Barbershops …

June 14, 2024

I’m taking a five-day break between conferences to catch up with my good friends Paul and Brenda, walking in the Mournes. Yesterday, it rained, and the Mourne Mountains were swathed in clouds. The forecast warned of wind strengths that would make walking impossible, and even with the best equipment, attempting anything more ambitious than a quick dash from the car to a coffee shop was not on.  Today, it’s a lot better, and the forecast for the weekend is good, so expect some mountain shots on social media later.

Given a day of forced idleness, I decided it was about time I had my hair cut. There may not be much of it, but a couple of months is too long between visits to the Barber even for me, and the beard needs professional attention from time to time beyond my abilities with a trimmer.  Not so long ago, this would have just involved walking down the high street in Newcastle (County Down) and finding the cleanest option.  These days, you have to book in advance, and it’s called male grooming; beads are sculpted, not trimmed, and the barbers are three decades or more younger than in the days of my youth and generally didn’t get trained in the army.   The nearest I could find for something the same day was twelve miles away in Downpatrick, and the only appointment available was with an apprentice.  

So I braved the storm, got to the car, drove through torrential rain, and parked at the cathedral.  Resisting the temptation to visit St Patrick’s grave (he was Welsh, by the way, our way of getting revenge on the Irish for sea raids, we gave the English the Tudors, which was probably a worse punishment), I walked down the hill to Thee Mensroom male grooming.   I think I was several decades older than their normal client, and I may have appeared deaf as I am still tuning into the local accent, which is harder to get than Glaswegian or Singlish. Still, I was made very welcome after the initial shock wore off.  I suspect they thought I was there seeking to recover an errant teenager.  The apprentice, whose name I regret I don’t remember, then spent about an hour and fifteen minutes doing his best to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  With the one exception of a Barber in Aberystwyth a few years ago, it was the best treatment I have ever had, and it only cost £10.  I may also have persuaded him to walk in the Mournes as he has only ever driven around them despite living in their shadow.

Now, once upon a time, barbers did much more than cut hair and dispense prophylactics.  Their trade is around 6000 years old or more.  In the Middle Ages, they were barber surgeons and acted as doctors and dentists, and you were as likely to see a bottle leaches on their shelves as you were hair oil.  Their location was always a social space from the agora of Ancient Greece to the Barbershops at the turn of the Century in America, which often functioned as libraries.  The first shave was an initiation rite for young adults, and I still remember my first visit to a traditional barner in Cardiff as a rite of passage,  a transition from my mother with a pair of scissors to the full experience of leather chairs, mirrors, hot towels and all those smells.  Wikipedia has a quote from Trudier Harris that illustrates this well:

In addition to its status as a gathering place, the black barbershop also functioned as a complicated and often contradictory microcosm of the larger world. It is an environment that can bolster egos and be supportive as well as a place where phony men can be destroyed, or at least highly shamed, from participation in verbal contests and other contests of skill. It is a retreat, a haven, an escape from nagging wives and the cares of the world. It is a place where men can be men. It is a place, in contrast to Gordone’s bar, to be somebody.

I should emphasise that this is a quote of its time, and the phrases “place that men can be men” and “an escape from nagging wives” grate a little in the light of the type of evil you see in Jordan Peterson and the like in the modern day.  Although I will confess that I am of an age where I seek out traditional barbers rather than unisex saloons.

There are several links between this post and my summary of yesterday’s KM Summit. It emphasises the need for social interaction, humans’ adaptive capacity to multi-function, the need for apprentice learning models, and so much more.   The place has a focus, but that allows for developing other linked capabilities over time; many things emerge, and we can respond to that (which links to my other recent post); not everything should be designed upfront.

 The history of barbers and the places in which they work deserves more study by those involved in organisational change and knowledge management,


The banner picture shows Doan with Sleive Binnian/North Tór in the background taken from the Wall above Loch Shannagh yesterday.  The opening print “Village Barber”  is by Jacobus Gole, Dutch (1660 – 1737?, Amsterdam Amsterdam), after Cornelis Dusart, Dutch (Haarlem, Netherlands 1660 – 1704 Haarlem, Netherlands). Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of William Gray from the collection of Francis Calley Gray. Object Number G1656

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