Isolation diary days 2 & 3

Yesterday was the second day of the self-isolation. It was quite busy, somehow. We went for a walk after breakfast, aiming to get out before it it got too hot (although it stayed cloudy until late in the afternoon). After a rather weak coffee, of which more later, I cooked a batch of marmalade, and did a load of washing. Then it was time for lunch.

After that, I did miscellaneous things. Yesterday I had set up a free three-month trial of Stan (the streaming service). I remembered today that our Blu-ray recorder is connected to our wifi, and has a set of services (as it were) pre-baked into it. I found that Netflix is one of those. The cost of a monthly subscription is not great, about $15 or so for the standard plan. So I will probably set that up as well, and see how it compares with Stan. (One can just go month by month with Netflix now — as I’m sure many of you know!)

Getting back to the coffee: I have found it difficult, for the last couple of days, to get a strong enough one. I thought the beans were going off. This was odd, as I keep them in an airtight jar in the cupboard. So I put some more in, but this made no difference. (I have a little formula for tablespoons of beans per mug: two and a few.) It was as if some of the grounds were finding their way into the base of the grinder.

Hold onto that thought! On inspection, I found a 2 or 3 centimetre long hole in the bowl of our vintage Gaggia grinder. The design of this is such that, once the beans are ground, it is necessary to scrape them out of the bowl. Obviously over the decades, this had worn through the bottom of the receptacle. Once I unscrewed its base, I found that about half a cereal bowl of grounds had collected underneath the motor. I retrieved these and picked out a few bits of ground-up plastic. They will do me for tomorrow.

We decided to retire the old ragazza from duty and get a Smeg grinder. (We could have anything, as long as it was pale blue, to match the kettle & toaster.) Fortunately the correct one was available online from David Jones, so no need to break quarantine. The Smeg is no doubt a superior device, with a removable bowl. I quote from the DJs web page: “The anti-static system ensures even distribution of coffee in the chamber and guarantees a simple clean at the end of each use with the accompanying brush.” One can even store 350 grams of beans in the top bit! I just hope it fits under the cupboard. (We reasoned that, if it didn’t, we would get a refund.) Until it comes, I have made a running repair to the bowl of the Gaggia with a few bits of sticking plaster. 

This morning has gone similarly, minus the marmalade. (I am still using up the old one, so can’t report on the last batch yet.) My beloved had a conference call — with an international participant, no less! She has been beavering away at the dining table every day, requiring only intermittent technical assistance, and a few coffees. (My beloved has to have decaf, which we buy pre-ground. Mine is made from beans, which is more of a hassle, but having fresh grounds each time is worth it for me.)

Once more, at the right tempo

Timing, as the saying goes, is all. This is nowhere more true than in music. The speed or tempo at which a piece of music is played has more to do with how we perceive that music than any other factor.

Think about how much a person’s walk says about them. An energetic person will dash around, a more elderly person will move in a deliberate and unhurried way; somebody elderly or injured will hobble. In the same way, the character of a piece of music is immediately announced by the tempo adopted in the performance. Beethoven 5, first movement, announces itself dramatically — da-da-da-dumm! — at allegro con brio. The nostalgic slow movement of Dvorak 9 (“From the new world”) is marked Largo.  These are almost the extremes of tempo markings. 

Since music began to be notated, these Italian tempo markings were the only means composers had to indicate how fast they wanted a piece of music to be played. Then came the metronome, beloved of music students around the globe. This clockwork device  allows the tempo to be expressed as a number — the metronome marking. A book, The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination, by Matthew Guerrieri, contains the story:

The metronome was an invention of Beethoven’s day; he didn’t have access to it when he was writing his early symphonies. But later, he came into contact with it and loved the device. “He immediately buys one and sits down and starts going back over all his old scores and putting in metronome markings,” Guerrieri says. “And he picked a tempo for the Fifth Symphony that even today sounds really, astonishingly fast.”

