Author’s Note: “Stranathan’s was the name of the barber’s shop in the town where I grew up in Northern Ireland. My essay is, in part, a recollection of this fondly remembered place, where my brother and I were regularly taken for haircuts throughout our childhood. But it’s also a meditation about something that has fascinated me for years – the nature of memory, and the relationship between remembering and imagining.”
Memories are all we get to keep from our
experience of living, and the only perspective
that we can adopt as we think about our lives
is therefore that of the remembering self.
Thinking, Fast and Slow
IT’S MAY 2020 IN ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND. I’m sitting in my kitchen on a sunny morning in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown. My wife is cutting my hair, grown longer than accustomed—or wanted—over these weeks of seclusion and social distancing. Her barbering prompts a memory I wasn’t expecting. Instead of making me remember how she used to cut my hair when we were students or think of the plight of my usual hairdresser—business closed and undertaking strict shielding measures because of an elderly parent’s vulnerability to the virus—the rhythmic clipping of the scissors summons something far more distant. I picture Stranathan’s, the barber’s shop in Lisburn, the town in Northern Ireland where I grew up. My brother and I were regularly taken there throughout our childhood. The hair that fell around me then was dark, undusted by the gray that now runs through it. It’s hard to believe how long ago it was that those two little boys used to delight in feeling the prickly stubble on the back of their heads as they emerged, newly shorn, from the shop.
I don’t remember the name of the man who used to cut our hair—in fact, I’m not sure we ever knew it. He comes back to me in fragments. Much of him is missing. He’s full-lipped—his most memorable feature—with black hair slicked back in a brilliantined wave. The breast pocket of the white coat he invariably wore is filled with razors, combs, and scissors. Once, when he stooped to pick up a bottle-top, they all fell with a clatter on the lino floor. He said nothing but simply knelt and picked them up one by one, carefully brushing and blowing the hairs off them before replacing them in the same pocket. His complexion is sallow yet overlaid with the pallor of indoors. He wears more rings than most men did back then, and his shoes are sufficiently pointed and polished to qualify as “winkle-pickers.” His style suggests Teddy boy, though he’s in his early thirties and should therefore be, as my mother put it, disapproval of him evident in her voice, “old enough to know better.”
These remnant details only add up to a partial picture. If it were a portrait, most of the canvas would be blank. Such incompleteness is tantalizing—it offers a sense of this individual, but one that won’t come into proper focus. Alongside this patchy recall of my boyhood barber, a much clearer image comes to mind that sums up the nature of the fragmented memories I have of him. I think of the candyfloss accumulations of spiders’ webs that fur the windows of my garden shed. Their nets of dirty gossamer strands are like cotton wool thinned and soiled, flecked with an array of insect debris, a record of predation presented in a kind of dry pointillism worked in tiny body parts. What I can remember about my first barber is like these dried-up bits of insect—antennae, wings, mandibles—a peppering of particles caught on memory’s web. There’s not much left, yet the pieces still manage to conjure echoes of the living person, in the same way as the shards held in the woolly ossuary that crusts my shed’s windows still summon whispers of the butterflies, moths, bees, and flies they came from.
Trying to reconstruct from these fragments a fuller picture of Stranathan’s barber shop and the full-lipped, white-coated man who used to cut my hair reminds me of a scene from Homer’s Odyssey. Descending to the underworld, Ulysses meets the souls of the dead. Before they can regain their memory and recognize him, he needs to provide them with the blood of sacrificed animals. Only after drinking this life-imbued liquid can the dead be parleyed with. The blood restores a level of consciousness that allows them, albeit temporarily, to communicate again, recalling enough of life to connect with the concerns of those still living.
Given the mnemonic potency accorded to blood in the Odyssey, it’s ironic that the memories awoken by my wife’s lockdown cutting of my hair are focused on a barber’s shop. Stranathan’s had one of those red-and-white-striped poles outside the shop,
an internationally recognized sign of a barber (see Note). Theirs was a modern version of this ancient symbol. It was fixed like a flagpole above the shop’s front door. Encased in a kind of elongated bell jar of glass or plastic, the red and white spirals must have been electrically powered. Turning endlessly, even when the shop was closed, the moving helix drew the eye with the illusion of infinite repetition, the prospect of perpetual continuance, red and white appearing, disappearing, reappearing without end.
