I have known Paul for 28 years but only learned his second name this week. “My name is Neophytou,” he says while dropping a gown over me at Paul’s, the South-east London hairdresser’s he has run, latterly alone, for 52 years. “You can say it means ‘new plant’,” he adds, waving his clippers at the flourishing pots in front of the window.
As a small boy, with maddeningly thick hair, I sat on a wooden plank laid across the arms of the same chair, wriggling as Paul, who is now 70 (I’m 33), sharpened his scissors. Today, the man who has watched me grow up and begin to age in the mirror, lowers the chair to bring my head within reach. It is dangerously exposed, and what follows doesn’t take long.
Many of Paul’s customers started coming here when he was a young man who had just arrived from Cyprus. Thousands of Greek Cypriots emigrated from the island to Britain in the 1960s, in the troubled years after gaining independence. Many responded to a shortage of hairdressers. In the beginning, Paul charged 25p per cut. Now it’s £12 and his longest-standing customers are getting old. “Last year alone, 38 of them died,” he says. “That’s a third of my business and that’s why you find it quiet here now.”
Some days, only three or four people walk through the door on Malpas Road in Brockley, a newly gentrifying corner of Lewisham. When he’s not cutting, Paul plays backgammon with friends in the back room. “I lose customers and it breaks my heart,” he says. “They are part of my family. Look at you! I’ve known you since you were a little boy.”
The unique bond between man and barber, developed as a slowly changing reflection of two faces, is the reason why Paul is determined to stay open despite barely covering his overheads. If his customers are like family to him, so is he to them. But he can be many other things besides: confidant; entertainer (he tells the saltiest jokes I’ve heard); listener; friend.
For men who can be reluctant to share their problems, barbershops can also be refuges. Five barbers in North London are now receiving “first aid” training in mental health, to help them reach vulnerable young black men, who can be even less inclined to reveal their suffering. Professionals train the barbers how to talk to customers, and where to direct them for more support.
“Too often they are not getting preventative help and ending up being admitted to psychiatric hospital when they reach crisis point,” says Kumar Grant from the Camden Hub mental health centre, which coordinates the project. “But it feels like this has also tapped into something – an energy and sense of responsibility that barbers already have.”
Paul embodies that energy, which must be as old as scissors themselves. For more than half a century, he has watched hairlines recede, fashions change and lines around eyes map the advance of age and changing fortunes. New jobs, bereavement, illness, depression and big decisions: all of life has been here, and so has Paul. “It’s a peaceful place, you know,” he says. “There’s no rush here and you can talk. My old mum always told me: ‘Son, do not make enemies, make friends. Always be polite to people.’ If you do this, people are nice to you and they talk to you.
“I advise youngsters about how to get by in life, and the secret of successful marriage. Shall I tell you? Agree with her on everything.”
Paul married Georgina 45 years ago and the couple raised three children down the road from the shop. The eldest, Johnny, is also a barber and now has his own place in Cyprus. Paul’s own father, a hotel chef from Paphos who cooked egg and chips for British soldiers when Cyprus was still a colony, died suddenly when Paul was 10. The loss helped to foster a paternal instinct, to the benefit of many of his customers.
He reaches to the next mirror along, which never gets used these days, where a funeral order of service is displayed. David “Rocky” Rocastle was a Lewisham boy and lifelong customer who became a footballer at Arsenal. “In 1992 he was being sold to Leeds and he didn’t want to go, the poor boy,” Paul recalls. “He used to come in after training and have a cup of tea and a chat. I said, ‘Well, you’re on 10 per cent aren’t you? You take the money and buy a house for your kid! He did and he used to come back all the way from Leeds for his haircuts.”
Years later, Paul watched Rocky become ill. He died of cancer in 2001, aged just 33. Paul looks at the photograph of Rocky on the wall, showing a haircut he got in Brockley. “And the best thing he ever told me was that he could buy houses for his kids.” Paul says. “I loved him to bits and he loved me like a father.”
I moved away from the area almost ten years ago, but also continued to visit Paul’s, variously travelling here from as far away as Leicester (one of Paul’s elderly customers still comes from Southampton, almost 50 years after moving there). My visits are less frequent now that I can trim my surviving hair at home. But returning this week, coincidentally at a rather stressful time, has been therapeutic, even when Paul said nothing at all.
There is something about a barber’s chair, and the way the gown disables the arms, putting phones and real life out of reach. The mirror somehow forces introspection, under the caring eye and reassuring touch of a man who has seen it all. “When I got to 70, someone said now it’s time for you to retire, but I don’t want to,” Paul says as he brushes hair from my head. “I carry on because I need it, and my customers need me, so I’m staying for them.”
This article first appeared on ‘The Independent’ on 19 February 2016.