Whatever doesn’t kill you …

I went to see Dr Parente for my six weekly checkup on Monday, and all was as last time; PSA undetectable, everything as it should be. Following this I went to the Epworth Eastern oncology unit for another Zolodex implant; this was delivered with their usual aplomb.

Apologies to my faithful readership for the belated notice! I have, it’s true, become a tad more casual about these appointments: which is not to say that I assume that the good Dr will always deliver this message. Another reason for the radio silence has been that, after a week away, I started as a participant in an ACU study. (Apos also to those to whom this is old news.) The study is looking at the effect of exercise on the mental well-being of advanced prostate cancer patients. To this end, subjects do three exercise classes a week for 12 weeks, a mixture of resistance exercises and cardio. Classes are held on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; I am almost at the end of week two. The study should conclude around early February. (While this is going on, I have wound down my museum days to one each week.)  

It is too early to say what the effect of this participation is. I was doing a similar exercise class each week for about the last twelve months. Once a week, though, is a different ball game from three times! I have been feeling pretty tired on the off days. There’s no doubt, though, that exercise is a great tranquilizer.  Each class is supervised by an ACU PhD student, all very agreeable young folk, and I often meet the other participant for a coffee beforehand. So the social aspect is a  bonus. I need to watch, though, that I don’t overdo either the exercise or the interaction. As an extraverted introvert, I need to allow myself enough solitary time. Otherwise, I suffer from what I saw aptly described as the introvert hangover: feeling a bit overdrawn at the bank. A little bit of what you fancy does you good, as the saying goes, but more is not always better, and one can have too much of a good thing. Still, it is a good problem to have.

The weather was exceptionally weird last week — much colder than it had been in Hobart — but that seemed to lend itself to doing some more work on my memoir. This is something on which I have been working very intermittently for about a year. As a kind of preview, I am pasting in below the section I wrote last week. It grew out of a memory I had of getting my hair cut in my early teens. I have been trying to capture these little episodic memories to put in italics at the head of a chapter. This one, however, turned into a chapter in its own right.



I am in Sydney, aged somewhere in my early teens, and having a haircut. The place is opposite my first secondary school, North Sydney Technical High School. The hairdresser is maybe in his twenties, and has a British accent. I must have been there before, because he asks “Just the usual today, sir”? I agree; just the usual. We make some banal conversation. I try to act casually, but I feel as though I have suddenly been admitted to some secret society. Is this because someone older than me is calling me sir? Or is it because my preferences have been remembered, as though they matter? Maybe this is what being grown up will be like.

Haircuts signified a lot in the 1960s and 70s. Those with long hair were poofters or troublemakers. Those with crewcuts or shaven heads were army cadets or skinheads. I lined up with the longhairs at North Sydney Tech. There was a fair amount of pushback from the short-haired establishment. In the 1969 film Easy Rider, the redneck who shot Billy asked rhetorically “Why don’t you get your hair cut?”. Fortunately the major hostilities at school were verbal. One of the science teachers used to refer to us as “long-haired louts”. My English teacher used to provide a running commentary on my hair, with remarks such as “It’s getting a bit long, Guy”. A friend of mine was roughed up by older kids at lunchtime for having long hair. (He and I occasionally used to play up to this general hostility by engaging in mock-effeminate dialogues.) Long hair was also associated with being opposed to Australia’s participation in the Vietnam war. A boy with long hair was therefore also a commo. 

As a child, haircuts had required the presence of your father or (humiliatingly) mother. When the high chair was no longer needed, you became qualified to undertake the mission solo. At that time, people who cut your hair were barbers. They were inevitably male, to the extent that this seemed an unspoken requirement for entry into their ranks. When ordered off to get a haircut, a visit to the barber therefore plunged you into an unconsciously masculine world. The chrome and vinyl chairs around the walls were stacked with tatty soft porn magazines like Pix and People. An assistant swept up the loose hair from the vinyl or linoleum floor. Talkback was yet to come, so the radio was tuned to a pop station. Mysterious preparations such as brilliantine and Brylcreem were stacked on the shelves. Scissors were stored in tall jars of some whitish solution. Clippers were suspended from cup hooks screwed into shelves, allowing them to remain plugged in until required. Everything was as functional as a garage. In an industry devoted to maintaining appearances, there was something faintly paradoxical about this.