The setting he chose was 108 beats per minute — so fast, so hard to play, Guerrieri says, that people have been theorizing for centuries about why Beethoven might have mismarked his own symphony. A broken metronome? Advancing deafness? Nobody knows. [Deceptive cadence, NPR Public Radio]

From this point you might ask — what’s the big deal with choosing a tempo? Just set your metronome (clockwork or app) to the marking in the score, and play it at that speed. The composer can’t be wrong, right? Well, not quite. Their metronome may be faulty, as Beethoven’s could have been. There is quite a literature, including a mathematical paper, trying to work out why Beethoven put such fast tempo markings on his music. (This New York Times article reviews the various issues that the faulty-metronome hypothesis raises.)

There are other considerations too. One of these is the nature of the acoustic in which the music is to be played.

Sergiu Celibidache was a Vegemite kind of conductor — some love him, others can’t stand him. The issue is the extremely slow tempos he used to adopt, particularly in Bruckner. Celibidache was very interested in Zen, and had a semi-mystical view of conducting. I’ve never really understood this until I read this excerpt from his autobiography:

‘Herr Doctor, how fast does that go?’ he once asked Wilhelm Furtwangler about a particular passage. The answer had unexpected consequences: ‘Ah that depends on how it sounds.’ Later Celibidache alluded to this laconic remark: ‘So, the way it sounds can determine the tempo! Tempo isn’t a reality per se, but a condition. If there are an enormous variety of factors working together, then I need more time in order to create something musical; if less is going on, I can move through more quickly.’ [Notes to Bruckner 3, Symphonies 3-9, Munich Philharmonic/Celibidache]

Or, as his son puts it

more notes need more time to develop and return (to the ear). The richer the music, therefore, the slower the tempo … When only a percentage of what existed in the hall can be heard, the tempo always feels “too slow”. [Ibid.]

The point is “in the hall”. A large reverberant space like a cathedral will have a much slower or “wetter” acoustic than a concert hall or recording studio. So there is no such thing as “the right tempo”; a work will be played at speeds that suit the acoustic of that performance.

Celi’s interest in Zen leads one to a few paradoxes. This recording has the shou symbol for longevity on the cover and in the liner notes:


This symbolises his ongoing legacy. He was obviously a major conductor, whose work we can now only know through recordings. However, he hated recordings, believing that they destroyed the uniqueness of each performance. He believed in the primacy of the moment, and wanted to create the conditions for a transcendent experience on the part of the audience. This concept is summed up in the term ichi-go ichi-e: 

often translated as “for this time only,” “never again,” or “one chance in a lifetime.” The term reminds people to cherish any gathering that they may take part in, citing the fact that many meetings in life are not repeated. Even when the same group of people can get together again, a particular gathering will never be replicated and thus, each moment is always once-in-a-lifetime. [Wikipedia]

So why did his family authorise EMI to issue a series of Celi’s recordings? There are several official reasons. First, they wanted to secure his legacy before copyright on his recordings expired, when pirate editions of questionable quality would be issued. Second, they intended to create two foundations: one musical, the Celibidache Foundation, the other more general, S.C. Help, which “will cover various needs in the world”.  Whether these intentions were realised or not, the volumes of this edition I have seen are handsome productions, with full liner notes and beautiful photography of  Japanese dry gardens.

Regardless of the philosopy, what do the results sound like? I have only heard Bruckner 3 and 4. Bruckner was a special favourite of Celi’s; the mystical and spacious aspects of this music lend themselves to the latter’s approach. I find the interpretations quite hypnotic. It helps that, with the exception of no. 7, I don’t know the symphonies very well. I can just space out and let the process take over. It definitely works for me. It is music of mountain peaks and sudden storms. As in Wagner’s last opera Parsifal, time becomes space.

Mariss Jansons

Late last year I saw an obituary for Mariss Jansons, who died last November of a heart attack. I felt quite a sense of loss. He was one of those conductors whose recordings I had started to look out for. Jansons was never a household name like Karajan or Solti, but I think he was more reliable than both. (Karajan, with a few exceptions, I have always thought over-rated, while Solti could drive things along too hard — although his Ring Cycle is terrific.)

