I’ve only ever had three proper cut-throat razor shaves. The first was in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1987. I had been travelling around Yugoslavia for a month and was in need of a haircut. In a pleasingly antiquated barbershop near the famous old bridge, a nice young woman gave me a brisk, unfussy cut.
As she executed some finishing touches, she asked whether I would care for a shave, too, while I was there. “Why not?” I said, and since neither of us could think of a reason why not, the deal was done. She patted my shoulder and went out the back of the shop saying something along the lines of: “I’ll go and get my grandad.” I thought I must have misheard, until she reappeared with a gentleman who was either her grandfather or great-grandfather. He was plainly the head of this shop’s shaving department. The girl brushed on some shaving cream and disappeared outside for a smoke.
I hadn’t realised cut-throat razors were still a thing; I had only ever seen them in films. As far as I was concerned, they belonged to the olden days, and this old boy’s bit of kit was from those olden days.
The blade gleamed but the rest was rust and I was disappointed to note it was shaking in this grand old barber’s hands. As he moved his instrument towards the side of my head, I fancy my eyeballs swivelled so far towards him that only the whites of my eyes were visible. Then, as soon as blade touched skin, my fears vanished, along with his tremor. I was plainly in the hands of a master; deftly, wordlessly, he went about his business. Before long, I was strolling away with a chin as smooth as a baby’s bum. During the coming war, every time poor, devastated Mostar came on the television, I always thought of my ancient barber and his trusty, rusty razor.
As sublime as that first shave was, my second was ridiculous. It was live on The One Show when, for reasons that escape me, a fancy barber was challenged to shave me in 90 seconds flat. This turned out to be not enough time. I was lacerated and he was embarrassed and that was that.
All of which brings me to last Saturday, when I was passing a new place called Golden Barbers near me. My eye was caught by the serenity of the chap in the chair being bathed in steam before a shave. I was beckoned in and was soon enjoying a steam myself. Then an immaculate young Kurdish chap called Bzhar, wielding a nice new blade with some aplomb, went about his work.
It was a shave my man in Mostar would have been proud to call his own. When Bzhar finished, he asked me if I’d like my ears and nose done, too. I was too relaxed to leave the chair, so I gave him the nod. What I didn’t realise was that he would be using wax. He produced two cotton buds, both dipped in a substance looking like fresh road tar mixed with Marmite. These shiny, black-tipped buds he stuck on to the appallingly hirsute tragus of one of my ears, and then the same for the other one. Two more pairs of tarred buds were then thrust into my nostrils.
Bzhar warned me in the kindest tones that what I was about to experience wouldn’t be pleasant. He was right. He grasped one of the buds, paused briefly, and then wrenched it out of my ear in the manner of a determined sommelier extracting a tight cork. The pain was exquisite. After a quick glance to check he hadn’t pulled my ear off as well as the hair, I let out a howl of pain that turned some heads on the pavement outside. The other ear was just as bad and, Bzhar gently assured me, the nostrils would be worse. He wasn’t wrong.
But I loved every minute of it. Smooth of ear and chin, and clear of nose, I strode away reflecting what an unexpected joy it had been to experience intense relaxation and a bit of bracing pain in the caring hands of a Kurd called Bzhar. Just what the doctor ordered.