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A New Boy at School by Sean Barnet

When I was 14 back in 1972 a new boy called David Lindsey arrived at school, and ended up sitting next to me for most subjects. The very first thing that we all noticed about him was his haircut.
Now, most of us had various compromises between what it specified in the school regulations (off the ears, off the collar and brushed away from the forehead) and the longer cuts then in fashion. The school haircut regulations were not enforced to the letter, and we were constantly pushing at the boundaries. Once in a while one of us who had pushed things too far would be peremptorily ordered off to the barber shop to "Get that hair cut!" He would come back with a regulation haircut which seemed very short by contrast with what had gone before, but wasn't that short really, certainly not short in comparison with the short back and sides which had been standard only a very few years earlier.
There were a few boys at school, with conservative parents, who always had short haircuts. They generally had what we called a "Boston". This meant that the clippers went up the back and sides, leaving them short and neat and bristly, but with the hair left long enough to cover the skin. The back was finished off with a sharp line at the bottom, and fresh haircuts, especially at the start of the Autumn Term, showed a line of white skin where the hair finished and a clean-shaved neck began. The top was either long or short according to individual taste. The better looking boys were able to carry the style off, indeed make it look good.
I was far too interested in being trendy for anything like this. I had a "feather cut", with a slightly off-centre parting. My hair was layered, partly covered my ears, and it flirted with my shirt collar at the back - I was pushing things about as far as they could go. But I always managed to stay just the right side of the line, and was never actually given that order to "Get that hair cut!" I needed to wash my hair and blow dry it every other day to keep it looking good - it was quite high maintenance - but it seemed very important and I did not mind.
David Lindsey though arrived on his first day with a spectacularly severe short back and sides. He had a great expanse of shaved white skin over his ears and up the back of his head, then there was a zone of bristly stubble, and finally the top was a mass of thick, glossy brown hair, always lying neatly, magically in place (this, I found out later, was down to a touch of Brylcreem).
None of the rest of us ever went anywhere near the sort of old fashioned barber who might inflict anything like that on us. I certainly had bad memories of such barbers from when I was younger, and I think most of the rest of us probably did too.
As I say, he ended up sitting next to me most of the time, and we soon became good friends. Inevitably, with typical teenage lack of discretion and diplomacy, I asked him about his haircut. I wanted to know why he had his hair like that? If he really liked having his hair so short? Did his dad make him have it cut that way? Didn't he feel a bit of a fool? And so forth.
But David gave as good as he got. Long hair was "sissy", it was "girly" and "effeminate". It was "messy" and "untidy". It was "difficult to keep clean" and "unhygienic". It was "troublesome" and "took too much looking after". There were "good reasons" why they did "not allow it in the Army". Short hair on the other hand was "clean", "efficient", "masculine" and "disciplined".
And so we argued about it, endlessly, neither of us convincing the other.
Every few weeks he would come into school freshly shorn. I was both appalled and fascinated at how short it was, and I wondered at how unconcerned he seemed.
* * * * *
However, as I said, we became good friends, and used to visit each other out of school, at weekends and during the holidays.
When his father was at home I was struck by the fact that David called him "Sir". It seemed bizarre. My father often called his own father, and other older men too, "Sir", but no one of my generation ever did such a thing. We called the masters at school "Sir", but only because we had to.
So we argued about that too. David pointed out that we called all the masters "Sir" whether we liked and respected them or not. The ones we got on well with, whom we trusted not to expect anything unreasonable were "Sir" just as much as the other who came on heavy with the discipline.
He said that I ought to show my dad proper respect, and call him "Sir" too.
I have to admit I thought about it. David seemed to have a perfectly good, friendly relationship with his own father, and when he called him "Sir" there was something rather cool, relaxed and adult about it, like two grown men talking. But to me it just seemed a step too far.
* * * * *
My own father was a civil engineer, and as he was working on the design of a bridge at the other end of the country he had to go away for 6 months to help supervise construction. My mother decided that she would go with him and they would rent a flat, so I was sent to live with my grandparents half a mile away so I could carry on at the same school.
