Wherever we may end up in this life, or whatever we might achieve, there is something out there which will always be able to level the playing field. Stashed away somewhere, in a drawer perhaps, a box under the bed maybe, or in the loft, is that school photo. You know the one I’m talking about, the photo that documents the instant in time when your haircut was actually fashionable, and you were, if only for a brief moment, the height of cool, we’ve all got one, so don’t try to pretend you don’t.
Now if you’re lucky, that photo will remain hidden for many years, perhaps only making a brief appearance to your nearest and dearest. If you’re unlucky, that photo might features at a birthday party, stag do, or any other equally embarrassing moment, and if you’re really unlucky, that photo will actually be three photos, and they will have been stealthily hidden by your mum on the wall of the front room wall for anyone to discover.
The photo montage that has replaced the wall of my parent’s front room is better than any social commentary in describing the fluid transition of 90’s youth hairstyles: there is the infant school photo of me sporting a rather daring right angled ‘step’ shaved into the back of my head; moving forward a few years there is the more mature junior school photo where my hair has started to rebel from its previously rigid design, and has evolved into the height of 1995 fashion – the fluffy curtains; and then to document the changing of the millennium there are actually a series of senior school photos featuring the legendary Essex school boy hair cut, the 'short back and sides' with a handsome helping of wet look gel and a perfectly combed quiff at the front– only Lego men have a more rigid and long lasting haircut than me, lasting me as it did from the age of 11 until the first few years of university – “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” – it was a classic look!
Although it has only been four months since my last proper haircut, (if you discount the self-scissored-sideburn-snip a few weeks ago) the tropical Tuvaluan heat seems to have been working its magic on my follicles, and I once again have cultivated quite an impressive ‘fro, and despite the morbid curiosity to see how big it can get, it was getting rather hot, and getting in the way of my scuba mask, (that’s the reason I am yet to catch any fish, and anything else you hear is just a lie, okay?) So I set out to experience my first Tuvaluan hair cut.
First thing to note about hairdressers in Tuvalu – there aren’t any. There is a beautifully painted sign which advertises all the services of a barber shop, but alas it was only teasing me, and its barber’s chair has instead become a comfortable shop keepers chair, from which the shop keeper can look quizzically at a scruffy looking palagi asking about a haircut. As I went on with my enquiries, I continued to be meet with strange looks as if I was asking about cutting my fingers off instead of my hair; I knew there had to be some sort of hairdressing facilities somewhere due to the number of quite unique styles I had seen riding about on the backs of motorbikes, no one’s hair grows naturally into a tiger striped Mohawk does it?
Perhaps cutting hair had become illegal and had moved underground, perhaps there was a whole seedy hairdressing underworld where scissors and razors were traded for large amounts of money and rum, and people meet to drink, shout, and bet on the latest snipping competition – “the first rule about snip club is you do not talk about snip club!” Or perhaps it was because people just cut their own hair…
I confided in my friend Peyster, trying to see if he would betray the first rule of ‘snip club’, but he just shrugged and confirmed that people simply cut their own hair, adding that he could cut mine if I wanted him to. I was slightly disappointed at having to let go of the seedy snipping underworld, but I had finally found a Tuvaluan hairdresser, and was ready to create a brand new look which perhaps would one day star on my own front room photo montage wall.
Returning an hour later, I paid special attention to all the potential styles passing me on the back of their motorbikes. They ranged from the simple crew cut, to the more audacious combination of mohawk and mullet (a .'mohlet'?). In fact on closer inspection there was an extremely high mullet density in the 20-30 male age group, and a knot began to form in my stomach. In addition to the ‘mohlets’ there were several DIY highlighting jobs done with a variety of colours and household bleach, and a number of beaded ‘rat tails’ hanging off the back of even the most closely shaven heads.
In my experience, walking into a hairdressers is a little like walking onto the set of ‘The Only Way is Essex’ but that’s because I grew up on the set of ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and so peroxide blondes, screeching at you about their forthcoming holiday, whilst trying to shave a Nike tick into the back of your head was the norm. What you normally don’t expect is a lonely looking rusty chair sat in the sand between two palm trees with a man next to it smiling, smoking, and sharpening an extremely large knife, checking its sharpness periodically on the back of his head – Totally normal hairdressing behaviour...
