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Hobson's Choice, by Sean Barnet


It was the end of the summer holidays, school would start in a few days time, and I had been sent into town to get my hair cut. This was 1974, I was 15, and I liked my hair long. The place I went to, Marios, was modern and did trendy feather cuts for teenage boys, layered cuts, not quite covering the ears and not quite touching the collar. I used to get my hair cut just before the start of each school term and again at the half term break, keeping it just within the limits of what was acceptable at school.

But down a side street was an old fashioned barber shop, Hobsons, which fascinated me. I never went there, it was the sort of place my father might go, but not someone of my age. I knew the sort of haircut you would get in a place like that, and I could not face the ridicule I would get at school, but I often walked passed, stealthily glancing in, trying to satisfy my curiosity.

I had little to do that afternoon except get my hair cut, so I made a diversion and went down the little side street just to have a look. This was playing with fire - I knew - I should have gone to Marios first and gone past Hobson's afterwards, but just walking past excited me, and I could not resist.

I found the barber sitting on a bench outside his shop with a mug of tea and a newspaper.

I made to walk on past, as though I was any other person on their way to somewhere else.

"Good afternoon, young man."

I stopped, dead.

"Good afternoon, young man."

I remembered my manners. "Good afternoon."

"Beautiful day, isn't it, young man?"


"I have often seen you walk past my shop, young man. Do you live nearby?"

"Not far, Woodville Avenue."

"That's a nice part of town, you are lucky to live there, young man."

"Yes, it is. I suppose I am."

"My name is Mr Hobson, as you will no doubt have worked out, and yours, young man?"

"Andrew, Andrew Fletcher."

"Pleased to meet you, Andrew. Sit down. As you see, I am not busy this afternoon."

I sat, and we continued talking, the barber asking questions and me answering, mostly in embarrassed, teenage, one or two word replies. But he seemed a kindly old man and eventually I relaxed a bit and gained in confidence.

"Are you still at school, young man?"


"And do you go to the King Edward VI Grammar School?"

"Yes. How did you guess?"

"You seem a polite, clever, nicely brought up lad. But there is one thing. When you are speaking to your teachers at school, what do you call them?"

"We have to call them "sir", or "Mr" and then their name."

"And why do you do that?"

"To show them respect."

"Yes, as is right and proper. But I don't think that anyone can have explained that this is not just for school, but it is something you should do generally, and not just now while you are still a boy, but also when you become a grown man yourself. To call another man "sir" is a politeness and shows good manners, and knowing that you are behaving correctly will give you more confidence in yourself.

"No No, Mr Hobson. They have never said that. I shall try to remember that sir.

"Very good, young man. And your father also, what do you call him?"

"Well, I just call him "Dad", sir."

"Now, to my mind "Dad" sounds rather childish from a young man of your age. Don't you think calling him "Father" or "sir" would demonstrate a little more maturity?"

"It would sound a bit odd, sir"

"That is just because you are not used to it. Now, in my day, boys from the Grammar School always used to call their fathers "sir", it was expected of them, and they made a point of doing so. Give it a try, young man, you will show your father proper respect, and it will please him a great deal."

"Yes, sir."

I said "Yes" even though I was very doubtful about this. It would indeed seem very odd indeed to call my father "sir", but I saw no point in arguing with the man about it when he was unlikely to ever see my father and me together. On the other hand, as the days went by, I began to see the force of what he said - "Dad" did sound a bit childish, and the expedient my friends and I were all beginning to adopt of calling our fathers nothing at all started to seem oafish and immature - But no, calling my father "sir would be impossible.

"You are still on holiday?

"Yes, sir. We go back next week, sir."

"And do they allow long hair these days at King Edward's, young man?"

"No, sir. I was on my way to get it cut this afternoon, sir."

"But not here, young man?"

"No, sir. I was going to Mario's, sir."

"Where they do all sorts of longer, modern styles?"

"Yes, sir."

"Not the sort of thing they used to allow at the Grammar School."

"No, sir.
"While if I had had charge of your hair it would be cut very much shorter, would it not, lad?"

"Yes, sir. I suppose it would, sir."

"Yes, it certainly would. A nice, smart short back and sides, young man, which you teenagers do not seem to like these days.

"Yes, sir. I mean no, sir. I mean no one has a short back and sides any more, sir."

"Well, some boys do, young man. They come to me, and I cut it nice and short for them."

"Yes, sir, but not very many, and mostly they only have it short because their parents make them, sir."

"And are their parents wrong to do so?"

"They shouldn't make their children do things they do not want to, sir."

"Never, young man? Even when it is for their own good?"

"It's only hair, sir."

"If it's only hair, young man, then what is your objection to the traditional, smart cut?"

"Well, I dont really like the clippers, sir,"

"In my day Grammar School boys always used to take a pride in themselves. A good short back and sides was the rule - that's taken nice and close at least three inches up the back and a good inch above the ears. No "ifs", no "buts. And there was no nonsense about not liking the clippers, they all soon learned to relish the experience."