[Note: Red and white are the traditional colors for barbers’ poles in Europe. The addition of blue in America is variously explained. Some suggest it stemmed from patriotic motives—introducing blue so that the pole echoes the colors of the US flag. Others say it’s an extension of the original symbolism with blue representing the color of veins opened during bloodletting.]
The reason for the red-and-white-striped spirals on a barber’s pole is all to do with blood. The poles are often capped at the end with a kind of bowl-shaped cup—Stranathan’s glass bell jar was topped with just such a device. It, too, is blood related. Only a few centuries ago, barbers didn’t just deal in coiffure. They offered surgery, bone setting, and tooth pulling. Bleeding was relied on as key therapeutic measure in the
treatment of many ailments; barber-surgeons used to bleed their customers as routinely as they tended their hair and beards. The pole represents the stick customers gripped tightly as they underwent this procedure. The red in the spiral stands for blood, the white for bandages. The shape that tops the pole represents the bowl into which the blood was drained. Some poles have a second bowl shape at their base, representing the container in which medicinal leeches were kept.
Though bloodletting has long been abandoned by barbers, something curiously elemental still attended our visits to Stranathan’s. Perhaps the skillful wielding of sharpened metal implements at close quarters suggested something less quotidian than cutting hair. Or perhaps the strange mix of intimacy and distance conferred a special quality—the way the hands of someone scarcely known touched our heads, those warm receptacles of what we thought and felt. I find an almost elegiac note accompanying the realization that the full-lipped barber used to touch the head that, all these years later, is writing about him and still holds fragments of him in the invisible embrace of memory. I can’t help wondering how many other minds he’s held in. If I could access the way in which all the little boys whose hair he cut stored him in the mazes of their minds, would that bring back a fuller picture or just further fragments? And how did he see us? My brother and I were just two among droves of little boys brought in for haircuts (girls were taken to an upstairs salon). He may scarcely have distinguished one from another in this crowd of juvenile customers, or perhaps he remembered via a kind of phrenology, his memory holding a whole array of contour maps for the different shapes of heads he felt beneath his fingers.
Is there any equivalent to Ulysses’ sacrificial blood that I could offer to the fragmented shades from Stranathan’s that roam the underworld of my remembrance, something that might make more whole the memories they represent? I don’t think there’s anything straightforwardly efficacious, no magic pill, no obvious medicine to take, though perhaps writing this kind of reflection is a type of self-bloodletting that makes an incision in the psyche’s store of what has passed and collects what flows in its bowl of words. I’m not sure how seriously to take that conjecture. But whatever’s made of it, there are two more prosaic strategies that can help.
The first involves an almost meditative focusing and disciplining of the mind as I imagine myself returning to that point in childhood. I think through the years, reach back and back again, try to discount distraction, let the noise of the present fall away until I’m there again in spirit. I hope the spectral touch of this kind of concentrated attention can nudge some of the particles of remembrance into new alignment, send a pulse of voltage through them so that they can come together, cohere into more viable patterns, even jerk back into momentary life.
The second strategy is more straightforward. It simply involves asking my older brother what he remembers. We were always taken to Stranathan’s together, which means I can tap into a second perspective, access another set of memories to lay beside my own and see what tallies. Using the whetstone of his independent recollection offers a way of sharpening my version of the past, giving it a keener, truer edge so that it can cut through the years more cleanly and see those vanished days again, cleared of the overlay of time that’s passed since they were present.