* * * * *
My grandparents were absolutely typical, normal grandparents. They were loving, generous, and old fashioned - and totally uncomprehending of the ways of the younger generation.
* * * * *
It was half term, and I was out with my grandparents as they did their shopping. My grandmother announced that it was time for her to go to Vera's for her shampoo and set. I had no desire to sit in a ladies' hairdresser's for an hour, or maybe much longer, so I walked on with my grandfather, going to the library and a tobacconist's, and then he announced that he needed to visit his own hairdresser, so we made our way to his barber's - at least it would not be as bad as waiting in a ladies' hairdresser's.
As we walked there my grandfather suggested that I might like to get a haircut too. "MacIntyre is an excellent barber, and will do an excellent job. He will give you a smart haircut like you used to have when you were younger, remember?, Like your friend David who comes round, he seems a very nice boy - why don't you get a haircut like his?"
"No, that's alright thanks, Grandad, I don't think I need a haircut at the moment."
"But you will before the end of this week. You're back to school on Monday, and I'm sure you will be in trouble for having it too long if you go back with it like that - or has Branworth School completely abandoned its standards?"
"Well, I'll go to Karolina's on Friday. They do an excellent job there too, and they know how to cut it how I like it."
We walked on, and nothing more was said on the subject of haircuts. I quietly congratulated myself on having politely but successfully fended off my grandfather's misguided attempt at returning me to the Dark Ages.
This attempt was of course no surprise. My grandfather had often expressed his dislike of my long hair, and the way I dressed and my general manner. "What the boy needs" he would periodically tell my father "is a bit more discipline. He needs to show proper respect to his elders, smarten up and get a proper haircut - short back and sides."
It didn't seem to matter that I was there listening, maybe it was said for my benefit because I was there listening.
Fortunately my father paid little attention to all this, and there was no attempt at making me conform to my grandfather's ideas.
* * * * *
"MacIntyre's" turned out to be ancient, as did Mr MacIntyre.
There was a boy about my age, maybe a year older, in the chair, and an older man waiting. We sat down to wait for my grandfather's turn.
I looked around at the shop. It was all so old. It must have been fitted out when Mr MacIntyre first set up in business for himself, maybe 40 years ago, and perhaps had never had a refurbishment, or even redecoration, ever since.
The boy in the chair was receiving a very short haircut - as short as David's. Shaved round the back and sides, and then cut down ruthlessly on top.
I watched the haircut proceed in a mixture of awe, revulsion and fascination.
Eventually it was finished. He was out of the chair and had paid.
Walking past me on his way out he stopped, rubbed a finger through some invisible stubble over his right ear and grinned at me. "You've come to the right place, mate. Mad Mack can always be relied on to give you a good scalping!"
While the older gentleman was having his hair cut my grandfather put his arm round my shoulder saying "You see what a lovely head of hair that boy had, how smart he looked. Why don't you get a haircut like that?"
I shook my head and pulled away.
"Next, please!"
My grandfather took his place in the chair.
"Your usual, sir?"
"My usual short back and sides, please, MacIntyre."
My grandfather still had a full head of thick, curly, grey hair, which he wore long on top and brushed straight back, held in place and straightened slightly by some shiny, greasy stuff. The back and sides were given what is now referred to as a "low reg" or "low fade". His hair was taken short with the clippers for half an inch or so over the ears and maybe an inch at the back, short enough for white skin to shine through the bristles, but not quite shaved. It was then blended into a fuller, longer treatment quite rapidly, and his hair then brushed straight back on the sides as well as on the top.
He also had a great, military-looking mustache which he did not allow the barber to touch, but always trimmed himself in the bathroom mirror.
* * * * *
Once my grandfather was out of the chair and had been brushed down by the barber he looked at me meaningfully.
I did not react.
He pointed. "Let's have you in the chair, lad."
I shook my head.
He pointed again. "Come on lad, you know it has to be done, so why not get on with it, and get it done now?"
I stood there, still shaking my head.
"No?" My grandfather shrugged his shoulders, went over to till, paid, and we left the shop.