I had no answer to this.

Mr Hobson waited a moment to see if I would reply. "And your parents, young man. what do they think of your hair?"

"They dont mind, providing I keep within the school rules, sir."

This was not strictly accurate, at least as far as my father was concerned. Having done his time in the army back in the 1950s he thought that abolishing National Service had been a big mistake, and that the younger generation (ie me) could benefit from a general tightening of standards. I also knew that he was disappointed that my school did nol have a stricter haircut policy. Looking back though, I realise he was wise enough not to go too much against the trend, and I am sure he was grateful that the school rules were as strict as they were - a great deal stricter than at some other places.

Mr Hobson started on a new tack. "And you yourself, do you think these modern styles appropriate then?

"Its what we like, sir."

"That is not quite the question I asked, young man. Do you think they are appropriate?"

"I think so. Of course, sir.

"Do you think they look smart, young man?"

"Well, not what you would call very smart, sir."

"And well disciplined?

"No, sir. Not exactly disciplined, sir."

"And you approve of mess and indiscipline?"

"That's not what I am saying, sir. I mean hair is just hair. It doesn't mean what you are inside, sir.

"So you can be orderly and well disciplined on the inside, and not show it on the outside then?"

I was being outmanoeuvred. "Well, maybe not. I see your point, sir."

"So, do you think that messy and ill disciplined styles are appropriate, then?"

"Well, no. Not really, then. I suppose not, sir."

"Very good, young man. And what sort of haircut do you think is smart and well disciplined?

I Could see clearly enough where all this was leading, but in spite of this I still felt compelled to give the answer he wanted. "Well, short back and sides, I suppose, sir. There isn't that much else, is there, sir?"

"So, what do you think is appropriate for an intelligent, nicely behaved young man like yourself, lad?"

I had no way now or getting out of this now. "Well, yes sir, it would have to be a short back and sides, sir.

"Correct, young man, You see you know what is right when you think about it, after all."

"Yes, sir. But, as I said, almost no-one has their hair like that now. I don't know what my friends would say, sir,"

"Sticks and stones, young man. And how long do you think it will be before they lose interest in your hair?"

"Well, not long, but they would still think me a bit odd, sir.

"A man can be his own man, lad, and do what he knows is right, or he can just follow the crowd."

This remark was so very obviously true that all I could answer was "Yes, sir."

Mr Hobson drank up the last of his tea. "So, we had better get started then, hadn't we, lad?"

My heart was pounding. l was being invited to do something I was afraid of, but had wanted to do for a long, long time.

It took a while for me to reply. My voice almost failed me. "Yes, sir."

Mr Hobson stood up, and pointed towards the door. "After you, young man."

* * * * *

Trembling between fear and excitement, I entered the cool shade of the barber's shop, and walked over to the chair.

Slowly and carefully, the barber drew the cape around me, fastened it, tucked in a tissue at the back of my neck, and then turned the chair away from the mirror.

Standing behind me he spoke clearly and deliberately. "Now, young man, you are facing this way because I do not want you shifting about to look at yourself or making comments as we go on. A man must learn to put his trust in his barber. You will see the result for yourself when we have finished, and you will not be disappointed. Until then you will sit perfectly still and in silence, unless I speak to you first. That is how we do things here. Is that clear?"

I swallowed hard. "Yes, sir."

He pushed my head forwards, and began to cut.

Hair fell all around me like rain. The only noise was the clicking of scissors. I looked down,
mesmerised, at the pile of hair growing in my lap, wondering if this would ever end. Eventually, the cutting ceased.

"Now, young man, I understand that you have come here of your own accord, but I hope that you were not expecting any special leniency on that account?"

This sounded rather threatening, but I could hardly say that I wanted special treatment. "No, sir."

"Very good. I do not agree with too much leniency. I do not think it good for a young man. I am sure you agree?

"Yes, sir."

"Very good. So, head right down now for me, lad, and keep absolutely still, understand?

"Yes, sir."

I did as I was told, but nevertheless the barber still placed a hand on my head, pushing it further forwards, and held it there, immovable.



Cold vibrating blades met my cheek and worked their way up and round my ear - biting so close I thought they might cut me - then up the back, endlessly, and then round the other side.

My head was released, and I looked up, only to have it pushed down again, and there was some more trimming with the scissors.

At last there was a pause, and I was allowed to lift my head as the barber stood in front inspecting his handiwork.

He squirted some powder onto my neck and brushed me down, combed everything carefully into place, looked me over once more, and said "Right lad, I think we can finish you off now.

I wasn't quite sure what he meant by that. It was Sweeney Todd who "finished off" his customers with a cut-throat razor. But Sweeney Todd was fiction, of course, and this was real life.

He moved behind me again, and now both his hands were on my head, rubbing, massaging in some sort or cold, thick, sticky stuff.

"What's that?

