It has been many years since I last had to go to a barber for a haircut.
In fact the last time was in 2000, almost twenty years ago.
From a very young age, until my late forties, I was a regular at the same barber shop in south London. Never one to let my hair grow, (it has never touched my ears, let alone collar) constant trips to see the barber were just an accepted part of my routine. Once I was working, I would have to go at weekends, and that meant they would be busy.
Back then, two barbers worked flat out dealing with the constant flow of customers. They rarely had time to sweep up the cigarette butts and huge amount of hair on the floor, and I always knew I would not get their best efforts when they were that busy.
As is common with hairdressers, they chatted to the customers. Both the one whose hair they were dealing with, and those waiting on the seats close behind too. Invariably, the talk would be about football, and because of its proximity to the ground of the local football club, Millwall, that team would feature.
Trouble was, I wasn’t a Millwall fan. I supported Tottenham, in north London. Admitting that would have been close to sacrilege in that company though.
So when the talk started about Millwall’s successes or failures, I went along with it, nodding or shaking my head at the appropriate time. Even during the summer, when it was cricket season, they still talked about football, and Millwall. Nobody even mentioned cricket, they just commented on what they expected of their local team when the next football season started.
As I got older, I became more reluctant to keep quiet. On occasion, I might even debate the poor performance of the local team, comparing it to other teams in that league who were doing well. Sometimes, this resulted in what some writers would describe as an uncomfortable silence.
By the time I was in my late twenties, I had started working shifts. This meant that I could now make the trip to the barber during weekdays, and often found the place empty. Even though I had moved a considerable distance away by then, it would never have occurred to me to use a different barber.
One weekday morning, I found Mustapha (the owner) alone in the shop. He was pleased to see me, and started to cut my hair. Our connection was so established by now, he never had to ask me what I wanted, and I always knew how much to pay. As he snipped away, he smiled at me in the mirror. “I meant to say, Pete, while nobody else is here. If I were you, I wouldn’t get into arguments about football. They might not end well, as some of those supporters are pretty tough guys, and can be violent”.
It hadn’t occurred to me that not being a supporter of the local team could put me in hospital, so I thanked him for his advice.
Changing the subject, he asked me “How are you doing at work? I bet the ambulances are still as busy as ever?” I chatted for a while about my job, then mentioned that I had become heavily involved in the union, and was about to become a local organiser. He had finished my hair, and was holding the mirror up, so I could approve the cut at the back. Even though we were alone in the shop, he leaned forward, speaking softly.
“Ah, politics and unions. I wouldn’t mention those either”.