The English Barber and ‘Blokey’ Banter

Last week I mentioned that I was going to give a report on my book launch which occurred at the end of October, however as per usual on this blog, I’ve decided to bump this over to next time as I had such an interesting experience at the barber shop today. In the meantime checkout this really good book review for From Labouring to Learning that came out in the Times Higher Education last Friday!

I have been putting it off a while, as I always find getting my haircut a bit of a chore. It’s just one of those things that since childhood I just find annoying. My mother says I used to scream the place down and I would complain so much about the hair itching my neck after it had been cut, that she used to have to take along a clean T-Shirt for me to put on in the shop in order to stop my crying. Anyway, over the years I have improved and while I still dislike the itching part, and still put these trips off, when I am there I do enjoy the process of chatting with the person cutting my hair.

Barber shop

Goffman once wrote about how hairdressers are an integral part of impression management, in that they help people project a certain image of themselves out to the world. For example at a salon we can get our hair dyed, and it can be cut in certain ways as to try to hid blemishes or big ears, or even (to some degree) balding scalps. Other sociologist such as Robinson, Hall and Hockley have looked at some of the distinctions between barbering and hairdressing and how the former is seen as a more masculine or manly occupation, where hairdressing or hairstyling is predominantly a more feminine arena. These distinctions are often made due to the client base of these occupations and their research focused on what it means for men who enter these different gender professions. I bring this up as today, as when I was sitting in the chair, my mind was working overtime on the masculinity being performed or displayed by the barber.

When I was in Vancouver on holiday last summer (2014) I had visited this barbershop downtown to get my haircut and beard trimmed. So being back in the city and in desperate need of a trim, I went along to see him again. The shop is a small, one man place, owned by an white English guy, who I think must be into his 60s. For reasons of privacy and purpose of this post, let’s call him John. He didn’t remember me from my previous trip, but I did my best to jog his memory. He previously told me he owned a place in Las Vegas (barbering must pay more than academia!) so I asked him about this, and as I sat down in the chair, I tried to tell him what I wanted done. However, John seems to have a mind of his own and had already picked up a pair of scissors and began to cut my hair. I noticed he was wearing a black shirt with a red tie, with old fashioned silver elbow clips holding his sleeves up. I can only describe John as coming across as a bit of a ‘ London geezer’ and reminded me of the character ‘Del-Boy’ from the classic BBC TV series, Only Fools and Horses.


As I looked around, I could see that the shop was decorated with an assortment of football [soccer] memorabilia, with a large collections of different team scarfs, shirts and posters. Accompanying them were various half-naked female ‘pin-up’ calendars. Over the next 30 minutes he told me all about himself and where the world was going wrong and I just tried to keep up.

He’d been in Vancouver for about 25 years and was originally from the east end of London and still spoke with a strong accent. He told me all about how his ex-wives (all 3) were screwing him for money, how he never saw his 5 kids who were spread all over the world, where to find the best women for paid sex in Las Vegas, and how ‘foreigners’ were stealing all the jobs and housing in Vancouver and London (of course being a white foreigner did not seem to count). When he asked me what I liked and what I didn’t like about the city, I explained I found the homelessness a bit upsetting. To this he replied that most homeless people could work if they wanted to and that many make more money than he does by begging (again maybe I should change jobs!). As he was still holding the scissors and cutting my hair whilst talking, I just sort of hummed and let him carry on, all the while thinking that this was the ultimate performance or display of some of the most negative aspects of masculinity. The ‘banter’ which was structured through his casual racism, sexism and misogyny, coupled with many of his other right wing attitudes (and no doubt homophobia if we’d gotten that far) reminded me that these traditional ‘macho’ attitudes are still very much alive in society. Sometimes working in an inclusive environment such as a university, can trick you into believing that things are far more liberal in the 21st century than we think.

We continued to chat, well John chatted, I listened, and as he finished off cutting my hair and trimming my beard, John asked me how long I was here for and informed me that we should have a drink at his local pub together sometime. The pub, alongside blokey ‘banter’, can also be seen as another key area of traditional (white working-class) masculinity making, but I could also sense something else going on here in this conversation and his performance of masculinity. John told me that he didn’t like drinking alone and that he did this most days to save going home to an empty house. Even though earlier he had told me that he was glad to be rid of his ex-wives. I asked him if he ever went out with his mates, but he brushed this aside saying:

“Ah they don’t like the boozer”

“What about your children?”, to this he replied

“Well as they live all over mate, I never see um”

“Have you got any other family here?”

“Na mate, I only got one sister who lives in England and who came over to see me about 20 years ago, seriously come on, come down and have a drink with me sometime”

It occurred to me here that for all his ‘banter’ and blokey macho talk, just like good old Del-boy, this veneer of masculinity was actually quite thin. I imagine he might never admit this and would probably laugh his head off if he read this blog post, but he seemed quite lonely and desperate for attention. The ‘front’ stage performance of masculinity, the one to be displayed in front of the all-male customers, can be seen as a traditional form of ‘bonding’ in a typical masculine way. Through telling jokes, and stories (which often used non-white groups and women as the punchlines) and giving his vocal opinions on how the world has gone wrong, he was able to create a dominant persona within the barbershop. But behind the ‘front’ of this performance was a much more vulnerable side, one which for men of his generation and social class background, was something to be kept locked away and hidden. To admit being lonely might damage the authenticity of the jovial barber performance, and this weakness would also be an attack on his masculinity.

After I had paid, John shook my hand and told me how nice it had been talking to me and not to be a stranger and to come in and see him soon for another cut, again mentioning that drink. As I turned to leave, he passed me a business card, saying this is a friend of mine, if you need any help with immigration visas and to move over here permanently, give this number a ring and mention me, this guy likes to help my mates.

Despite his right wing views, and his racist and sexist jokes, I couldn’t help but like the guy and actually felt quite sorry for him. Whilst I probably won’t ever go for that drink with him, I will definitely go back there for my next haircut!

Next week’s blog will be a report on my book launch, but as always, something else interesting might come up and could well take its place!


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