As one might expect from someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, Jansons was an expert in the Russian symphonic repertoire, particularly Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. He was had great versatility, though; his Sibelius recordings with the Oslo Philharmonic are very fine, and he was at home also in the standard German fare. I have his Beethoven 3, 4 and 5, and Bruckner 8, all with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (of whom he became chief conductor in 2003). I was also able to acquire his Shostakovich cycle last year (thanks, Jane!).

Mariss Jansons studied these scores with his father Arpads, also a conductor: the latter knew Shostakovich. Mariss Jansons clearly understood that these symphonies portray the fear, anxiety and betrayal of a generation. His readings are neither flashy nor dull; even the longest movements have a sense of momentum. Climaxes are full-blooded, and there is plenty of that sense of mounting hysteria that seems peculiar to Russian music (and Shostakovich in particular). The set features the work of eight orchestras: his own Bavarians, the Berlin, London, Oslo, St Petersburg and Vienna Philharmonics, as well as the Philadelphia and Pittsburg orchestras. With the exception of the last, these are all top bands. (He was also chief conductor of the Concertgebouw.) That Jansons was able to work with all these orchestras gives you an idea of the regard in which he was held around the world. His ability to get a Russian sound from all of them is also quite remarkable.

This set reveals many of his strengths, and possibly the reason why greater fame eluded him. Maybe he became a victim of his success. Rather than being identified with one orchestra, as Karajan was with Berlin, working in so many places prevented his “brand” from being really established. I don’t think Mariss Jansons would have cared about this. For him, the music came first. 

I recently got a couple of encores to my Jansons collection. Thanks again to Jane’s generosity, I was able to get from Readings, via special order, a box set called Mariss Jansons: Portrait. This is issued by BR Klassik, a label that the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra founded for the dissemination of their recordings. It is a five CD set featuring Jansons and the BRSO in Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, Mahler, Varese, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich. There were not many conductors who had all these composers in their repertoire. The Shostakovich is the sixth symphony. The performance in the complete set is with the Oslo Philharmonic, so when I have time, I can compare the two performances.

I have also had the chance to hear Janson’s final thoughts on Brahms’ fourth symphony. This work is included in the Portrait box, in a recording from 2012. Jansons and the BRSO also performed this in October last year, one of his last concerts. This program was recorded by the BBC; I made a disc from this, which I played through again this evening. The timings of the 2019 performance are definitely slower than those in the 2012 recording. (The first movement is 1′ 15″ longer, which is quite noticeable.) However, the feeling is valedictory rather than sentimental. Phrases are moulded lovingly, and with tremendous insight, but very little pulling around. The orchestra plays wonderfully. No-one was going gentle into that good night. 

Another ending begins

Shakespeare famously likened life to a stage. Many Shakespeare quotes have become clichés. Nonetheless, this one popped into my mind this morning:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances …

[As you like it, II 7]

I hasten to add that I have neither received my exit cue from the Great Director, nor am I expecting it any time soon. But Shakespeare’s simile applies as much to the daily aspects of our lives as it does to grand entrances and exits. I am at a mini-exit in that I have nearly finished the exercise classes that I wrote about previously. I am wondering what to do next, and what life will be like when I don’t have to haul myself off to the Hawthorn Aquatic Centre three times a week.

Whatever I decide to do — more on that below — it feels like the end of an era. The classes began in November. The dreadful bushfire season and Christmas formed a background to the routine of class on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Fortunately we had a mini-break over Christmas, which came just in time — I was feeling quite worn out. Three times a week is just a bit too much. However, the exercise has had good effects. I have been a bit more flexible physically, and been slowly putting on a bit more muscle. The Zolodex, however, inhibits this process, so I haven’t been bulking up as much as I would have expected to. (I would have liked to lose a bit of the spare tyre, too! But this is also associated with the medication.) Nevertheless, the exercise has has minimised the muscle wastage that would otherwise have occurred. This by itself is a good reason to continue, at a level that I can sustain.

