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Uncle Clive, by Sean Barnet


Before the site was hacked there was a story called "Are Your Scissors Sharp?” by "Poor Nick”. This was a favourite of mine, it seemed to me to have the freshness and authenticity of a true story. What follows is a re-creation. I have tried to include as much of the detail of the original story as I can remember, but obviously it is told in my own way. I have felt free to elaborate and adapt, and I have extended it at the end. "Anon” will spot that I have incorporated a suggestion of his - Thank you.

If "Poor Nick” (or anybody else for that matter) still has the original version, perhaps they would consider re-posting it on the site?


When I was 14, back in 1971, I went on a walking holiday with my uncle Clive. Now, my uncle was a few years older than my father, but he appeared much older by comparison. He seemed very old fashioned, and was prone to fits of nostalgia for a romanticised past. But despite this Uncle Clive and I always got on very well.

We had stopped for a few days in a seaside town called Brynhaven, walking in the hills nearby each day.

Uncle Clive needed to buy some shaving soap, but the chemist we tried did not have any of the particular kind he used, and being Uncle Clive no other would do. However, the lady directed us to a barber shop nearby, Campbell's on Beach Street, which she was sure would have what my uncle was looking for.

It was a old fashioned place, hardly changed since the 1930s, antique barber's chairs, walls painted pale greyish green, an old clock ticking on the wall, and the barber immaculate in a long grey coat, white shirt and tie, and with perfectly groomed silver hair.

Mr Campbell did have what Uncle Clive was looking for, and he bought two packs.

"You know, this place reminds me very much of the barber's where I used to go when I was a boy, everything about it is the same, even the clock.”

"There's not many of us like this left now, Sir.”

"More's the pity.”

"Indeed it is, Sir.”

"And how does business do these days?”

"I am busy enough to keep me going, thank you, Sir.”

"I suppose you mainly cater for older gentlemen now, not so many customers the age of my young nephew here?”

"You would be surprised, Sir. There is a unisex place down the road, I know, which is popular with the younger sort, but there are still quite a few fathers who require a traditional haircut for their sons. And the headmaster at Grammar School here has a very no nonsense approach. He is strict and particular about the boy's hair, so most of them come to me, and I keep it short for them.”

"And the boys, do they mind?”

"It has to be done, Sir, mind it or not. And if they make any trouble I just cut it shorter, so they soon learn what's good for them.”

"Yes, that's how things were when I was a boy. We did as we were told, and liked it. Or at least we did not complain when we did not.”

"Yes, that is how I was brought up myself, Sir, and it never did us any harm.”

"No, none at all.”

"We were all the better for it, Sir, and I think we were happier then.”

"Yes, very true, Mr Campbell, very true.”

My uncle turned to me. "So, what do you think of this place then, Nicholas?”

I could already see where my uncle's thoughts were tending. I had to think fast. "Very interesting, Uncle Clive. A piece of history. It's something from a past era.”

My uncle turned back to the barber. "Now, I would like your opinion, Mr Campbell. My nephew here and I have a disagreement. Nicholas, like most young men these days, has his hair long, but I think it would be better neatly trimmed - away from his ears and well off the collar at the back. As you see his hair is now over his ears and covering his collar. So, what do you think?”

"Well, I would have to agree with you, Sir. It certainly should be off the ears and off the collar.”

"And are your scissors sharp, Mr Campbell?”

"Yes, Sir, very sharp.” He looked me up and down, and patted his breast pocket. "And ready for their work, Sir.”

"Well then, Nicholas, this is your opportunity to experience a haircut in a traditional barber's shop, just like the one I went to when I was your age.”

"No, please, Uncle Clive, I really don't …”

Uncle Clive cut me off. "That is ‘Yes, Sir.' young man, not ‘No, Uncle.' You are in need of a haircut, and I do not wish to hear any argument.”

With this, to my horror, Uncle Clive sat down, and picked up a magazine.

I was shocked, I had never known my uncle like this before. I looked at my uncle, then at the barber, and then back at my uncle. There was a painful silence.

"Shall I proceed, Sir?”

"If you would be so kind.”

Mr Campbell walked over to the chair, picked up the cape, looked at me, and pointed at the seat. "This way, young man.”

I stood, rooted to the spot, I still could not believe what was happening.

"You heard what the gentleman said, young man. This way, if you please.”

Reluctantly, very reluctantly, I moved over to the chair, I sat, and the cape was fastened - like a noose.

"Any particular requirements, Sir?”

"No, I shall leave it in your capable hands, Mr Campbell.”

"Very good, Sir. I can promise that you won't be disappointed, Sir.”

The barber took out his scissors and held them up in front of my face, clicking them loudly. "Now, boy, listen to me. I am going to cut your hair. So, back straight, mouth shut, and keep your head still. Understand, boy?”

"Yes, Sir!”

The haircut proceeded without much talk. My uncle said very little, but Mr Campbell seemed to take a malicious delight in telling me what he was going to do to me next.

"Yes, let us have these ears visible.” Snip, snip.

"Yes, let us tidy up this fringe, nice and short.” Snip, snip.

"Yes, let us take some of the weight off here.” Snip, snip, snip, snip.

