Jonny McCambridge: Don’t trust daddy with the haircut

When I was an A-level student I had to read the DH Lawrence novel ‘Sons and Lovers’.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 25th May 2022, 6:05 am
Father and son with (very) shorn locks
Father and son with (very) shorn locks

Although initially resistant to the book’s charms, I eventually came to love Lawrence’s prose and use of natural imagery and some of it has stayed with me in the decades since.

In the very first chapter there is a memorable passage when the miner Walter Morel cuts his one-year-old son William’s hair while his wife is sleeping.

When Gertrude awakes, she finds her beloved son ‘cropped like a sheep’ with a ‘myriad of crescent shaped curls, like the petals of a marigold scattered in the reddening firelight’.

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Now, I don’t possess Lawrence’s eloquence, but suffice to say that Gertrude goes native and very nearly bates the head off her husband when she discovers what he has done (‘I could kill you, I could. She choked with rage, her two fists uplifted’.)

Of course, Mr Morel is portrayed generally as an unsympathetic character in the story, a brute who gives his life and money to alcohol rather than his family.

But on this solitary occasion I remember feeling some confused sympathy for him.

‘Yer non want ter make a wench on ‘im,’ he hopelessly pleads to his enraged wife.

But the incident represents the beginning of the decline of the Morels’ failing marriage. Things are never quite the same.

‘He felt something final had happened.’

‘Get a grip,’ I remember thinking as a teenager. ‘What a load of fuss over a haircut.’

Now, as the father of a son myself, I see the picture rather differently. Now I understand what I did not then, that like Samson, a child’s hair is the source of all their power and the cutting of it is a momentous, almost sacred occasion.

When he was very young, my boy had a mop of golden curls, the sort that was guaranteed to make old ladies stop in the street and exclaim ‘Aw bless’ when they saw him. In the years since, his mane has gone from curly to wavy to shaggy. But there has been one consistent element, he has always had big hair.

I try to play a full part in all aspects of my son’s upbringing, but the one element that I have never been left solely in charge of is organising his haircuts.

For years he went to a barber who specialised in cutting children’s hair. Often, I was the parent who took him, but it was always pre-arranged by my wife and she would communicate what was required in advance with the barber by text.

I never saw the content of these texts, but I always assumed them to go something like, ‘Ignore anything my husband says’ and ‘Apologies in advance for him’.

However, recently my son has begun to feel that he has outgrown the kiddie barber and that he is too old to sit in the large toy green racing car while getting his locks trimmed.

So, the natural step seemed to be for me to offer to take him to the grown-up barber so he could get his hair cut at the same time as daddy.

He was keen on the idea, but my wife was worried.

‘Tell him not to take too much off, just a trim,’ she reminded me over and over. In the end I had to explain in some exasperation that I am not a fool and that I can be trusted with a simple haircut.

And so, as he hoists himself up onto the large cushion on the barber’s chair, I am ready and prepared.

‘Just a wee trim. Keep the length, just tidy it up a bit.’

I am sure that is what I said. I am almost certain of it.

I am chatting to the barber about the weather when my alarm levels first begin to rise. He goes at my boy’s skull with the electric clippers with abandon and soon large, heavy clumps of golden hair are dropping on the tiled floor like bombs on London during the Blitz.

Then he enthusiastically attacks the top of my son’s head with the scissors. Snip, snip, snip as little strips of wet hair fly wildly in all directions.

I am seriously worried now, but it feels as if time has slowed down and I am encased in concrete, unable to intervene.

‘Uh, just a wee trim now,’ I might have said, either out loud or to myself.

I watch helplessly in the mirror as my boy is transformed. Gone is the big hair, the untidy mop of shaggy curls. It has been replaced by a short, straight, tidy haircut.

But there is another factor, something known to Mrs Morel, and now to me too. He looks older; so much older. This simple act of cutting his hair has changed his appearance from that of a young child into a boy who would not be out of place walking around the corridors of a secondary school.

‘Oh boy, I’m in trouble,’ I mutter.

The barber finishes so I pay and leave the shop feeling rather dazed. I’m about to have a chat to my son about ‘getting our stories straight’ when my phone rings. With unerring timing, it is my wife.

‘Hi honey,’ I answer brightly.

‘Did you get his hair cut? What’s it like?’

‘Well, the important thing is not what it’s like, it’s that he’s happy with it. Isn’t that right son?’

He says nothing.

‘Send me a photograph of his hair, will you?’

‘What?’

‘A photograph, so I can see what you’ve done.’

I reluctantly agree to the request and hang up. I try to find the angle in which my son is most hirsute. There seems to be none. If anything, now that we are out in the open air, the haircut seems to be even shorter than it appeared in the shop, as if his mane has decided that it is going to begin growing in reverse at a rapid rate. I take a photograph on my phone and send it.

My wife phones 30 seconds later.

‘He looks like a marine! Where are his curls? What have you done to him?’

‘Well, I told the barber to go easy, but he took off more than I expected.’

‘And why didn’t you stop him?’

I can’t think of a compelling answer for this. I look to my son for help. He takes the phone.

‘Daddy didn’t say anything at all mummy, he just let the man cut off all my hair.’

This is not a helpful intervention.

‘Give the phone back to daddy son.’

I take the mobile. My wife begins to speak again.

‘Hang on,’ I say, ‘I think there’s a bad reception here. Buzz, buzz, hiss, hiss.’

‘Jonny, I know that’s you making that sound, stop it now.

‘Sorry honey, I think there’s some interference on the line. This is the shipping forecast. There are warnings of gales in Rockall, Bailey, Faeroes and Southeast Iceland.’

‘Jonny, Jonny, stop it now, you’re just being silly!’