TALKING BOLLOCKS AT THE BARBERSHOP

I went for a haircut last week and got chatting to my regular barber, Joe. He’d had a pretty dramatic chop himself, apparently for his sister’s wedding over the summer.

‘Yeah, I took one for the team,’ he explained.

I smiled at the thought of a man who cuts hair for a living still being told by his mum when it’s time for a trim.

We started the conversation off in much the same way as we always do, chatting about what the day had been like so far and what our plans were for the weekend ahead. It struck me for the first time how similar the conversation pattern was to when I used to see a counsellor each week: broad questions equally open to narrow, almost monosyllabic answers as sprawling, sentimental stories. Sometimes I feel like spilling and others I would just rather to hold back.

Over the years I’ve learned the value of sitting with silence for a moment or two when in company. It’s easy for both parties to say little of any real value when there’s no pause in conversation, but sometimes when there’s a break, even for just a moment, the other person will begin to share to what’s really on their mind.

It was one of those moments. I’ve had a lot of serendipitous counselling over the years, be it from barbers, personal trainers or even strangers on the bus, I’ve had my problems heard by countless unsuspecting individuals.

Today, though, it was Joe’s turn. Not to be counselled by me as such, rather to talk about his role as a counsellor to others.

‘If you think about it,’ he began, ‘barbers are so much more than just people who cut your hair. We know so much about our clients. They really confide in us. It’s a really special relationship.’

I thought about it for a minute and then began running over all the things I’d shared with him over the years: tales about work, friends, relationships, dating, parenting, holidays, sport (mostly his contribution), highs, lows and everything in between.

And I suppose this bond of trust makes so much sense when you think about it. After all, who else do you let hold a razor to your throat or swing scissors around your ears?

Joe began telling me a story that made me realise how much men – at least those who are willing and able to open up – can get from what he referred to as this ‘special relationship’. Clearly I wasn’t the only one in need of an ear.

‘This client of mine, Rob,’ Joe started, ‘Fell ill a while back and so he went to visit the doctor. Turns out he had testicular cancer. It’s really treatable if you catch it quickly, so he had surgery almost straightaway.’

Joe went on to explain that Rob felt unwell again two days later and suffered an unrelated stroke due to a previously undiagnosed hole in his heart.

I could almost picture this guy, who I’ve never even met, confiding in the same man who has also heard so much of what’s on my mind in the past.

Joe told me about how he had asked Rob if he had done anything to help raise awareness of testicular cancer as a result of his diagnosis and treatment. It was during this conversation that a simple but brilliant idea was born: the barbershop was the perfect place for two men to ‘talk bollocks’. Where else do most men allow themselves to indulge in such intimate and unfiltered conversation?

While there used to be a euphemistic code between barbers and their clientele – offering ‘something for the weekend’ to avoid asking directly if they would like to buy condoms – now it seems nothing is off limits.

Joe seized the opportunity to do something with his idea and reached out to the OddBalls Foundation, a charity that was founded to raise awareness of testicular cancer and encourage young men to check themselves for the signs.

A partnership between OddBalls and Murdock, the London-based barbershop chain kicks off this week with a charity football match between barbers and their own clients. Other ideas are underway including an in-store auction later in the year, too. All opportunities to make great things happen sparked by a conversation between one man who was ready to listen and another who was comfortable enough to talk.

As I left the shop after my cut the other day, I remembered learning about barber-surgeons in a history when I was a child. They were one of the most common types of medical practitioners in Europe in the Middle Ages, and were generally charged with looking after soldiers during or after battle, administering anything from haircuts to amputated limbs. Surgery has come on a long way since and it’s now infinitely less likely than it once was that any of us are going to suffer at the hands of war. And yet many men fight physical and mental health battles of their own everyday without feeling able to reach out for support.

Perhaps the client-barber relationship has just evolved with the times. From barber-surgeons to barber-counsellors, they seem to be able to retain their ability to not only make us look good but potentially feel a lot better, too.

Joe Pomper works at Murdock Covent Garden. For appointments head to https://www.murdocklondon.com

For more information about The OddBalls Foundation go to https://www.myoddballs.com/pages/charity