Communication was by way of signals; a glance from the barber called you to be seated when your turn came. With its padded arms and built-in footrest, the barber’s chair was obviously built for a specific purpose. It only required arm straps and a head clamp to closely resemble those used in American prisons to deliver millions of volts to bad guys. (Electric chairs were a humorous trope in popular culture; Luna Park had a mock-up of one allowing someone to pose as the prisoner and their companion as executioner. A black and white photograph captured my brother and me in these respective roles, both grinning maniacally for the camera.) As a signal that the haircut was imminent, a sort of cloak was flourished around your shoulders, and fastened behind the neck with a press stud. A piece of paper torn from a roll, always with ragged ends, was tucked inside the neck of this garment. (This never prevented a few hairs falling scratchily inside your shirt.) The barber gave a few pumps on a foot pedal to elevate the seat to a convenient height. Then the negotiation began as to how much he should take off. Comb and scissors were wielded on the top and sides, electric clippers on the back of the neck. (At the latter point, the practitioner would push gently on the back of your head to signal that you were to hold it at this angle.) A hand mirror was held up for you to inspect the rear treatment, first on one side, then the other. At the conclusion of the business, a soft brush was used to remove most of the clipped hairs. You had to close your eyes when this implement was whisked across the hairline, eyebrows and nose. Finally the cloak was theatrically whipped off, the corners pinched together to avoid getting the hairs on your trousers or bare legs. The payment was always made in cash. 

Hair was something about which many of my contemporaries were highly conscious. Pocket combs were widely carried; one boy even had a mirror in his inside blazer pocket. Having the wrong haircut attracted ridicule. In fact, having had a recent haircut was a sure fire way of standing out. This was not a good thing in a boy’s school, where the ridicule could well take the form of a few cuffs or punches. Any retaliation in like manner was greeted with shouts of “Fight! Fight!”; everyone nearby would form a circle to encourage the combatants. There were more wrong haircuts than right ones. This was particularly so for members of the army cadets. Warnings were published about sideburns that reached below the top of the ear; these were to be removed on the parade ground with a razor and cold water. (The shame!) The headmaster of the Tech, Mr Hornibrook, was a forbidding character with a crewcut. He was particularly inclined to ask boys with hair any longer than his own whether they needed bobby pins or ribbons. The character forming effects of education thus relied on verbal and occasionally physical abuse. 

As the sixties gave way to the age of Aquarius, hair salons joined the ranks of barber shops. There was much discussion among my contemporaries of the virtues of the former establishments. One favourite was in the Menzies hotel in the city. A surprisingly good one was in the Town Hall station; this was notable for playing the ABC radio. Cuts started to involve initial spritzing of the hair or even a shampoo, finishing with blow drying. Females began to be involved in the administration of these treatments, and even the cutting. (Reflecting on a haircut in my early twenties, I kicked myself to realise that the attractive young lady hairdresser had been attempting to chat me up.) Requests to leave a bit more length, and generally adopt a flattering style, were indulged. Razor cuts started to come in, and sideburns were sported more generally by public figures such as Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam. The porn star moustache began to adorn the faces of sportsmen. Colours and perms were just around the corner.A brand of hairpiece was marketed under the name of the Sir’s Undetectable; this became known in our family as the Sir’s Detectable. The premiere of the musical Hair seemed to signal the end of the macho, uptight, short back and sides era.   

My hair started thinning in my twenties, particularly at the front. What remained mostly fell out during chemotherapy in the later half of 2018. It grew back at the end of that treatment, but the colour became iron grey. Now, when I get up in the morning, and my hair is sticking up at the back like a cocky’s crest, I know it is time for a cut. 

Barber shops have come back in. These recreations seek to revive the untroubled masculinity of simpler times, while offering contemporary styles and treatments such as hair waxes and beard oil. My modest requirements are easily met at an original three chair joint in Camberwell Junction, next to a shoe repair shop in an arcade. My beloved looks quite peeved when I tell her, in mock outrage, that I was charged $22 for a haircut! Her much more elaborate ‘dos cost several multiples of that sum, and take several hours. I can be in and out in twenty minutes; I am now officially low maintenance. All I need to request is a 2 and 3. (The numbers refer to the grade of clipper attachment; 2 all over is a bit severe, so I have a 3 on top.) This has become my new usual. Reassuringly, no-one calls me sir.


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