* * * * *
As soon as we were out of the barber shop I started to wonder if I had done the right thing. I could not get my grandfather's phrase "it has to be done" out of my mind. It wasn't just that I would have to get some sort of haircut before going back to school, and a trim at Karolina's would be good enough. No, it meant a real, uncompromising short back and sides. That was the right and properNo? thing, that was the masculine thing. David did not seem to mind it, nor did the boy in the barber shop seem to have any problem with it. If they both had a short back and sides and could bear it, then why not me?
I was perfectly happy with my trendy feather cut from Karolina's wasn't I, so why was I thinking like this?
But I could not get "it has to be done" out of my head.
* * * * *
I spent a sleepless night. I knew perfectly well what my objections to this kind of haircut were. Long hair was in fashion and I wanted to look like everyone else. I would get the most terrible ribbing from everyone at school if I came in with a short haircut. And I had bad memories of visits to the barber as a small boy.
My reasons for not wanting to get a haircut at MacIntyre's were all perfectly rational. So why did I have this urge to submit to a Mad Mack special?
I felt that I had chickened out.
It was like injections, it was like the dentist, it was like my fear of heights.
Like it or not, we had to have injections, we had to go to the dentist, and we had been made to go on adventure training and do rock climbing. I had conquered my fear of heights.
So, was I a wimp, or did I really have the guts to do this?
And was there any actual need to do this?
* * * * *
At breakfast I mustered up my courage and asked my grandfather "Could I have some money for a haircut please, sir?"
I called him "Sir" hoping it would please him and compensate in some way for my rudeness in turning him down yesterday.
Then by way of some kind of explanation for my request I added "It has to be done, sir, so I thought I had better just get on with it, and get it done now."
My grandfather looked at me quizzically for a moment. "Well, yes, if that is what you want. I dare say you want to go to that modern place. You must have your own way in this, I suppose, like all teenagers. But I do still wish that you would get yourself a proper haircut for once."
"Yes, sir." I replied, leaving it ambiguous as to whether it was "Yes" to "that modern place", or "Yes" to "a proper haircut". To be honest I wasn't sure I would have the nerve to go through with what was on my mind.
He put his hand in his pocket and gave me the money.
"Thank you, sir."
I had now called my grandfather "Sir" for the first time. Indeed, I had called him "Sir" four times in succession. I had tried it out, but I still wasn't quite sure about it. I had a barely recognised feeling of unease about quite what it might lead to.
* * * * *
My objections were all perfectly reasonable. I could have gone to Karolina's. It took a lot of nerve, but I went back to MacIntyre's.
"Next, please!"
I walked over and placed myself nervously in the chair.
Mr MacIntyre caped me, and eyed up my disheveled mop with disapproval. "Yes?"
I screwed up my courage, and said the fatal words "Short back and sides, please."
"Short back and sides?" said Mr MacIntyre.
"Please." I confirmed with a slight nod of my head.
He continued looking at me. "You're the boy that came in yesterday, and refused to have it cut, aren't you?"
Put on the spot and unprepared for this, I hesitated.
But Mr MacIntyre didn't bother waiting for an answer, he continued "You're the boy that came in with Mr Allen, and when he wanted you to get a haircut you just kept shaking your head and would not get in the chair? I'm sure you are, aren't you? Are you related?"
"He's my grandfather."
"So it was you. Was it your dad who sent you back here, then?"
"No, sir. I changed my mind."
"You changed your mind, did you, sonny? Oh, yes?" he said laughing. "So it's a short back and sides for you now is it?
"Yes, sir."
He laughed again, and pushing my head to the left he picked up his clippers.
Click, clack. The clippers went round my right ear and a great wodge of hair fell onto the cape. They went round a second time, pushed in hard against my scalp. He stopped, and twisted my head sharply to the left.
I could now see a large area of white, shaved skin on my right temple.
"That alright for you then, lad?"
Did I want him to go shorter? - NO! - Did I want him to go higher? - NO! - So I said "Yes, that's fine, thank you."
"That's just as well, then, young man, because it's too late to change your mind now, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir."
