Culture » September 30, 2016
The Hairdresser of Plaistow
The happy, often glamorous life of the man who cuts my hair.
He met pop stars and royalty, dress designers, a beautiful American ambassadress and, remembered fondly and humorously, several intellectuals.
For at least 10 years, Kevin has cycled from his house to mine every two months or so to cut my hair. He’s well into his 60s now, though he’s slim as a boy. He left school at 15 and was apprenticed to a bookbinder. He didn’t like it, so he changed to hairdressing, encouraged by a mother who looked forward to regular hairdos and was unworried by hairdressing’s reputation for effeminacy.
His mother and father both grew up in London’s East End, part of the city that is now emerging after more than a century of Victorian poverty into 21st century prosperity. When they married, the couple settled in to the city’s slightly more salubrious Plaistow.
His parents worked on the buses. He loved them both and is proud to point out that during the 1950s and 1960s, when thousands of West Indians were coming to London, often to work in London’s transport system, his parents acted as surrogate parents to coworkers who were young and having a hard time in their new country.
Neither Kevin nor his brother, who became a tailor, was interested in school, a “secondary modern” intended in those days for children who didn’t pass the exam you took at 11 to get into a grammar school, the prerequisite for a professional career. It’s hard to imagine Kevin taking such a failure to heart or bothering with an education premised on dullness and lack of ambition. He knew he was clever and knows it still. The brothers made up for school by enjoying every moment away from it. They played football and swam and cycled fast, dangerously and forbidden, through the Blackwall Tunnel under the Thames and over its bridges. Kevin’s face lights up as he recalls his childhood, his friends, their adventures, his family, his father who “knew how to be loved and lovable.”
He is a happy man, who tells you so, and that’s rare. I recently overheard two women discussing their granddaughters. One was deploring a granddaughter’s refusal to read books. “If she doesn’t look out,” she said, “she’ll end up a hairdresser.” “And what’s wrong with that?” asked her friend. “She won’t have an interesting life,” was the reply. Kevin has had an interesting life, a life that has never ceased to interest him, and it interests me.
His first serious job was in the 1960s when he worked in the fashionable Michaeljohn salon in Mayfair. He met pop stars and royalty, dress designers, a beautiful American ambassadress and, remembered fondly and humorously, several intellectuals. His first was the wife of Isaiah Berlin, whose hair he washed and set until she died at 99. She passed Kevin on to her husband and eventually to a raft of often balding eggheads and their (relatively) hirsute wives, who have tended to outlive their husbands.
He loved the 1960s and the 1970s. It was glamorous and exciting working in the West End, dressing smartly, even modifying his speech a bit in order to get some attention in shops, he says. He still owns elegant brogues he must have had specially made in the 1960s and he still cuts the grey and thinning hair of some of his old clients, though he doesn’t go in for dyeing it. He was always a quick learner and a gifted talker, and he must have got the hang of the two worlds he inhabited pretty fast. He became the most elegant man in Plaistow and surely one of the most knowing in Albemarle Street.
Since then he has been married and divorced, losing most of his money in the process, but he stayed close to his much-loved children. He lives alone now and works from home. When my husband was ill, Kevin shaved him and cut his hair, refusing to charge him or anyone else who is ill. “Life has been good to me,” he said. “I’ve had a wonderful life. ”
Something in his nature and his upbringing gave him the confidence to remain the person he’s always been, to resist the seductions of wealth and fame, to keep his head and enjoy what he had. I’m not, I should say, the only one of his clients to think of him as a contemporary Figaro, our version of Mozart’s charmer, or Rossini’s more political barber of Seville. He is a comfort and an inspiration, a kindly realist who knows this world and where it’s come from.
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Jane Miller lives in London, and is the author, most recently, of In My Own Time: Thoughts and Afterthoughts (2016), a collection of her In These Times columns and interviews.