Putting these two strategies into play has helped me to imagine going through the door to Stranathan’s again, passing under the endlessly turning barber’s pole. My brother and I are ushered in by a parent—we don’t agree whether it was our mother or father who most often accompanied us. The three of us sit down, side by side, in the row of chairs arranged against the back wall, waiting for our turn. There’s a warm, sweet smell of perfumed oils and lotions. As for noises, the snip-snip of scissors, the buzz of electric clippers, and the sporadic conversation don’t quite blot out the sound of clumps of hair falling on the floor in featherlight swishes. If you listen closely, you can hear this gentle
punctuation every now and then, making a sound that’s reminiscent of wire-brush drumsticks touched gently to a cymbal. The single window in this back room of the shop is always closed. Its lower half is net-curtained, its upper half is misted with the heat of the muggy salon atmosphere, blurring the view of nearby buildings. On the windowsill sits a large valve radio. Is it switched on? Is there music playing? My memory is of it being tuned to a sports channel with commentary on horse racing. But my brother doesn’t remember there being a radio at all, so perhaps my mind has conjured it from somewhere else, and those excited cadences of the commentator’s voice as the horses near the finish line are not part of the aural background of Stranathan’s at all but have strayed here from some other fragment caught on remembrance’s candyfloss web of pieces.
We both agree that there were three red leather swivel chairs with silver levers for adjusting their height and angle. Each chair is facing a large, rectangular mirror. The mirrors are fixed to the wall by screws at their corners. Each screw is covered by the small domed globe of a shiny, gold-plated head. I’m fascinated by the missing screw at the bottom left of the center mirror. It reveals a small dark hole that I imagine some secretive insect creeping out of once the shop is quiet. Perhaps there’s a whole warren of tunnels hidden behind the mirror’s surface. When customers sitting in the red leather swivel chairs look at their reflections, they can also see the row of chairs behind them where my brother and I—and often one or two others—sit fidgeting, waiting for our turn. Under the line of mirrors, there’s a shelf that runs the full length of the room. It’s littered with combs and brushes, scissors and clippers, shaving brushes, cutthroat razors and the leather strops used to sharper them, bottles and tubes of hair oil and brilliantine, all the tools of the trade.
Of the three barbers who worked in Stranathan’s, we remember the full-lipped Teddy-boyish one so much more clearly than the others that it’s almost as if he’s in color while his two colleagues are in washed-out sepia or black and white. He always worked at the middle chair, between an older, balding man—possibly called Billy—whose station was the chair beside the window, and a younger man about whom all that we can summon now is the fact that he was younger, and of slighter build, than the other two. He was so quiet that the silence could be uncomfortable on those rare occasions when he cut our hair.
Is it possible to be sure what’s accurately remembered and to distinguish it from what may have been invented? By “invented,” I don’t mean something deliberately fabricated in order to deceive, but rather something generated automatically by the mind in passing, without thinking, as it strives to complete the patterns that are hinted at, finding the missing pieces in the jigsaw of recall. I’ve tried to reconstruct a picture of place and people from the traces of them that remain in memory. But for all my sense of being there again, there are many gaps in what comes back, and I know that it is exactly these kinds of spaces that the imagination is quick to fill and gloss over, supplying absent detail that may not match the way things actually were.
I wonder what befell my full-lipped barber. In one sense, I already know the answer. Since he was in his thirties when he cut our hair, he’d be a very old man now or more likely dead. A common fate awaits us all. In that sense, there’s no mystery, no enigma. I can be quite certain about the outcome. What I wonder about is not so much the inevitable conclusion of his life as its unique texture. What twists and dips and camber marked the unfolding of his days? I’m interested in the specifics draped over the generalities we all encounter—desire, pleasure, pain, fear, regret, longing, satisfaction – our whole repertoire of feelings— the particular weave of one person’s fabric of experience that results in the precise contours of the peaks and troughs that shape the map of who they are, the seismograph that marks the meanderings and undulations of the paths they followed. And this is precisely what’s lost—or what, in truth, was never known. For even as we watched him in the mirror as he cut our hair, we knew little more about him than what’s suggested by the fragments lodged in memory, fragments that seem so hollowed out and substance-less that they recall the husks of insects in a spider’s web. Memory has preserved a sliver of what only ever was a sliver. The intimate texture of his life was invisible to us then and is now vanished beyond hope of any full-blooded retrieval.