He pushed my head right down, and steadying it with one hand, he ran the clippers up the back of my head, once, and then a second time. I could feel them pushed in hard, buzzing and vibrating their way up the back of my head, shaving my hair down close for a good couple of inches above the natural hair line. This was not a procedure I was used to at Karolina's.
There was some clipper over comb, and then some trimming with scissors.
At last I was allowed to lift my head.
"Any off the top?"
Desperately wanting not to lose any more of my hair, I said "No thanks."
"Close your eyes then, lad."
Mr MacIntyre carefully combed my hair forwards, sprayed on some water, and I felt the cold steel of the scissors against my forehead as they cut my fringe at a slant.
"OK. Open."
My hair was carefully combed into place, with a sharp parting on the left hand side.
"How's that?"
"Fine, thanks."
My head was pushed forward again, warm soapy water was sloshed round my neck, and an open razor went round the back and sides, another procedure I was not used to at Karolina's. And then there was the sting of aftershave.
Finally, "Cream or spray?"
Well, I certainly didn't want any greasy Brylcreem, so I said "Spray, please."
And then it was all over. On my way home I kept rubbing my fingers across my shaved neck and the sharp stubble on the back of my head - it was unnerving. I made my way back to my grandparents' to try and come to terms with what I had done.
* * * * *
My grandparents were both delighted.
My grandmother thought I looked "so smart", "so handsome", "so grown up now" and "so manly".
My grandfather shook my hand ceremoniously, and said "Thank you. Very well done, Mark." He congratulated me on showing "such outstanding good sense", and then muttered something to himself that sounded like "Splendid, splendid, most promising."
I went upstairs and had a bath to wash out all the itchy clippings. I dried my hair with a dryer and it went all fluffy, and nothing I could do would make it lie flat again.
And why was it so much shorter than my grandfather's when I had asked for the same thing as he had?
When I went down again my grandfather laughed. "You need some Brylcreem on that, lad."
He took me back up to the bathroom, rubbed a small amount of the detested white gunge into my hair and handed me a comb. I went over to the mirror, and as I ran the comb through it everything miraculously became calm and manageable - and with a beautiful sheen to it.
"Thank you, sir."
"You had better take some of this stuff." He handed me an unopened tub from the cupboard.
"Thank you very much, sir."
* * * * *
I was the butt of a lot of jokes at school, but I had David next to me to back me up.
* * * * *
The days passed. I went to school, my grandmother cooked, and my grandfather dug his garden.
I went back to calling my grandfather "Grandad". "Sir" just seemed over the top and pretentious, but I wasn't happy with "Grandad" either - that felt childish.
* * * * *
Then one day when I arrived home from school and we were having tea I noticed that my grandfather had a fresh haircut.
He saw me looking at him. "Yes, Mark, I have had a haircut. I have my hair cut every three weeks. And you are also due for a haircut youreself." He got out some money and handed it to me. "Tomorrow, after school, MacIntyre's, short back and sides, please."
Automatically, I said "Aw, Grandad, I really don't need another haircut, not yet. It can wait until the holidays. I will go to Karolina's"
My answer may have been automatic, but it was not just an answer from habit. I saw no reason why I should get another haircut like that. I had done it once. I had confronted my fears. I really did not need to do it a second time.
He looked at me long and hard. "Tomorrow, after school, MacIntyre's, short back and sides."
"Aw, Grandad, no!"
"No, that is not how you should answer. Three weeks ago you showed eminent good sense and maturity in getting yourself a smart haircut, so let us not go backwards. I want to hear a nice, clear, confident "Yes, sir. Tomorrow, after school, MacIntyre's, short back and sides. Thank you, sir." from you as a reply. So take a deep breath, gather your thoughts, and we will try that again."
My grandfather wasn't generally this authoritarian, but he could be, and then there was no crossing him.
"Are you ready?"
I took a deep breath. "Yes, sir."
"So, once again." said my grandfather, "Tomorrow, after school, MacIntyre's, short back and sides, young man."
"Yes, sir. Tomorrow, after school, MacIntyre's, short back and sides, sir. Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." I said, adding some unnecessary extra "Sirs" in my hurry to pacify him.
