Va Pensiero (Fly Thought on Golden Wings)

Harry’s wasn’t a bit like this. This place moves more up-market each time I visit. Look, spotless chrome wall to window, marble- tiled and designer lights above multi-lingual book-racks. Muted C.D.s, too, you can just hear Verdi’s Hebrews sending thoughts back home. It strikes me that if I were where my thoughts are right now I might be in for a pretty rough haircut. Like I said, things were different back at Harry’s.

You noticed the verandah posts first – red and white blood-and- bandaged stripes running down to where the dogs discoloured them. Then the signs – Turf, Craven A (with the black cat), Ardath, Woodbines and, of course, the makings – Town Talk or Log Cabin for rolling your own into Tally Ho, Riz Lah or Zig Zag cigarette papers. Customers with tougher palates favoured Havelock Dark Plug Pipe.

Smoking was harmless in those golden days. People often died with abscessed lungs, but cancer was something that you had somewhere else.

Harry snipped and clippered through the five and a half days of his legal working week. Did pretty well, too, considering those two fingers shot away at Bullecourt. He shaved his regulars, the town’s top strata (bank manager, chemist, publicans) whose personal shaving mugs sat named and waiting in a glass case. Other, older mugs were in there too – mugs with real names on them. Grazing names, stretching back to before erosion, shared space with those belonging to twenty-years-here blow-ins in a cabinet that reflected the town’s who’s who and history.

Apart from the mugs Harry’s gear ran back to basics – combs, hand clippers(“that give me fingers buggery in winter”), hollow-ground strap-stropped razors and a set of scissors standing ring-ends up in a glass of Solyptol solution misleadingly marked “Sterilizer” A large cape that gradually grew damp at the neck end on busy, or summer days, draped the barber’s chair like a striped shroud.

From noon on Saturdays, though, all these things lay idle – even the names waited. During the morning the Kreisler in the corner (magic-eyed and superhetrodyned) had muttered out wool prices, rainfall and river levels but, as regulars with different interests drifted in, it raised it’s voice and named the field for the first race.

For the first time in the week the benches by the walls were fully tenanted. Pink-paged ‘Racing Guides‘ unfolded and thumbed copies of ‘The Bulletin‘ and ‘Smith’s Weekly‘ were stacked aside on the spare chair –  a mute reminder of the time when this was a two-stand shed.

‘The barrier is lowered – they’re off!’. Eyes focussed on the Kreisler. The caller’s voice, steady enough as far as the first turn, rose a note with every furlong run. Benches jumped and shuddered as the punters rode their wagers round the final turn and down the straight. The Kreisler hetrodyned, the room vibrated and the field crescendoed home.

Silence for a while – then the caller, intelligible again, pronounced the placings. Furtive settling next, the winners collected, counted and laid half of it on the next race. Losers rolled another own and the sure-system men checked their arithmetic and wondered what went wrong.

Seven times each Saturday Harry’s saloon shook, steadied and stood still. At last, with their seventh race misjudgements paid for and explained away, the investors flapped through the half-glass swing doors, past the signs and glass-topped counter and out into the lengthening afternoon. Harry quietened the Kreisler, gave the room a last, light sweeping, padlocked up and took his margins home.

He always said that he broke about even on an average day, but envy had it that, on days when no favourites came home, he made as much as three quid – and that was back when quids had meaning.

I suppose you could say that the place added colour to a dust-and- summer street in a town that’s thirty miles from a haircut now. But I can’t say that I pine for it much, especially when I remember the hair-ends in the bottom of the ‘Sterilizer’ jar.

Well, I’m next it seems –  would you ask Chris to put those Hebrews on again?

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