How memory operates is something that has fascinated me for years. It’s easy enough to see why some things are retained— they fall upon us with such force that we’re permanently imprinted with their signature—but with others, there’s often no obvious reason why the mind has latched on to them and preserved them from forgetting. Clearly, it would be impossible—and undesirable—to remember everything. We’d soon capsize under the weight of such a cargo. But it’s often hard to fathom what criteria have been applied so that some things are salvaged and others cast aside. What algorithm was in play to result in the few details of my full-lipped barber being kept while everything else about him was let go?
As I’m writing these reflections, I remember the expression “harking back.” It means to turn back to an earlier topic or circumstance, to go back to something as origin or source. It stems from “hark,” an ancient word meaning “listen.” Originally, it was a call used in hunting. The master of a hunt might shout “Hark forward!” or “Hark Back!” directing hounds and hunters to where it seemed the quarry’s trail was strongest. The cries became set phrases. A hark back is a retracing of a route, a turning back along the course a hunt has followed to try to find the scent again. From its use in hunting, figurative meanings soon developed. I’ve directed the hounds of memory to hark back to Stranathan’s. But the dogs are tired. Beside them run the unruly mongrels of the imagination. The scent has all but gone, and I worry that I’ll end up chasing something that was never there.
If I’m not to end up with a hybrid—a chimera—where garden shed cobwebs and the barber of my childhood merge into a single macabre figure, I need to keep apart the strands of memory from those woven by the imagination to create a metaphor that shows what this particular instance of remembering is like. The full-lipped, Teddy-boyish barber is remembered. The open fibrous sarcophagus of the garden shed cobwebs is something pressed into service as an image that represents the nature of the remembering in which he’s held. Or, to use a different image, what’s left of him is like shrapnel created by the detonation of moments exploded long ago as they came into what was then the full glare of my present experience. I’m not sure how feasible it is to reconstruct from these fragments an accurate sense of the force of the present as it lit my youthful consciousness back then. Can I regain anything of the luminescence of its immediacy, the bright light of its passing, as it struck me all those years ago? However much I reach back through the psyche’s store of memories, however much I check the details against what my brother recalls, there’s a sense of an elusive something that has slipped away or that perhaps was never there in the way I now imagine it.
We know so little of each other. What did my full-lipped barber feel when he woke in the middle of the night and looked out at the stars? What did he most desire? What was his idea of a perfect day? What was he proud of? What made him ashamed? Who was the person he loved most in all the world? Was the gap between how he wanted his life to unfold and how it did unfold, such as to allow contentment to warm his psyche, or did it breed the acid of resentment, regret, and disappointment? How far could he be trusted, relied upon? Had his heart ever held hatred in it? Was he loved? Had he ever written a poem? Listened to Beethoven? Read James Joyce? What favorite places soothed his spirit and made him feel at home? What was the last dream he ever dreamed? Who was the last person he ever thought of?
Stranathan’s has long closed. Its premises have seen various other businesses come and go. A gap of decades yawns between now and when the full-lipped barber cut the hair of the little boy I was. Thinking myself back, and talking with my brother, has led to a sense of the place flickering into the light of consciousness again. A great deal has, of course, been lost; there are many gaps in the picture I can summon, and I have no sacrificial blood to revive the shades that stir in memory’s underworld. Yet despite this, I find, to my surprise, that underlying all the loss and absence and forgetting, all the uncertainty, I can still savor the feeling of being there. A sense of the place’s atmosphere has been rekindled; I can feel its notes playing out excerpts of a signature tune I recognize, sounding in the same register I used to hear back then. In the end, the strongest image that remembering Stranathan’s leaves in mind is of a barber’s pole, turning and turning without end, bright with the possibility of retrieval and meaning.
Chris Arthur is an Irish essayist currently based in St. Andrews, Scotland. He is the author of several books of essays, most recently Hummingbirds Between the Pages (2018). A new collection, Hidden Cargoes, was published in 2022. His awards include the Sewanee Review’s Monroe K. Spears Essay Prize. Website: www.chrisarthur.org.
Delmarva Review is a nonprofit, independent literary journal that selects the most compelling nonfiction, fiction, and poetry from thousands of unpublished, new submissions during the year. Designed to encourage outstanding writing from authors everywhere. Support comes from tax-deductible contributions and a grant from Talbot Arts with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: www.DelmarvaReview.org.
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