"Good lad."
* * * * *
Normally I would have resented being ordered about in this way, but instead I just wondered, almost like a spectator, why he was now laying down the law about this when he had just shrugged his shoulders at me turning down the offer of a haircut at MacIntyre's previously? Maybe it was that he was annoyed because he expected to get his own way this time without any trouble, and then I had been uncooperative about it. Grown ups always claimed to be logical and consistent - but they weren't!
(I wasn't being entirely logical and consistent either, but then I was a teenage boy.)
As I say, normally I would have been resentful of being ordered about in this manner.
I had already confronted my fears - of my own free choice. I had endured the Mad Mack scalping. I had run the gauntlet of ridicule at school. My hair was now returning to a more comfortable length, and I wanted to let it grow back to how it had been before.
But I found that I did not mind being ordered back to MacIntyre's for another short back and sides. It seemed curiously right and proper that my grandfather should take control while I was living with him. Growing my hair would just have to wait until my parents came back.
And then there was "Sir". This was the first time I had called my grandfather "Sir" for at least a couple of weeks. I obviously had very little choice except to call my grandfather "Sir" on this occasion. He clearly expected it, and I needed to soothe his evident irritation. But I found that I did not mind "Sir" any more than I minded being ordered to get a short back and sides. I didn't like the way "Grandad" sounded any longer. From then on I always called him either "Sir" or "Grandfather", it just seemed natural.
* * * * *
The next day, after school, I went back to MacIntyre's, obediently asked for a "short back and sides", and received the required brutal shearing.
When it came to "Any off the top?" I decided it would be better to restore some kind of balance between the top and the back and sides, and so I said "Yes".
MacIntyre then attacked it with the thinning shears, thinning it down relentlessly.
"Short enough?"
It was most certainly short enough. "That's fine, thanks."
We came to the end. "Cream or spray?" I thought maybe "Cream" might be an idea, and a great lump of goo came out of the dispenser and was massaged into the small amount of hair remaining on the top of my head.
Combed into place it shone and it gleamed and it glistened, it seemed all too much - but it was exciting at the same time.
As soon as I was out of the shop I stood there in the street rubbing a finger over the smooth shaved skin on my neck and the sharp, sand-paper stubble on the back and sides of my head - and this time it felt fantastic!
Yes, the boy had been right, Mad Mack could "always be relied on to give you a good scalping!"
* * * * *
Back home my grandfather gave me a quick inspection. "Yes, very good. Good show young man. Nice and smart once more. Turn around now, and let me see the back."
I turned around.
"Yes, nice and short, Mark, white collar showing, and a nice clean-shaved neck. That is what we want to see. Good lad. Thank you. Face forward."
I faced forward.
"You understand that this is for your benefit, Mark, not mine, and that one day you will be glad to have acquired the habit of smart personal grooming, don't you?"
"Yes, sir."
"We will have you looking like a young gentleman, lad, and deporting yourself like one."
"Yes, sir."
"So keep up the good work, young man."

"Yes, sir."
* * * * *
My grandfather taught me how to "bull" my shoes to a high shine like they do boots in the army.
* * * * *
At age 14 I was growing rapidly, and my grandparents soon noticed that I needed new clothes. Shopping expeditions followed. Shopping for clothes had been difficult enough with my mother with her older generation's ideas of what was appropriate. With my grandparents in control it was a nightmare. Although I did manage to get some ordinary teenage clothes, I was also kitted out with a pair of lovat cavalry-twill trousers and a double breasted blazer for "smart wear". There was just no way of politely declining. Though I fully appreciated my grandparent's generosity (I saw how expensive these things were) I sincerely hoped I would never actually have to wear them.
* * * * *
David and I were by now almost inseparable, and had been inevitably dubbed "The Brylcreem Boys" at school. A while later they showed us a film about the original "Brylcreem Boys", the RAF fighter pilots in the Second World War, which at least made the name into more of a compliment than an insult.
