It’s been a while since any man has popped to a King’s Cross barber shop to have a tooth pulled. Or, for that matter, a limb taken off. But that was what barbers once did, back in the days when they were referred to as barber surgeons and an ability to wield sharp implements made you as qualified for the removal of body parts as hair. That red and white striped pole outside traditional British establishments the likes of York Way’s Pall Mall Barbers? A throwback from times when bandages were hung outside the shop to dry out after a surgical procedure.
“There’s an element of trust in letting someone cut your hair that gets extended,” as Pall Mall’s managing director Richard Marshall notes. Whether the trust quite goes as far as lancing an abscess is another matter.
Thankfully, today’s barber shops are (barring the occasional nick during a wet shave) far less bloody places. The shamanic talents often ascribed to the very earliest barbers — when in some tribes the cutting of hair was considered a holy act that drove out evil spirits — have given way to those of the confidante in what remains, arguably, the only male sanctuary still sanctioned by society at large. It is where, after all, a barber might once have asked Sir if he required ‘something for the weekend’ — a phrase the connotations of which are perhaps now lost on younger generations.
“The local snip and shave shop was considered as much a hub for socialising and gossip”
Nowadays, barbers are more likely to dispense advice than anything else. “Men tend to be very loyal to their barber,” says Marshall. “I’ve had some clients for over 15 years, so I the relationships you build through repetition, haircut after haircut, are real. If they have problems, you go through their journey with them. There’s an old saying in this business: what’s said in the barbering chair, stays in the barbering chair. How would you feel if everyone knew that you’d just found out the woman you’d left your wife for and were dating for six months turned out to be a man? You get to hear wild things.”
These last bastions of exclusively male camaraderie increasingly fit the bill as places for men to gather. When Mikey Pearson opened his barbering business, Manifesto, on Leather Lane, it was with a view to create a more modern take on the old gentleman’s club: a place with the feel of a cosy boutique in which to have a drink, or listen to music.
“I don’t think that the more traditional barber shops are on their way out — there will always be a market for them,” argues Pearson. “But men are different now and want different things. It’s just a sign of the times.” Or, in another way, a return to past times: since 296BC, when the Romans first recognised barbering as a profession, (‘barber’ comes from ‘barba’, the Latin for beard) the local snip and shave shop was considered as much a hub for socialising and gossip as it was for grooming.
Signs of the time apply to the hair too. It wasn’t too long ago that the best a barber offered, and what most men wanted, was the classic ‘short back and sides.’ Attempts at styling (those awkward pictures in the barber window suggesting possible hairdos, invariably faded and still there long after the look had become unfashionable) were almost considered unmanly. Today, barbering skills and client demands have moved on apace. “Men take more pride in their appearance now,” says Pearson. “It’s not vanity; we men have permission to look after ourselves now. It’s a reflection of the world we live in, with the internet and social media and the fact that in a metropolis like London, people are freer to be themselves.”
The freedom to be oneself, amid the familiar surroundings of hot towels and cut-throat razors, sitting in the comfort of a Takara Belmont hydraulic chair, set to the whir of Wahl clippers, is an apt a summary as any of what still draws many men to barbers, as opposed to the more unisex world of hairdressers. One’s first visit is a rite of passage, all subsequent visits a gently ritualistic way of measuring out the passing of time, not least when the barber starts to ask if you want your ears singed or your eyebrows trimmed.
Perhaps it is this trust, built up over the years, that gives barbers the staying power to survive; a trip to the barbers is the kindest cut. “The thing I have learned is that you have to love people to do this job,” says Marshall. “As a barber, you talk to these men all day, such that by the end of the day you’re exhausted; you need some space, some time alone. But you never despair at the troubles you hear about. In fact, you’re actually given a real faith in humanity.”
This article first appeared in the spring 2018 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.