The other day I was browsing through a collection of photographs on the ‘web’ of the Brixton area of London where I spent my childhood.
One of these photographs showed some derelict shops which I remembered well, as one of them had belonged to our local barber, Mr. DeVito.
Now my dad wasn’t big on hairstyles, preferring the good old ‘short back and sides’, so I had to suffer a similar fate whenever he would drag me under the striped pole into the barber’s shop.
Once inside I was mezmerised by old Mr. DeVito with his waxed moustache and gold teeth. He was a daper little man who always turned heads whenever he left his shop dressed in his black jacket and waistcoat (vest), striped trousers, polished black shoes and grey ‘spats’. On his head sat a large black fedora and in his hands he always carried a pair of grey gloves and an ebony walking stick with an ornate silver handle. Below his winged collar he wore a silk cravat held in place by a pearl stick-pin. He looked more like an opera impressario than a barber.
Slightly less elegant were the young men who used to gather in his shop to pass the time of day with the old man in his native tongue. They wore an assortment of garments including bits of military uniforms, all with large sewn on black patches. They were Italian prisoners of war who worked in the nearby railway goods depot.
I loved to watch Mr. DeVito ‘stropping’ his cutthroat razor on a leather strap before skimming it over a lathered chin, but what really grabbed my attention was when he set fire to someone’s hair. This was called ‘singeing’ and was carried out with a burning taper and a comb. Men’s faces were swathed in hot towels and strange smelling liquids were massaged into their scalps and slapped on their faces.
When my turn came a large cushion was placed on the barber’s chair and I was hoisted onto it to await the dreaded clippers. My head was pushed from side to side and tilted backwards and forwards, as I tried to understand what the old Italian was saying to me. It didn’t really matter as I was soon transformed into a young ‘convict’, but at least it was better than the ‘pudding basin’ home haircuts some poor kids had to put up with.
The photograph below shows me getting a haircut a few years after Mr. DeVito had gone to plant his red and white pole on the ‘Pearly Gates’ and give Saint Peter a quick trim …
… It was taken in1960 at ‘Jimmy’s’ barber shop in Atlantic Road, Brixton, but the place still has the ‘look’ of Mr. DeVito’s old shop with the water boiler for the hot towels on the wall. The difference was that now I was old enough to be asked …
… “Something for the weekend, sir ?”