Peyster soon arrived with a grin on his face and introduced me to the knife wielding maniac – ladies and gentlemen, my hairdresser! (Perhaps snip club isn’t a myth after all) He stopped sharpening his knife long enough for me to shake his hand which is when I realised that he was shaking quite violently all over. He went back to his sharpening duties, and Peyster, obviously noticing my alarm told me not to worry, “he only shakes like that because he’s an alcoholic, we’ll make sure he has something to drink before he cuts your hair, it slows the shakes down” taking up drinking suddenly sounded like a great idea.
So as Shaky Joe continued sharpening his knife and testing it on the back of his head, Peyster headed into his house, and brought out a pair of electric clippers and an extension lead, plugging it into the wooden shack we were now sitting on, and leading it over to the stark looking rusty chair that was looking more and more intimidating,
I was drinking sweet boiled todi to calm my nerves, whilst my new alcoholic hairdresser was drinking something much stronger to calm his shaking hands – I think it was rum, and I really hoped it did the trick. I was soon sitting in the chair of doom, and as a boozed up shaky Joe approached it was clear the rum was doing its job, unfortunately the shakes were still noticeable, and I was still a little unnerved as he picked up the clippers and started to swing them around as he asked me what sort of style I wanted.
I had resigned myself to accepting whatever disaster was about to befall my hair, so wasn’t really prepared for this question; as a result I started frantically looking around for inspiration or a way out, but with no hairdressing magazines available, and a distinct lack of black and white 80s head shots on the wall (walls were not a luxury afforded by this salon), I pointed to a conveniently placed bald man and said “NO” as convincingly as I could, grabbed the hair at the back of my head, made a buzzing noise, and then made the international hand signal for “Short back and sides, and a little off the top please”.
Shaky Joe sprung instantly into life without any opportunity for me to change my mind, and was soon shakily shaving a path through the curly mass at the back of my head. Stopping sporadically to take a drag of his cigarette, Shaky Joe was making short work of the back and sides of my head, and I soon had what felt like a hairy mushroom on top of my head. He took a step back and admired his handiwork. He asked what I thought, but as well as lacking walls, Shaky Joe’s salon also doesn’t have any mirrors, so Peyster popped outside took the mirror off his motorbike and handed it to me as he tried to stifle a giggle. Peering into the mirror I was bemused – I sort of looked as if I should be in a 90s rap video, failing that, I was now at the very least the world’s worst Grace Jones impersonator, suffice to say, it wasn’t ideal. I tried to express these references to Shaky Joe, but he didn’t seem to grasp the concept, so gripping the hairy mushroom (not a euphemism I can assure you) I tried to convey the idea of just taking a small amount off the top to level it out a little. A knowing smile crossed Shaky Joe’s face, and happy that the buzzing wasn’t over he got back to work taking yet more chunks out of my hair.
By the time Joe had finished, a crowd of local children had gathered to see this ridiculous spectacle unfold, perhaps they thought that palangi’s hair was actually like lego hair and couldn’t be cut, or perhaps they were confused as to why I was clutching a motorbike mirror, an orange comb, and letting a known alcoholic cut my hair, either way, the amassed crowds collectively held their breath as Shaky Joe turned off the clippers for what I hoped would be the last time. I peered into the mirror – no more Grace Jones, but definitely still a hint of 90s rap video, I smiled the smile of a relieved man, and shook Shaky Joe’s hand to rapturous applause from the gathered audience. I had survived my first Tuvaluan haircut experience, and although not exactly even, and a little rough round the edges, an old woman has already described my new ‘do’ as “beautiful” and the kids have only been laughing at me a little more than usual, so I am putting it down as a success, I’m now off to buy a neon tracksuit, and to ring ‘Bell Biv DeVoe’ to see if they have any vacancies in their backing dancers.