Anyway, I told David about the cavalry-twills and the blazer, and how much they had cost, and how I was supposed to be grateful, but I didn't like them and I didn't want to wear them. He told me not to be so silly, there was nothing wrong with dressing up smartly, I just wasn't used to it. I should try thinking of myself more flexibly. I could be a "smart, mature, disciplined young man" when I wanted to be, and I could relax in jeans and a tee shirt at other times. That was what he did. In truth he didn't often wear jeans and a tee shirt, he was usually dressed more smartly and conservatively than I was, and when I was with him I often felt a bit of a scruff by comparison.
* * * * *
A couple weeks later my parents were due to come home for an extended weekend visit. They were going to visit us each day for lunch or dinner. I was sent back to MacIntyre's somewhat ahead of schedule so that my father would be able to see how smart I looked with a "nice, short haircut".
This time my automatic response was "Yes, sir."
* * * * *
Freshly shorn, Brylcreemed, wearing my cavalry-twills and blazer, white shirt and a tie, indeed dressed almost exactly like him, and nearly as tall as him now, I stood side by side with my grandfather to welcome my parents home. There was hardly any difference between us in the way we were dressed. My tie had some very smart-looking stripes on it, but my grandfather's tie was his regimental one, and his blazer had his regimental badge.
My father was delighted. "Well, Mark, I almost didn't recognise you, you look so smart. I am most impressed. Your stay with your grandparents has had a good effect it seems. So, do I take it that you have enjoyed your stay with them?"
"Yes, sir, very much, sir. Thank you, sir."
"Now, that is even better. That is excellent. Yes, indeed, "Sir" is excellent. Well done my son!"
He turned to my grandfather. "Well, Father, you obviously have the magic touch. I have been trying to persuade Mark to get a decent haircut and dress nicely for years, and now he is addressing me as "Sir". And you seem to have managed all this in a few weeks."
"It was nothing really. Mark here was obviously ready to make a change, indeed wanted to, but simply lacked the confidence. All I did was give the lad a small nudge in the right direction."
"You are far too modest. But thank you anyway, sir. I am very grateful to you, sir."
My father was wearing his own regimental blazer and tie for the occasion, so my mother made the three of us pose for photographs together.
* * * * *
When my parents returned I moved back in with them. At the back of my mind was the idea that I would grow my hair like I had had it before. But after a month or so I found that it was irritating me, especially the feel of hair brushing against my ears. I found myself thinking how nice it would be to feel those buzzing vibrating clippers against my scalp and that sensation of rubbing my fingers across stubble on the back of my head once again.
I asked my father if I could have some money for a haircut.
His reply was "You don't need a haircut."
"But it is getting rather long, sir."
"Nonsense, lad. You don't need a haircut, and I don't have the money to waste on paying for one."
It seemed that calling my father "Sir" was no guarantee of keeping on his good side or getting what I wanted. Nor did calling him "Sir" make it any easier to put up with the frustration of not getting my own way.
(You might ask why my father was not taking the initiative and sending me to the barber himself after what he had said to my grandfather about his "magic tough", but this is just another example of adult inconsistency. I remember that when I was young whenever adults disapproved of what we were doing they would tell us that we were being "childish" and that we "ought to grow up". I imagined that when I did grow up all the other adults around me would behave in a logical and consistent manner - I would be disappointed.)
* * * * *
My grandfather noticed that my hair was starting to grow longer, and I explained. He replied that he would "have a word" with my father.
* * * * *
That Sunday, after lunch with my grandparents, my grandfather gave me a few coins from his pocket and said "MacIntyre's".
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
I wondered whether my father would comment on my fresh haircut, but he didn't, so I didn't either.
From then on this gift from my grandfather was a regular thing, though sometimes during school holidays he would take me with him to MacIntyre's when he went for his own haircut.
Sometimes I would go together with David.
* * * * *
David and I continued to be friends, and continued to have the shortest haircuts of any boys at school. We have been good friends ever since.
Like David I have made a lifelong habit of always calling my father, grandfathers, uncles and other older men "Sir".
How much of this was down to David, how much was down to my grandfather, and how much was because I was "ready to make a change, indeed wanted to" is impossible to say.

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