Years ago, when I was a freelance law reporter, working predominately for Lawtel and living in London, one of my Australian cousins came to visit England. Let’s call her Sarah (not her real name). I only knew her slightly. She is much younger than me and grew up in Perth, Western Australia, which was at the time still somewhat isolated from the rest of Western culture. Arrogantly, I believed her to be somewhat naive as to the ways of sophisticates like me, with the feast of London on my doorstep. She was to come and stay with me for a week, before travelling around England with her friends. I decided to play a trick on her.
The actor Robert Donegan is a good friend of mine. At the time he lived in South London, in a part of town which to the untrained eye is rather foreboding on the approach. The week before Sarah came to visit, I telephoned Robert to hatch the plan. We agreed that he would play the role of my private hairdresser. We scripted the entire exchange. Before I arrived with Sarah, he had tidied away all the pictures and other objects which made his modest flat a home. Now it looked like just one rung above a smack den.
By the time we arrived, Sarah was visibly nervous. Robert opened the door with a rank tea towel over his arm in the manner of a dodgy waiter and said, “Good to see you again, Sir, and who might this be?” After I introduced Sarah, he flirted with her most uncouthly. That had not been in the script. At the time, I thought that he was overdoing it, but later on she said she rather enjoyed that part of the experience. Over a cup of tea, we discussed what haircut I should have. Robert made a few suggestions. Made up names, apparently sported by invented celebrities. I turned them all down and asked for the Lightning Mohican. We went through to his kitchen, which he’d made deliberately dirty.
Robert delivered the haircut in under 5 minutes, using electric clippers, and all the while sipping from a bottle of Jack Daniels. Afterwards Sarah turned down the offer of a haircut. That was a no brainer. My haircut was truly dreadful. He had shaved all the hair away from the sides and the top of my head, leaving only a thin strip in the middle, as per the usual mohican cut. However, instead of the remaining line being straight, it was cut into the shape of a cartoon lightning strike. Afterwards, I handed Robert £100.
I had expected Sarah to say that she knew it was a wind up at some point that evening, at which point, I would just have my head shaved. Although I knew that Robert was a brilliant actor, I hadn’t bargained for his truly excellent role play on the night. Sarah not saying anything contrary obliged me to carry on the joke. The joke turned on me with the severity of the longest lightning strike in history.
I was the naive one. Robert was no barber. The haircut was a mess. The idea was apparent. The execution was awful. No part of it was done well. Sarah kept very quiet all the way home. The next day she came out with me on a visit to Lawtel, because my colleagues were going to have a few drinks that evening and wanted me to bring her along. On the tube journey there, people were openly pointing at me and laughing. My self-belief about not caring too much about other people’s opinion of my appearance was blown away that day. The embarrassment was excruciating. The journey from the Isle of Dogs to Wells Street never seemed so long.
When I arrived in the office, all work stopped. 120 people broke up in laughter. They were gripping desks, walls and even the water cooler, trying to steady themselves. I couldn’t get a sensible conversation out of anyone. The retort was consistent: “Change your barber.” When Sarah told them that I had paid a hundred pounds for it, the laughter turned into hysteria. Backed into my own corner of shame, I tried to front it out. That was by no means easy. I’ve had many difficult experiences in life but this is up there in the top handful. Dreadful. Absolutely dreadful.
In the pub with my colleagues that evening I found myself the unexpected comedy act for the entire pub. Whatever happened to English resolve I do not know. The bar staff could not serve me, because they were crying too hard. On the late tube journey home, drunk people shouted out to entire platforms of people to look at me, with predictable results. My haircut freed people from all the inhibitions. Strangers came up and said things like, “Mate, what were you thinking?!!” and “You need to shoot your barber!!” There was no answer to any of it. Sarah kept up her part of the hoax and played along. She even told my challengers the name of the haircut and what it cost.
I kept this up for three days. After that being the butt of all London’s jokes had become too much and I confessed to Sarah that I had tried to play a trick on her. Sarah shaved it off for me. She couldn’t understand why I’d maintained the straight face for so long. “I wouldn’t have been able to cope with the social consequences“, she said.