Odd how these memories pop up, unbidden, from the miasma of time past. This one arrived yesterday, from sixty years ago, presumably as a result of the hair appointment I had made and for which I was due to show up that afternoon.
I was about seventeen years old (spare me the math!), an inmate at a boarding school on the south coast of England. I say "an inmate" because it felt like prison to me. I was not one of those who found happiness in the mis-named "public school" system of my native country. But we were allowed, as I recall, a half day of liberty each week, plus a half day on a few selected "saints' days" (this was an Anglican institution) and a full day's holiday on the jackpot All Saints' Day. On these days, we were permitted to leave the school grounds and venture forth into the neighboring small world of its locality, situated in the county of Sussex, halfway between Worthing and Brighton. This time off gave me the opportunity to buy a forbidden pack of cigarettes, which I would smuggle back into school and hoard up to smoke surreptitiously behind a convenient hedge.
It was on such a day that, needing a haircut, I took the bus--or perhaps rode my bike, a handsome red Raleigh with a sporty ten-speed derailer gear--io Brighton in search of a barber's shop. I was looking for something that would suit my rebellious mood. If you knew Brighton, at least as it was back then, in the 1950s--I don't know what it's like these days--there was a nest of little back alleys where the less desirable class of youths wiled away their idle hours (remember Brighton Rock, the novel by Graham Greene and an early Richard Attenborough movie? Pinkie was its bad boy antihero...) Venturing into this dangerous quarter, then, I found my barber's shop and made my way inside.
This was the heyday of the DA (Duck's Ass), imported recently from America. All things American seemed good to us as youngsters: chewing gum, Hollywood movies, Lucky Strike (when we could get them)... and haircuts. Rebellious or not, I was a but too polite and well brought-up to risk the DA and incur, undoubtedly, the wrath of my housemaster and his colleagues on the staff. Rather too timidly for my own bad-boy fantasies--I was always, to my chagrin, a good boy at heart--I settled on the only other American style on the menu: the Perry Como.
The barber, something of a teddy boy himself, with narrowly tapered trousers and an appearance of undisguised, jaunty wickedness, complied with my request--I suspect probably with something of a smirk for this public schoolboy trying to be hip. Obligingly, he styled my hair with scissors and blow-dryer, both of us smoking heavily the while, for that was the custom of the day, and held the mirror up for me to admire his handiwork. It was only then that he produced what looked like a miniature flame-thrower from beneath his counter and, holding it close beside me ear, spoke those words that popped up in my memory yesterday: "Singe, sir?"
Well of course I could hardly refuse. Not knowing what a singe might be, I readily acceded to his offer and was rewarded with the odor of burning hair as he applied the flame to seal its ends. It cost me, as I recall, an extra sixpence on top of the already outrageous shilling or two for the cut. But I had a fine Perry Como to take back to school with me, and a tale of daring with which to appeal to the admiration of my classmates. Such were the delusions of my teenage years...