I will miss the social side of the process, meeting the other participants for coffee before class, and swapping prostate cancer war stories. Such things are a chance to find out what life is like for other fellas with PC. It possibly takes a circumstance like cancer to get Australian males at our stage of life to talk about themselves to total strangers — even, shock horror, about how they are feeling! Everyone has been very generous with their experiences. Having had the three big cancer treatments (cut, slash and poison), I have been able to give them some idea of how these have affected me. (I am always careful to add the rider — your mileage may vary.) At Christmas I gave them a bit of my spiced fudge. One of them lives in the next suburb to us, and keeps bees. I gave him quite a few of the empty jars I had in the garage, in return for which I have got several jars of the most delicious honey. (I am going to give him a jar of my lime marmalade as a quid pro quo.)

These acquaintances are like work friendships; after the work ceases, they could either continue, or come to a natural end. I am hoping it will be the former. Of course, this will depend on everyone feeling the same way, and being prepared to make the effort to keep getting together. We will have to see what happens next. However it works out, it has been very enjoyable and reassuring, somehow, to have the encouragement and support of people who know exactly what you are going through. 

So, what happens next? Before I started the research program last November, I had a membership in a local gym, and a weekly group class at an exercise physiology practice in Camberwell. (I put both of these on hold until February.) Instead of resuming at those places, though, I could continue with my membership at the Hawthorn Aquatic Centre. The cost there is very similar to the local gym. Also, the university will be continuing to run the research classes at Hawthorn, as they have been doing for a couple of years. An exercise physiology student will be supervising those classes, as at present, and they would keep an eye on me as well. They would also adjust my program as required. So I would sort-of be getting a two-in-one deal, with gym and exercise physio in one.

I looked at the cost saving of maintaining the Hawthorn membership over going back to the combination I had before November. Over a year, it comes to about $1400 — not a huge amount, but not nothing. On the other hand, I would miss out on working with the Camberwell exercise physiologist, of whom I have been a client for about eighteen months. And Camberwell is easier to get to, just a twenty minute tram ride. Hawthorn is about a half hour drive from home, or a one hour tram trip. So inevitably I would end up driving, and doing my bit for global warming.

However I decide, I am thankful to have these options to choose among. My oncologist certainly wants me to keep up the exercise. Exercise has had so much research showing its beneficial effects on cancer patients, it is becoming a front line treatment. As I heard someone say at an open day at Peter Mac: if you could get a medication which would reduce stress, risk of heart attack and stroke, improve sleep, and bring about a more positive outlook, with no side effects, you’d want some of that! These are generic benefits, but there are specific ones for cancer patients as well. The idea is that, if your blood is circulating faster, you are exposing the tumours to more of the effective compounds in the medication than if you are just sitting on your backside. So, although brevity is the soul of wit, it could keep me treading the boards a bit longer.


Moving it

I’ve mentioned that I am participating in a study being performed at ACU into the effect of exercise on the mental well-being of prostate cancer patients. I am a bit over half way through that study, and expect to be finished with it in early February. So I was interested to see a story in The Age about research into the effect of exercise on mental well being. This study, conducted by University of Southern Queensland and Deakin researchers, isn’t specifically targeting prostate cancer, or any cancer patients. The researchers were  looking at the effect on mental well being of adding a strength training session to your regular exercise class. They found that adding only one strength training session enhances the effect of that class. In other words, “combining the two is more beneficial than doing either alone”.

The USQ project was a cross-sectional study, that is, it wasn’t original research, but one that sliced and diced previous studies. The authors looked at four previous US health surveys, with a huge number of subjects — nearly 1.5 million. The size of the combined data pool, plus the fact that the USQ researchers were examining four successive studies, further improves the potential reliability of their conclusions. You can read the story from the Nine Media/Fairfax sources here, and the NLM abstract is here.  

I am finding participation in the ACU study is generally very beneficial. I feel good, and only really feel flat when I am tired — nothing new there. My oncologist definitely wants me to keep exercising. I intend to, but it is just a matter of finding the appropriate level. Zolodex does make me a bit fatigued in the afternoons. I do want to go back to doing everything that I was doing before I started the study, while continuing to do more exercise than I did before. Just what exercise is another question. The ACU folk are upping the intensity of my class, adding interval training in the cardio section, and increasing the weights in the resistance part. This is all part of the progressive resistance idea, and I get that. The Zolodex, again, makes it more difficult for me to put on muscle as I normally would when lifting bigger weights. So I am finding it tiring! The ACU researchers (as with my regular exercise physiologist) are all very careful only to give me exercises that won’t aggravate any of the metastases from the last scan.

