“Dim o flaen y boi”

Danny the Barber

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“Ti moen spray bwy?” The flat, tremulous tone snapped me out of my daydream of machine gunning a Nazi pillbox as Danny the Barber finished my haircut. He was inquiring as to whether I wanted the high octane lacquer he liked to spray on his customers to secure his creations.

It was part of a young man’s rite of passage to be sent for his first haircut alone. To be trusted to ask for a short back and sides (it was the only style on offer anyway) and not to linger too long over reading the Victor or Commandos that were stacked in the corner. And also to come home with all the change despite the proximity of the Post Office with its temptations of sweets, comics and Lyons Maid ice creams.

He wasn’t the best barber in the world, probably not the best in Brynamman, despite being the only one. The monopoly he enjoyed for years provided a vital service to the men of the village — both Upper and Lower parts, as he had a shop in both.

The Upper Brynamman branch I went to was on the hill just up the road from the Post Office, Rogers’ shoe shop and my lovely Auntie Sal’s wallpaper shop. It was open for two days of the week and in my vague memory was a corrugated zinc shed painted a dark green, with windows front and side and wooden benches around the walls. It reeked of bay rum and fags, a heady atmosphere you could slice with a cutthroat. You would usually catch Danny lounging in his barber’s chair, smoking and reading the newspaper in front of the big ornate mirror.

As a minor citizen he’d make you wait until he’d finished reading before unfurling his skinny legs and putting a board across the arms of the chair to raise you to a working height. I never minded waiting as I enjoyed reading his collection of comics and wasn’t too bothered with having my hair cut anyway.

Still with a lit cigarette in the corner of his mouth, Danny would flap a nylon sheet around your neck and roughly tuck it in around the back of your collar, along with a range of previous customer’s clippings. The snip-snipping would go on for a little while before he brought the hand clippers out to do the neck, right up to the overhang of the head. Then the same above each ear before sweeping the longer hair on top into an exaggerated parted wave that needed a stiff lacquering to keep it in place. You came out feeling a bit cheekier with hair glistening in the watery Brynamman sunshine, your shoulders flecked with fag ash. As you felt the chill air across the back of your neck you knew full well that your mother would tut and grumble as she attacked the stray hairs that had invariably been missed.

I remember Danny as a slight, nervy character, a chain smoker with a constant worried look on his face. He was exceptionally bald himself, having just a thin curtain of hair around the lower part of the back of his head. My father said this was because Danny had been with Montgomery in North Africa during the war, and had worn his helmet so long in the heat that his hair had all fallen out. As with many of his stories I can’t be sure of the veracity.

Shwd ma dy dad bwy? He would always ask after my dad despite having seen him the day before at his Lower Brynamman ‘branch’, which was next door to my father’s workshop. This was a far less dingy emporium due to the big window that looked out over the main road. I often witnessed the slow parade of lugubrious gentlemen and boys in and out of his shop when I was working with my father in the summer holidays. It had a decent footfall as it was on the way from Lower Brynamman to the bookies, the working men’s club and the Co-op.

This shop had several pages of black and white hairstyles cut from a trade magazine, and sellotaped to the walls. It made no difference which you pointed out though, as Danny only did the one style he’d been trained to do in the forties. Everyone emerged looking just the same and covered in sharp snippets of hair — always grey — and found that when they put their hat on it fell down to their ears, if they had any left. It was not often that you’d come back from a visit to Danny without a piece of hastily spit-soaked tissue paper stuck over a nick.

The main reason I remember Danny however, was not for my first haircut, nor even my first solo haircut. No, I remember him because he was the first adult I ever heard say Fuck. I can’t remember what the context of the expletive was — I was too shocked to take in the rest of the sentence — but I do remember my father’s admonishment of the poor barber — Dim o flaen y boi! — not in front of the boy. The word opened up a seedy world of hidden collusion amongst adults that I had known nothing about. My father’s reaction was a too late bolting of the stable door and I suddenly felt more grown up despite his attempt at protecting my sensitive young ears.

Danny scuttled back to sweep his never clean floor muttering to himself as he went. I thanked him quietly for his candour.

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