"I beg your pardon, young man?

"Sorry, sir. I mean could you tell me what that is please, sir?"

"Brylcreem, lad. Keeps it all in order. Gives it a nice sheen. You'll see."

Then the teeth of a comb against my scalp, a few final stray hairs removed with the clippers, and at last I was swung round to face the mirror.

The sides had been shaved down to bare skin, and the bit of hair left on the top shone and glistened with the Brylcreem.

He showed me the back - scarily white.

"There you are, lad. One smart short back and sides, as a young man like you should have."

He removed the cape and handed me a tissue. I wiped around the back of my neck, and a thousand prickles jolted through me like an electric shock.

It looked and felt fantastic - sharp, clean, masculine.

"Thank you, sir."

"My pleasure, young man."

But what on earth had I done? It was far shorter than I had ever imagined. I would get so much stick from my friends back at school, and now there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

We went over to the till and I paid - it was rather cheaper than Mario's - and the barber gave me a satisfied smile when I asked for a tub of Brylcreem.

* * * * *

My father was pleased. "Nice and smart, Andrew. Well done, my boy, very well done."

Back at school I made a joke of things as best I could. I said that I had "a fight with the lawn-mower". The jibes pretty much stopped by lunch time on the first day back, but it took me a long time for me to really understand - in my gut that is, not just in my head - that no one was very much concerned about my hair - apart from myself.

* * * * *

Half term came. I didnt really need a haircut - not by the normal standards of the time - and my mother said nothing, she must have thought that it was short enough.

But one evening at dinner my father said "Andrew, my boy, it looks like it's about time you had a haircut, don't you think?"

I might have objected, I don't think my father would have pushed the point, but something made me answer "Yes, sir. It's half term. I can go tomorrow, sir."

Again, I could have back-tracked a bit and gone to Marios for a minimal trim, but I went back to Hobson's - Hobson's where I knew I would get another scalping.

I sat waiting my turn, heart thumping, fingering my sweaty palms, wondering if I really wanted to go through with this, and asking myself why I had come here and why I was going down this road? Why was I not sensibly allowing my hair to grow out a little so I could be like everyone else? But there I was, and it was a bit late to turn back now.

"Next please, Mr Fletcher."

It took a moment before I realised that the barber was speaking to me, my father was generally "Mr Fletcher", and I was "Andrew", or just "Fletcher" at school.

I took my place in the chair.

"Good morning, young man."

"Good morning, Mr Hobson."

"Short back and sides, like last time, young man?"

"Yes, sir.

I saw him reach for the clippers, and my heart failed me,

"Do I have to have the clippers, sir?"

"It would hardly be a short back and sides without them, would it, lad?"

"I suppose not, sir."

"And we agreed last time that short back and sides was best, did we not?"

"Yes, sir.

"So we must use the clippers then?"

"Yes, sir. I suppose so, sir."

"Indeed we must."

He then turned to chair away from the mirror - to stop me giving any more trouble.

"Any more questions, young man?"

"No, sir.

"Right then, bend your head down for me please, and keep still."

I bowed my head, and I was duly scalped.

l was shown my clean-shaved back and sides, and nodded my approval.

And now I would have to face the jibes and derision at school again - what sort of madness was I suffering from to choose to do this?

"All nice and short for you, lad."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

Once I had paid the barber said "Don't leave it so long next time, young man, three weeks maximum, two if it grows fast, is what we generally reckon to keep it acceptable."

"Yes, sir."

* * * * *

I wasn't at all sure about the idea of going back in three weeks. No one I knew had their hair cut that often. That was the sort of thing they did in oppressive institutions like prisons, the army and boarding schools. Besides which I was sure my parents would think it unnecessary and not give me the money.

But the idea did not go away. "Haircuts", "Manhood and "Discipline" all whirled round in my head leaving me with a sick feeling in my stomach.

* * * * *

Three weeks later, as my father was giving me my pocket-money, I nervously asked him if I could have some extra for a haircut.

"So you would like to manage things for yourself now, son?"

"Er, yes, sir."

"And you wont need to be told when to get your hair cut from now on then?"

"No, sir. I'll keep it nice and short, sir."

My father paused, continuing to look at me. "Nice and short?"

"Yes, sir. Short back and sides, sir." I offered, precipitately.

"Short back and sides? Do I have your word on that, son?"

I could hardly go back on what I had offered. "Yes, sir."

"Very well, my son, I think it is time I stopped giving you pocket-money each week and started giving you a monthly allowance to cover your needs - your clothes, your spending money, and your haircuts. You are now old enough to start learning how to budget and to manage your own money.

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

I went back to Hobson's, and this time I knew I must show a mature attitude and make no fuss.

"Good afternoon, Mr Fletcher."

"Good afternoon, Mr Hobson."

"Yes, young man?"

I made an effort to sound cheerful. "Short back and sides please, sir."

"Good lad.


I bent my head down low, and the clippers began to bite.


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