Back in the mid-1960s, when I was in my middle teens, haircuts and Brylcreem went together like the proverbial horse and carriage. Love it or loathe it, those of us who didn’t habitually use Brylcreem would still encounter it in the barber’s shop. When the cutting was finished and the question “spot of cream?” came, those who loathed it would mutter “no thanks” while those who were indifferent would nod or grunt a vague affirmative. And as for those who loved it, and I include myself in that category, we boys would self-consciously squeak “yes please” while showing signs of anticipation that I fear may have been all too obvious.
In my imagination I began to call this ‘The Brylcreem Moment’, and when there were boys of my own age, or younger, ahead of me in the shop I used to derive a lot of entertainment by observing their reactions to it. And, I suppose, pleasure as well. I did this as discreetly as possible while reading a magazine or a paper! Over the course of my teens I must have seen a large number of boys experience The Moment and come through it transformed. Looking back on those times I sometimes wonder if there was ever, similarly, someone observing me. It’s more than likely.
Remembering what now seem strange days, I believe that my main feeling as the observer was a kind of envy, as distinct from attraction. When a boy reacted to the option of Brylcreem with apparent pleasure, and when the results met my private approval, that sense of envy was always well and truly stirred up. But the envy was always matched by the satisfying knowledge that it would be my own turn in a few minutes, and I was going to emerge from the ritual, another willing victim, gleaming with Brylcreem just like the last boy. In other words, the thing I interpret as envy enhanced the sense of anticipation.
It has to be said that individuals’ responses to The Moment differed a lot. I have seen boys leaving the shop with their hair creamed to perfection but not showing the slightest reaction to it, as if a haircut with Brylcreem was about as desirable as a visit to the dentist. Others would stand up from the chair and leave the shop with a thinly concealed beam of delight on their face, obviously revelling in the strange adult look their shiny new hair gave them. I suspect that in many cases even the most hapless haircut victim, forced into the shop as the end of the school break approached, managed to derive some pleasure from The Brylcreem Moment.
One thing that always made me wonder was the barber’s expression “spot of cream”. It suggested, in my own imagination at least, that there were other options beyond this so-called spot. My own barber was already quite generous with it, he certainly applied more cream than the proverbial ‘little dab’, and I would say he used a volume about the same as a medium-sized walnut. So I considered, if a spot is bigger than a dab, what’s the next step up? Two spots? A handful? A whole jar? If a customer asked for more than the usual amount would they be charged extra? The stuff wasn’t exactly cheap, even though the barber clearly got it at trade price, and the cost of an ordinary haircut (one shilling and six pence in the English money of the time) was obviously calculated to included the cost of that spot of cream carefully squirted from the dispenser. So did the cost dictate a spot and no more?
I developed a little fantasy that one day, when my turn came for The Brylcreem Moment, I would test this question of quantity by asking the barber to “put a lot on”. Naturally there were barriers to putting this into practice; not being a pushy kid I felt it would need some kind of excuse such as “my girlfriend wonders what it would look like” or “a kid at school bet me I didn’t have the nerve to ask”. I was conscious as well that such excuses are almost invariably transparent and counter-productive, and would merely confirm that it was my own curiosity speaking. And my vanity as well, I suppose. I could see clearly enough that becoming the Oliver Twist of the barbershop and ‘asking for more’ was something I was unlikely ever to manage.
So, having turned this idea over in my head for a year or two, it came as a major surprise one day when The Brylcreem Moment arrived for a boy ahead of me in the chair, and he asked to have a lot put on. I could hardly believe my ears. The boy in question didn’t look like a pushy or vain or show-off type, so it was completely unexpected. He offered no excuse, as I might have done, he just said it straight out. He wasn’t anyone I knew, but he was about fourteen years old with medium brown hair of the type that often went well with cream. To be honest I was looking forward to seeing the result, as I knew it would get my envy going nicely in preparation for my own approaching Moment.
The barber’s reaction was interesting, but he didn’t show the surprise I expected. Was I, then, to take it that the option of ‘more’ was available for the asking after all?
“There’s a limit to how much you can put on, son, because the comb scrapes it off again, but we’ll see what we can do.”
With that he reached for the dispenser and squeezed out the biggest portion of Brylcreem I had ever seen. From where I was watching it seemed to fill the palm of his hand, so it was at least twice the usual walnut-sized helping. Onto the boy’s hair it went, smacky smack, smoothed back and rubbed in. Then to my astonishment, and no doubt to the young customer’s delight as well, the barber turned back to the Brylcreem dispenser and took another generous squirt from it. Onto the boy’s hair it went, and the combing ritual began. I could hear it clearly, the wet little sounds of all that soft white cream being combed and smoothed through, the sweet sound of over-Brylcreemed hair being coaxed into shape. Forward from the crown with a slick swish, the parting made along a comb mark, the top straight across, the sides and back straight down. And then, that final flourish so beloved of every teenage boy, the front hair brought up and back in a shiny quiff, and finished off with a long backward stroke of the comb on the side opposite the parting.
I tried my best to avoid staring as this was going on, and buried my nose in a paper, so I didn’t get a clear sight of the finished job until the boy stood up from the chair. Oh, that lucky, lucky kid. The shape and the deep liquid shine of his hair were perfect, I had never seen a boy so completely transformed by Brylcreem. His hair was completely solid with it, creamed down close and glossy on the sides, back and top, and the all-important front wetted magnificently up and back from his forehead with the excess cream glistening on the surface.
“Thank you son, and mind you don’t spoil it!” said the barber as the boy paid him. Nothing was said about any extra charge! The kid walked to the door with no discernable expression, but as he left the shop I saw his face break uncontrollably into a shy beam of satisfaction and a hand came up to touch and explore his gleaming hair. Was I envious? I should say so, this put all my previous observations in the shade.
Ten minutes later, as my own Brylcreem Moment approached, the burning question was whether the barber might say “do YOU want a lot on then, as well, son?”
But he didn’t, and there was no way on this Earth I could have summoned up the nerve to repeat the previous customer’s request.