby premises and moved to a slightly larger unit. He would open up at 6am, often even earlier if he saw somebody waiting outside. You learned about every bit of local gossip as you had your hair cut. He greeted my brothers and me with the same "Hello Boys" and a cheeky smile, even as we entered our twenties and thirties. His was a barbers that also sold condoms. One of the last of the "Something for the weekend sir?" crowd.
In his spare time, Ray restored and drove Messerschmitt micro cars. Three wheelers I seem to remember. As he talked about ordering chrome plated wing nuts to make them just that little bit more special, his eyes would light up.
Once, I sat watching my younger brother in the chair. Ray asked him what he would like this time, but misheard the request for a "number one on the back and sides and short on top". The look on my brother's face as the razor, set to one, calmly glided up the back of his head, over the top, not stopping until it reached near his eyebrows. Priceless. Ray kept talking as I began to giggle. My brother's jaw dropped and he began to turn bright red. When we left the shop, he looked like one of his old eagle-eyed Action Man toys. Fuzz all over.
Hairdressers are not the same as barbers. When living in a small town in Buckinghamshire, at the local hairdressers I was offered a glass of wine and a head massage to complete the experience, I wasn't for me. The ritual, tradition, piss-taking, banter, was all missing.
The barbers was missed during the great haircutting crisis of lockdown too. As my grey hair became more and more straggly and tramp like, something had to be done. A knock off Remington head razor clone was bought off Amazon and I taught myself to hack away at my head to make myself look a little bit more presentable. It was difficult. And made even more difficult when trying to cut the back of my head, using a shaving mirror angled to the bathroom mirror... while wearing glasses.
Now I have a good barbers. A local place where my name is known. A place where I have grown older. I still remember the first time, after the main cut, when I was asked if I wanted my eyebrows tidied up. Eyebrows! How dare you!
They were right of course. The Dennis Healey look had not aged well. So eyebrows were added to the order, after three on the back and sides and short on top.
Now I get additional enjoyment from the barbers, as I take my son with me. If ever there was a Dad and Son ritual this is it. I've watched as he sat nervously in the booster chair for the first time. His curly locks taken off to reveal a young boy's face below. To begin with an iPad was given to him to occupy his thoughts, but very soon he didn't need or want it as he enjoyed the process. He'd comment on how he loved the tingling fuzzy feeling of the razor on the back of his neck. He'd joke with the barber. He got it.
Instead of Wrigley's Spearmint Gum, his reward started out as a lolly or a chewy sweet. Now it's evolved into Hot Chocolate or Frappuccino and a Brownie to celebrate. Like his dad, hair gel is also offered and his fringe spiked just how he wants it.
But his eyebrows remain natural. For now.