12 SEPTEMBER 1952, Page 10



By BRIAN WIDLAKE (Clare College, Cambridge).

cc 11 I'M goin' up to 'Arry's for a shave." Such a remark from veterans of hoe and plough bespoke logic and wisdom, and not just the expression of a tedious thrice-weekly necessity. Men of the soil are a reflecting, dyed-in-their-opinions breed whom custom does not stale, and a shave, like turnips and mangels and fallow, is a question for hardened opinion and custom. Logic and wisdom. There was a young fellow in the main road who had you shaved and spruce almost before you were properly settled in the chair. He was for swift young men, mechanics, shop assistants and what not, who thought about the evening in the morning. Not much logic there, and he wasn't for veterans. They didn't want their patchworks of stubble ripped off in ten minutes. They wanted a man after their own hearts. Harry Crawley, for instance. Crawley was their man and, on occasions, he was even my man.

" H. Crawley, Hairdresser," in very dirty gold on a chocolate background set above a window which badly needed dressing, adjacent to the side door of ' The Red Cow,' opposite the butcher's, and almost on the corner of the main road and High Street. The oldest shop in the street and. the oldest active inhabitant except the undertaker, who had defied eighty winters and who would probably bury Harry himself, who was two years his junior. But that would be a sad day, for there wasn't a better, more cultured and more mature artist in beards and hair than Harry Crawley.

In a flat check cap, high wing collar, shirt sleeves, braces and white apron he had that leisured, imperial approach to his task, majestic and detached, which set his younger, speedier and more spectacular competitor at nought. Crawley had a moustache, white and waxed at the ends and the strangest wisp of a white beard and above both a pair of beady blue eyes which took in shop, customers and the world with lazy indifference. Knees slightly bent, back hollowed, both arms extended with comb and scissors, he hovered, clipped, paused, hovered and clipped again. His technique was like the measured tread of an army—slow, sure, imperturbable. He lacked the scissors and lightning of the imaginative barber or the stop-and-start impulse of the creative artist. Crawley saw a head of hair as nothing more than a head of hair to be treated as the customer commanded, or, more often, as he, Crawley, thought it ought to be treated. No one ever con- sidered his approach prosaic; it was, rather, the individualist's style tempered with experience, a style long matured since his youthful and stormy approach to a head of hair with a cut- throat razor, a comb and a bottle of oil. Thus the instruments and furnishings inside his shop showed no obeisance to the march of modernity. Everything was silver in colour and solid—from the great silver tureens wherein boiled cotton-wool poultices and towels for softening country stubble to the silver- handled shaving- and hair-brushes. No enamel or aluminium for Crawley. Likewise, no paper or magazine on his table was ever younger than three years old, but since the old men indulged themselves in pipes and conversation the loss was negligible.

Crawley and his customers always had time on their side.

Without an hour or two to spare his customers would have gone unshaven, for Crawley, although a slow and deliberate worker, was yet a more eccentric man than the apprentice of his youth. They were accustomed to having their beards half- shaved and then being left for ten minutes while he vanished through his private door into some dark and unexplored interior. His patrons knew what had called him hence, for the old barber, no sooner through the door, along a passage and through another door, materialised in the public bar of ' The Red Cow,' where his daughter was wife of the proprietor. A nod, for he was a man of few words, was the signal for a pint in the pewter pot_ that hid become his property through length of usage. A pint of ale, an ale of power and character held over from the winter, was something to restore the vital workings of his fingers and vivify his torpid circulation. Crawley knew and understood his ale, letting it soak into the white tendrils of his moustache, whence it could be recalled, rather like the joy of some clinging perfume, with a powerful suck of his lower lip when poring with razor or scissors over some patient customer. The ale, the proximity of the bar, the philosophy of his patrons and his own necessity called him through his door some six' or seven times in the course of a morning.

Tradition has it that two men entered the bar by Crawley's door one day—Crawley and a customer tucked up to the chin in a white apron and his face covered in lather. "'Any cares for a drop an' I can't blame 'im," said one. "An' if the customer wants to come in too you can't blame 'im for that either. It gets dull sittin' in that chair by yourself."

I walked round to Crawley's one Monday morning, intending to get in first for a haircut. The shutters were up, and looking iri through his window. I saw the gas jets were off, the silver tureens were cold and no sign of Crawley. It was a habit of the barber's to close when he felt inclined and thinking no more of it I was about to turn round and go when someone said: "'Arry's in. 'ospital. Ran himself into a bus 'ee did and came off worse. Got a good batterin'."

Crawley, however, was back in a month, little the worse for wear, and I according137 settled myself for a haircut. Crawley never talked when working, and making conversation to him was more of an embarrassment than a pleasure.

" Medium back and sides," I said. There was no response, but pulling several feet of cotton-wool from a silver container, he stuffed it down my neck and then looped an apron over me. In a moment he set to work, clipping and combing methodically and occasionally puncturing the silence with a powerful cough. I started to congratulate myself that this haircut was going to be one without incident. But after he had thinned out one side of my head, he suddenly replaced scissors and comb in a drawer with disturbing finality and without a word walked through his little door. Accordingly I got up and fetched myself a magazine, sat down and prepared to wait for the length of time that it normally took Crawley to push down a pint. A veteran came in, sat down and lit up his pipe. Time passed. Another customer turned up.

" 'Avin' a quick one, is 'ee ? " asked the old boy. " I suppose so." " Devil for it," said the other. We chatted for a while and time lengthened.

" 'Ee must 'ave made that one two," the veteran commented. " Though it's not like 'Arry." " Lucky I've plenty of time," I said. We discussed the prospects of this and that until Harry Crawley's absence of half an hour was marked by the chime of the clock.

" 'Ee's fair skipped it this time, 'ee 'as. I reckon that must be a new ale they got in the Cow." " Not like 'Arry, neverthe- less," said the other. " Think I'll nip off and 'ave a look. Chivvy 'im a bit."

Both_ men departed, leaving me in sole charge of the shop. I walked around, still clad in an apron, and I discovered what appeared to be a pair of dental forceps, a photo of Crawley's wedding-day, the barber looking very young and spruce but not materially changed, and a shotgun in a half-concealed umbrella stand. After that r got tired of waiting, and, taking off the apron, walked out of the shop and on to the pavement. Outside I found Crawley, oblivious, apparently, of his duties as barber. He was leaning against a wall a little way from the shop. Clapped to his eye was a telescope, and he was staring down the length of the High Street at a little group of people standing on the street corner. He seemed to be tickled by something, for now and then he emitted a titter of amusement. Irrationally I thought of him as an anachronistic Carpenter without the Walrus, but with my hair lopsided and in my present mood I did not wish to talk to him, and, anyway, I was half afraid he would start to babble of Cabbages and Kings.