"Now, head right down, boy, and we'll clean up the back and sides.”

The clippers started. Clack. Clack. Clack. I could feel them, sharp, no guard, the blades biting their way up the back of my head.

Scared, angry and humiliated, the tears were welling up.

Head pushed left. Clack. Clack. Clack. Hair stripped away from round the right ear.

Head pushed right. Clack. Clack. Clack. Hair stripped away from round the left ear.

And so it went on.

Then a warm wet shaving brush round the ears and neck, and the painful scraping of a razor.

"How is that, Sir? As you see, it is off the boy's ears and well off the collar, as you wished.”

"Yes, very good. Indeed quite splendid. Thank you.”

"I said that you would not be disappointed, Sir. Any dressing, Sir?”

"Some Brylcreem, or something like that, I think.”

"I keep Brylcreem for the gents, Sir. I use Vaseline on the boys, more difficult for them to wash out, Sir.”

"Whatever you think best, Mr Campbell.”

My hair was liberally anointed with Vaseline, everything combed neatly into place, and I was shown the back and sides in a hand mirror. It was just awful. Naked, glaring-white skin halfway up the back of my head and all round my ears. It was appalling.

"All nice and smart for you, lad.”

"Thank you.”

Out in the street Uncle Clive asked me how I liked my haircut.

A little more cautious now towards my uncle, and careful to demonstrate appropriate respect, I answered diplomatically "Very short and smart, Sir.”

A change had taken place in our relationship.

"Ah, splendid. Good show, lad. He did take it rather shorter than I was expecting, but I'm glad you like it. Well done.”

An older boy on the other side of the street called out "Skinhead!”


Over the remaining days of our holiday I could not stop rubbing away at the weird shaved skin and prickles. It was certainly short, and I suppose you could also call it "smart”, but I wasn't planning on joining the army.

Well, my hair grew back - it does - but not until I had put up with a great deal of ribbing from my mates.

The following year Uncle Clive suggested another walking trip, and I readily agreed. I could hardly have refused - not politely anyway - and besides I had no reason to expect anything untoward this time. But when we were planning our itinerary I found that he had liked the countryside round Brynhaven so much, and the town itself also, that he wanted to go back there once more.

Campbell's began to prey on my mind.

The holiday came. We visited several places, and eventually reached Brynhaven.

I was getting more and more anxious, more and more wound up.

We walked past the end of Beach Street a couple of times. I could see Campbell's barber shop - there it was, lying in wait for me, waiting for its moment to pounce if I came too close.

I tossed and turned in my bed that night unable to sleep.

At breakfast I was hardly able to eat. It had to be done - like it or not - it was just a matter of mustering up the nerve to go through with it.

"Uncle Clive ...”

"Yes, lad?”

"Do you think we will have time for me to go for a haircut today, Sir?”

"A haircut? But yes, of course. We can go directly we have finished breakfast if you like.”

"Thank you, Sir.”

"Ah, yes, very good. Splendid. Splendid.”

And we planned the rest of the day's activities.

* * * * *

Having readied ourselves we met up in the hall.

"Have you seen somewhere suitable for your haircut, Nick?”

"Yes, Sir. There's the place we went to last time.”

"I would have thought you would have prefered a more modern place, something more up to date?”

"It's nearby.”

Uncle Clive gave me a look.

I quickly put right my mistake. "... Sir.”

I really did not feel like talking, and wished my uncle would not quiz me so. Indeed I was finding it quite difficult to speak at all.

"Are you quite well, Nicholas? Is anything the matter?”

"No, I'm alright.”

My uncle did not pick me up on the lack of a "Sir” this time, he could see that something was wrong and let it pass. "Very well then, Nick, if you remember where it is, you lead the way.”

I lead off, deliberately keeping a few paces ahead so that there could be no more questions.

* * * * *

We reached the barber shop and went in. There was a customer in the chair and two more waiting. I really, really wanted to get this over with. We sat. My uncle made a few attempts at conversation, but I gave him short, barely civil replies, and reading my mood he soon gave up. I was left sitting there, waiting, alone with my thoughts - and my feelings of dread.

"Next please!”

One down, two to go.

"Next please!”

Two down, one to go.

"Next please!”

Mr Campbell looked at my uncle.

Uncle Clive shook his head. "My young nephew here.”

The barber turned his beady eyes on me. I dropped my gaze, but the summons came loud and clear. "Right then, lad, let's be having you.”

It was far too late to back down now. I went over, and settled myself in the chair, making an effort to relax, and telling myself that I could deal with this - but I could feel myself trembling as the cape was drawn round me and fastened about my neck.

Mr Campbell turned to my uncle. "Yes, Sir?”

My uncle came over. "So, how do you want it then, lad?”

It took all my courage to reply. "Short back and sides, please, Sir.”

My uncle nodded, the barber nodded, and it began.

* * * * *

We had a very enjoyable holiday.

A few months after our return home my Uncle Clive was able to retire early, and decided that he would settle in Brynhaven.

A few months after that my father was promoted at work. This involved him moving from head office in London to Hong Kong. It was decided that it would be better for me to continue my education in England, so I was sent to live with Uncle Clive in Brynhaven, where I attended the grammar school.


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