For 14 years only one man has cut my hair. Actually, that is not strictly true. Last year I went elsewhere and I felt like a husband visiting a prostitute for the first time. It made me realise how attached I’d become to my barber, Kyri, a Greek Cypriot with a shop in Kensal Rise. I’ve been with him longer than any relationship, my marriage and most of my friendships. It was the nearest barber’s to my first flat in London. Since then I’ve moved further and further away but I always make the journey back to get my hair cut.
Over the years Kyri has become a friend and a confidant. When I’ve had problems with work, relationships or family, it’s with him that I talk most openly. Visits to the shop take the place of therapy. Our relationship was cemented when in 2005 I had to undergo chemotherapy. Before I started treatment, Kyri shaved my head. There were no tears but it was a touching moment. He called a couple of times when I was in hospital pretending to check up on whether my hair growing back, ‘protecting his investment’ as he called it. Thankfully the treatment was successful and my hair grew back thicker than ever. We often talk about going for a curry with other customers, or visiting his family in Barnet (it’s almost too perfect that my barber lives in Barnet) for a barbeque, but nothing ever comes of it. I think we both worry that without the chair, mirror and scissors between us, we might not have anything in common.
His shop is not much to look at: a shack-like structure against the side of a building on the road from Ladbroke Grove to Willesden Green. You wouldn’t notice it if you drove past. About five years ago Kyri’s shop was given a budget makeover on daytime TV and rebranded as Chamberlayne’s. You couldn’t tell now. His mother and his wife are always telling him off for spending too much time chatting and not enough time cutting hair. There’s normally a queue and so a visit never takes less than an hour. I can’t imagine he makes much money out of the business. In comparison, the one time I strayed it was like being sheep-sheared by a burly Australian. I was in and out in ten minutes. That’s the way to make money from cutting hair.
When I started visiting Kyri in 2000, my friends would laugh at me for spending only £7 on a haircut (it’s now gone up to £10!). Not because it wasn’t a good haircut but because I went to an old-fashioned barber’s shop. None of them were making any money then, most still aren’t, and yet they all went to Toni & Guy-type places. They raved about the coffee, the team of girls dedicated to your follicle pleasure, the ‘product’ (that quintessential 2000s word) and of course the price: never any change from £30.
The salon experience terrified me — all those women tut-tutting over my hair. I put this fear down to an incident in my early teens when a female hairdresser found lice on my head. I still remember the burning feeling in my ears as the entire staff and my mother poked around as if I were a stray dog. You don’t get over things like that easily.
The tide is turning against the tyranny of the salon, however. Men are coming back to barbers. According to the Local Data Company, more than 150 new shops opened in the UK last year, a 6 per cent rise at a time when most other high-street businesses are in decline. It’s partly down to fashion (the traditional cuts are back in) and partly financial (everyone has less money), but I think there’s more to it.
The traditional barber shop is one of the last male spaces. Most men now work alongside and socialise with women. Unless you’re a member of Boodle’s or in the army, then you’re going to be with women all day. I like this. I’ve never been much of a man’s man. In fact I get on better with women than men. I find pub banter with its football, alcohol and implicit threat of violence unappealing. Yet at Kyri’s shop I relish conversations with other customers. The talk is of what’s in the papers, music, families, and the good old days before gentrification when people used to get murdered on Chamberlayne Road. There is quite a bit of football talk too — Kyri is a long-suffering Spurs fan — but there is a lack of competitiveness which makes it so different from blokey pub conversation.
I’ve noticed how relaxed and unguarded everyone is while waiting for their haircut. The clientele is varied. There are prosperous young parents, old Irish men, Indian youths, cheerful Australians, white working-class families who’ve been in the area for generations and, of course, a good smattering of Greeks and Cypriots. The only people missing are Africans and Caribbeans, who go to the place up the road. As pubs become increasingly polarised between working-class bastions on one hand and gastropubs on the other, I can’t think of anywhere else where men of all backgrounds and nationalities can mix. It’s a place where for an hour class and nationality don’t matter. We’re just men: fathers, sons and husbands. As an awkward former boarding-school boy, this is the first time I’ve experienced such unselfconscious mixing. The barber-shop experience is communal in contrast to the narcissistic pampering of the salon.
Recently I moved even further away from Kensal Rise — to Lewisham, about as far as you can get and still be in Zone Two. I calculated that whole trip would take at least three hours, quite a chunk out of the weekend when you’ve a young child to look after. I delayed and delayed. With my hair growing over my ears, I found myself peering into local barber’s shops imagining what it would be like to go there. I very nearly went into one but instead got up early last Saturday morning and made the journey north. When I arrived, Kyri welcomed me like the Prodigal Son. I couldn’t go anywhere else.