There is a nice social side to the classes as well — I often meet the other guys for a coffee beforehand. One of them has a beehive, and gave me a wonderful jar of honey last week. So that is all very enjoyable as well, and something that I hope continues after the classes are finished. I don’t know if there has been any research into this, but if there ever is, I would be happy to volunteer for it!


Time of reckoning

I thank my lucky stars that, to date, no-one I know has been directly affected by the bushfires. Of course their effect is not just people losing their lives, homes, or livelihoods, as has already occurred. I know some family members are affected by the environmental conditions, including smoke. We will all be paying more in higher produce prices and insurance premiums. The relationship Australians have with the bush will need to be re-thought. There will be places where people live where it will no longer be viable for them to live, either without major adjustments, or at all. All this will need to be considered.

I think there are psychological effects, too, and not just for those directly affected. We may have thought ourselves immune to nature, or at least able to make a bargain with it. The thinking has been: we’ll contribute so much to efforts to reduce global heating. This means we can go on selling coal and using cheap fossil fuels. The stupidity of this attitude is more obvious than ever. As someone on the ABC recently commented, the atmosphere doesn’t care about our spreadsheets. It only cares if we emit fewer molecules of carbon. Nature doesn’t care about our bargains and trade-offs.

I’m not attributing the bushfires directly to climate change. Even our PM, though, a denialist at heart, acknowledges global heating to be a factor in the current bushfire season. There’s no change, however, in government policies on carbon emissions. The Labor Party isn’t any better. I do feel despairing that the two major parties have their heads in the sand about climate policy. Are our current pathetic and largely symbolic efforts really the best we can do? Global heating seems a failure of politics as we know it.

It is fantastic, of course, that so many people have contributed to bushfire relief appeals. Extraordinary amounts — I read $30 million dollars — have been raised for fire fighting and relief funds. Many of these appeals would not have been possible without the internet and social media, so these technologies can obviously have a positive side. Of course huge amounts of money are going to be required to rebuild homes, bridges, schools and other infrastructure. But people’s willingness to pitch in and help is both amazing and encouraging.

Maybe these things are part of why I have felt so distracted and weird in general. These dreadful events have overshadowed Christmas and my recent birthday. I don’t mean to sound world-weary about it — any anniversary is worth celebrating. And I was given some lovely presents. One worthy of note (because it was so unexpected) came from our local greengrocer. When we dropped into his shop a few days ago, I mentioned that my birthday had just occurred. So he gave me a beautiful purple orchid from his shop. It was such a sweet gesture. He and his wife are lovely people, and I like to support young people having a go. But all the gifts, cards, and good wishes were very much appreciated. We can all make someone feel valued and appreciated with these small gestures.

Exercise classes have resumed at Hawthorn Aquatic Centre, and I am dragging the now 65-year old bones along for another six weeks. It has been the season also for getting things fixed, and the air conditioners have been high on that list. Both have required service calls. The split system is working normally now; it had been very noisy, sounding as though a leaf had gotten caught in the air intake. The evaporative has been problematic to get going reliably. After being switched on, it either just pushes out hot air, or air that is half cooled. A third service call is going to be required before the problem can be escalated. (Of course Christmas has gummed up the works, taking longer than normal to obtain parts and so on.)

There have been two problems. First, one rings the manufacturer for customer service. But those folk just pass your details onto the contractors, who carry out the actual servicing. Second, the contractor gives you only half an hour’s notice before rolling up, and — of course! — no-one can give you even an indication of whether they will be around in the morning or afternoon. Moaning about this to the customer service people gets you nowhere, because they don’t do the servicing. (One of them actually said “I’m not a service man”.) No-one’s accountable! I don’t like to play the cancer card, but I pointed out that having potentially to be at home all day would mean I may have to miss one or more exercise classes, something that is part of my treatment. All the right noises were made in response, promising they would work with me, etc. We will see.  I do hope everyone stays safe. 

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.